By keeping Mahabal Mishra out of campaigns, Congress missed chance to counter AAP, BJP's Purvanchali outreach in Delhi

Pallavi Rebbapragada

"These people from the villages of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are ruining the pride and aesthetic beauty of Delhi. They should be made to board the next train back."

The above statement was made by former Delhi mayor Yogdhyan Ahuja in 1999.

Back then, the image of migrants from the Indian heartland was that of the outsiders who had arrived to inhabit and expand the capital's unauthorized colonies. Since then, the Bihari street swagger had eclipsed Punjabi stories of the Partition leading to the Bihar-isation of Delhi. The Purvanchalis €" a term used to collectively identify people from the eastern end of Uttar Pradesh and the western end of Bihar €" now comprise two-thirds of the total voters in Delhi. They determine everything from the mannerisms of candidates to the appointment of party presidents.

Ahuja wouldn't dare make the same statement today. Back then, Mahabal Mishra, the then first-time MLA from Dwarka assembly constituency, who demanded not just an apology from the former Delhi mayor but also reminded him that he should focus on providing electricity connections, clean and consistent water supply, and the laying down of sewer lines in migrant colonies. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Mahabal, originally from Siriyapur in Madhubani district of Bihar, is Congress' candidate from West Delhi.

In his constituency, there are roughly 8 lakh Purvanchali voters, which is a good 40 percent of total electors. In North East Delhi, the influence of purvanchali voters is 5 percent higher. All the three main parties €" AAP, Congres and BJP €" have fielded their strongest candidates for the North East Delhi constituency, keeping this regional vote bank in mind. While BJP has fielded party's state president and Bhojpuri star Manoj Tiwari, Congress picked former chief minister Sheila Dikshit who hails from Uttar Pradesh, and AAP named party's national spokesperson Dilip Pandey, also from Uttar Pradesh, from the seat.

Tiwari was appointed BJP state president before the MCD elections but his impact needs to be analysed independently of the Modi wave. In East Delhi, his campaign is a fairly negative one and frequently features AAP rebel Kapil Mishra. Given the migratory pattern among the Purvanchali vote bank, women used to sing the birah (seperation) song that has a long history in Bhojpuri folklore. Tiwari mobilises workers by singing this song time and again.

Pandey had spearheaded the 'Uttar Bharatiya Swabhiman Yatra' campaign in October 2018 to highlight rising incidents of violence against Hindi speaking migrants in Gujarat. Pandey had been scaling up his campaign with a couple of thousand volunteers working on issues like unemployment, water and electricity in 40 wards. The contest, however, tightened when Sheila Dikshit entered the fray.

The former Delhi chief minister is not only an upper caste face but comes from Uttar Pradesh. But she has an inconsistent track record in Delhi, especially in attracting Purvanchali voters. In 1998, Dikshit had, in fact, lost to the late Lal Bihari Tiwari, BJP's biggest Purvanchali leader back then, from the East Delhi seat. In 2007, the former chief minister's derogatory remarks against migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar dented her own Purvanchali image.

Congress' West Delhi candidate Mahabal is amused with new dynamics of Purvanchali politics in the national capital.

He says that unlike AAP and BJP, who are busy setting up Chhath ghats keeping the Purvanchali voters in mind, Congress has been working to ensure their fundamental needs were addressed. "

"We have worked for the rights of the people who were considered unnecessary without wanting to gain political currency. Our main concerns were helping them find jobs, and to ensure their fundamental needs were addressed," he adds. Surprisingly, in 2002, Mahabal had brought Manoj Tiwari to perform at one such ghat.

The ghats facilitated by the Delhi government in 2018 was 1,055, nearly double from the previous year. The number of ghats set up for Chhath Puja was 72 in 2014.

The Congress camp, which was till some days ago, deciding names of its candidates, hasn't played up Mahabal's role in public service. In what seems like a poor campaign move, Mahabal isn't being projected as the party's front-line campaigner.

Amid reports that Mahabal is being denied a Lok Sabha ticket, his supporters held protests in Delhi on Sunday. Several Congress workers, carrying placards in support of Mahabal, raised slogans outside the AICC headquarters on Sunday. One such slogan was: "Purvanchal ka samman nahin toh Congress ko vote nahin (If Purvanchal isn't given its due respect, Congress won't get votes)".

When the election campaign is at its peak, such speculations and outbursts from within the party can influence perceptions of the decisive vote bank about the party's intent.

A day after Mahabal filed his nomination, a long line of supporters, from Sikhs to Jats to Muslims, have been flooding the large drawing room of Mahabal's multi-storeyed home in Vaishali Colony, Dabri, which separates the sub-city of Dwarka from the rest of West Delhi.

Mahabal, who has served in the Indian army and fought the 1971 War, first came to Delhi in the 1980s and lived in a tiny house that he shared with others in an unauthorised colony of Vijay Enclave. Mahabal would paddle around town in a bicycle and often faced the unwelcome attitude towards Biharis. The word Bihari, he says, was akin to a cuss word back then.

Mahabal is responsible for the construction of a big maternal health hospital €" Dada Dev Hospital, aided the construction of the underground metro through the densely populated Janak Puri without displacing residents and has repeatedly argued the cause of authorising colonies in the Delhi Assembly, asserting that Delhi belongs as much to the 'gaon-dehaat' as it does to the elites of Central and South Delhi.

Mahabal isn't just a face for Purvanchalis. Having worked in the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) for 12 years, he was instrumental in getting the Master Plan 2020 approved and moved no less than 80 amendments to make it more relevant.

There are 1,797 unauthorised colonies in the national capital and their authorisation is a big poll issue each election. Couldn't somebody like Mahabal have been deployed by the Congress to help build voter confidence? Why was his ticket undecided till the very last moment?

The BJP's candidate from West Delhi is Parvesh Verma. Mahabal says that Verma is still arrogant and behaves like the son of a powerful father, former chief minister Sahib Singh Verma. Verma won from Delhi in 2014 during the Modi wave. The other candidate i fray is Balbir Jhakar from AAP, whose seat would have most likely been given away to the Congress had the alliance materialised.

Mahabal says that if the party asks him to, he will go and campaign in East and North East Delhi as well. But the question is, why hasn't the Congress already taken Mahabal's help to build a statewide campaign around the issue of authorisation of migrant colonies? More so, when the BJP is playing up Tiwari's star power and AAP has been aiding Pandey's ground work.

Mahabal's absence from the Congress' Purvanchali outreach, which now aims to rely solely on Dikshit's Uttar Pradesh connect, isn't exactly a smart move.

Also See: Congress declares six candidates in Delhi; Sheila Dikshit to helm North East Delhi seat, party yet to decide name for South Delhi

With AAP-Congress alliance ruled out, it's three-corner contest in 7 Delhi seats; fight between political greenhorns, bigwigs

Delhi CEO receives 439 nominations for seven Lok Sabha seats ahead of polls on 12 May; 74 candidates in fray from North East Delhi

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