Chhath puja and the centrality of the Purvanchal community in Delhi politics

New Delhi: The political exchange of blows over the Chhath Puja celebrations has intensified again in the state capital. While in the past the call for a public holiday on Chhath and arrangements at the ghats were at the center of the political tussle, this time it is the ban on the festivities by the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA).

The ban on Chhath Puja celebrations – the biggest event for the Purvanchal community – gained momentum as local elections are scheduled for early next year. The municipality with just under four to five million inhabitants in the city plays a decisive role in Delhi’s electoral policy.

Chhath Puja, a three-day festival, is celebrated from November 8th to 10th this year. It is most popular in states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand (often referred to as Purvanchal), and parts of Madhya Pradesh.

The ban, the reaction

The DDMA – led by Lieutenant Governor (LG), Anil Baijal, with the Prime Minister of Delhi (CM) Arvind Kejriwal as a member – banned Chhath celebrations for the second year in a row due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This while earlier this month it made Ramlila, Durga Puja and Dussehra festivals possible in public places.

The ban sparked a political dispute with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with Manoj Tiwari, the northeastern BJP MP for northeast Delhi, suing in Kejriwal for “offending the sentiments of the community”. Even the President of the Delhi Congress, Anil Kumar, condemned the ban and recently held a protest in front of the CM residence.

Under the attack by the opposition, Kejriwal wrote to the regional court on Thursday asking him to allow the celebrations. “Other neighboring states have allowed it with the necessary protocols. I ask you to call a meeting of the DDMA and consider allowing Chhath Puja in Delhi, ”he said in the letter.

The Delhi government also wrote to the center asking it to provide the necessary instructions regarding the Chhath Puja celebrations.

While the BJP is calling this their victory, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) accused the BJP of politicizing the festival for election wins, with a view to the local elections next year.

On Chhath, BJP vs AAP

Despite its second consecutive defeat in Delhi parliamentary elections in 2020 (it won eight out of 70 seats), the BJP has been in power at the local level since 2007. but will be exposed to strong anti-public officials.

The support of the Purvanchal community – which was once considered a congressional vote bank that later moved to the AAP – was crucial to the BJP’s victory in the local elections in 2017, despite the anti-government leadership.

Senior BJP leaders admit that the appointment of Tiwari, the BJP’s popular Purvanchal face, as BJP chief of Delhi and the decision to recruit around 27 people from the community played a major role in their victory in 2017 . The move marked a shift in the strategy of the BJP (known as the Party of Punjabis and Baniyas) and a tacit recognition of the growing strength of the community in the city. The BJP not only won the three citizens’ bodies, but also improved its balance from 138 seats (in 2012) to 181.

But this time, Delhi Environment Minister and senior AAP leader Gopal Rai said the BJP knows it will lose. “Your defeat in Shalimar Bagh [a BJP stronghold] is an indication that people don’t want it. They know they won’t win the local elections, so they politicize the Chhath issue. “

But Delhi BJP chief Adesh Gupta disagreed and said her protest was against the Delhi government, which neglected the community’s wishes. “The government has hurt the sentiments of the community by banning Chhath Puja in public places. If other festivals and gatherings are allowed, weekly markets and liquor sales are open, why should Chhath be forbidden? “

The Congress, which is fighting for a comeback in Delhi, has jumped into the controversy. Delhi Congress President Anil Kumar said: “Permission was refused with a simple request to spread the Covid-19 infection, although the government did not refuse permission to hold other festivals.”

AAP leader Rai called the protests election gimmick and asked if the BJP was serious, why didn’t they meet with central government and LG ministers to find a solution? “The DDMA is managed by LG. The center has yet to clear the protocols regarding Chhath…. We want people to celebrate Chhath, but it must not be at the cost of human life. The center and the DDMA have to take care of it, ”said Rai.

Sachidanand Sinha, professor at the Center for the Study of Regional Development, said: “The government should not be under pressure to allow an event when people’s lives are at risk. Human health must not be sacrificed to allow for a gathering. The AAP will not lose much if they take a firm stand. “

The requirement for a public holiday

This is not the first time that a political dispute has broken out over the Chhath Puja celebrations.

When the BJP was the ruling party of the former Municipal Corporation of Delhi in 2010, it first called for Chhath Puja to be a public holiday. It was not accepted by the then head of Congress Sheila Dikshit, but the government made elaborate arrangements in the ghats for Chhath Puja celebrations.

In 2011, in the run-up to the 2012 local elections, the BJP in Delhi increased its demand. The then President of the Delhi Congress, JP Agarwal, and even Bihar CM, Nitish Kumar, wrote to Dikshit asking for Chhath Puja to be a public holiday. The center declared Chhath a restricted holiday that year.

The BJP, which had won the local elections in 2012 despite the tripartite division of the citizens ‘committee, passed a resolution in three newly established citizens’ bodies declaring Chhath Puja a public holiday. “Since 2010 we have requested that Chhath be declared a public holiday. But the government did not agree. After we passed the resolutions in civil bodies, the Delhi government was forced to declare this a public holiday, ”said Vijender Gupta, member of the BJP, member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Rohini, the then head of the BJP in Delhi .

BJP MP Manoj Tiwari during a march to urge the Delhi government to allow Chhath Puja celebrations at Sonia Vihar Ghat in New Delhi, October 9, 2021 (PTI)

BJP MP Manoj Tiwari during a march to urge the Delhi government to allow Chhath Puja celebrations at Sonia Vihar Ghat in New Delhi, October 9, 2021 (PTI)

Later, in 2018, the BJP, which is the ruling party in three civic bodies, and the AAP-led government of Delhi gave each other a guilt game over the preparations for Chhath Puja in the ghats. Last year, the BJP and AAP argued over the ban on Chhath celebrations, with Kejriwal calling on the opposition parties not to politicize the event.

The Purvanchal vote bank

Sanjay Kumar, professor and co-director of Lokniti (a research program of the Center for the Study of Development Societies) said Chhath has become a political event in Delhi. Regarding the recent political clash in Delhi, Kumar said: “Chhath has become an important political event for political parties to mobilize the support of the Purvanchal community, which now represents 30-35% of the electorate in Delhi. The BJP is trying hard to break one of the AAP’s strong voice banks. “

While several parishes live in the city, the Purvanchal parish has become a dominant force in electoral politics. After having only a few pockets in West Delhi in the early 1990s, the Purvanchal Congregation now plays a crucial role with 25-30 seats in the congregation, several political analysts said.

Since the community has the power to influence voting power in assembly seats including Kirari, Burari, Karawal Nagar, Ghonda, Sangam Vihar, Nangloi Jat, Badli and in parliamentary constituencies such as West Delhi, East Delhi, North East Delhi, Northwest Delhi and South Delhi, they are on every big player’s radar.

Former Congressman Mahabal Mishra, the party’s first Purvanchal leader in Delhi, said: “Today the BJP is raising the Chhath Puja issue. But BJP never cared about the community when they were in power in the 1990s. Today the community has become politically important and an election victory is not possible without their support. “

For a long time, Congress enjoyed the support of the community, most of which lived in unauthorized colonies and slums. Former Northeast Delhi Congressman JP Agarwal said, “Congress has always had its support as we have done a lot for the people who live in these unapproved colonies and slums. We also represented them in electoral politics. “

But in 2013 and later in 2015, the AAP succeeded in gaining community support. The party’s promise of free electricity and water, as well as its focus on education and health, paid off in 2015 when it won 67 seats in the general election.

Electoral representation

Rai said the party represented people from the community to a significant extent, which neither party had done before. “There were many people in the church who were associated with us before the party was started. We gave many of them the chance to vote, ”said Rai.

In the 2015 parliamentary elections, the AAP provided eleven Purvanchalis, while the BJP and Congress only elected three and two Purvanchalis, respectively. In the 2013 general election, five of the nine Purvanchali candidates nominated by the AAP won.

Kumar said that political parties like Congress and the BJP used to have people who acted as mediators between the community and the party. This helped gain community support during the election. But in recent years, especially with the emergence of the AAP, this changed as the community itself was eligible to vote.

“The AAP has adopted a strategy to give the community representation in electoral politics, and it has worked in their favor,” said Kumar.

The BJP also gave tickets to people from the community in 2012. “That was one of the reasons for the party’s victory in the local elections. The community is present at several meeting places. No political party can ignore them. The BJP received community support in the 2012 and 2017 local elections, ”said Gupta, who was then head of the BJP in Delhi.

The BJP has tried to penetrate the AAP strongholds in unauthorized colonies and slums. The party put up nearly 12 candidates from the community in the 2020 parliamentary elections.

The BJP-led central government passed a law and announced the PM-UDAY program to give property rights to residents of 1,731 unauthorized colonies in Delhi just before the 2020 general election. But it didn’t work in their favor given the BJP’s choice.

Kumar said, “While the BJP has been able to change its image at the national level and has the support of OBCs” [Other Backward Classes], Dalits, Adivasis and so on, she did not manage to do that in Delhi. This is because they couldn’t change the way they guided in Delhi. Although Tiwari was made chief, it was only for a short time. Long-term measures are necessary so that the BJP can win the support of the population. “

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