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Stakes are high in MCD elections

Stakes are high in MCD elections
Unlike previous occasions, the municipal elections in the national capital this time have generated a lot of interest in the media with many column inches and air time dedicated to it. However, going by the voter turnout, these elections have seemingly not generated much interest in the people. Overall the voter turnout just went past the 46% mark till 4 pm on Sunday. Nonetheless, in the days leading up to Sunday's elections to the three municipal corporations of Delhi, all the major players—the Bharatiya Janata Party, Congress, and the Aam Aadmi Party—ran high-octane campaigns. The stakes for all the three parties involved are high. As per reports on the ground, the general narrative in these elections seems to suggest that the BJP and Congress are out to sideline the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP. For both the national parties, AAP represents the disruptive force that could threaten their hold over urban local bodies in Delhi. For AAP, however, it is all about consolidating the gains it achieved in 2015 Delhi Assembly elections when it won a whopping 67 out of 70 seats. The Election Commission will publish the results of these elections on April 26.

Fresh from its stunning victory in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, and four other states, besides significant gains in local body elections in Odisha and Maharashtra, the BJP is very keen on maintaining its electoral momentum. In the recent Maharashtra civic polls earlier this year, the party won in eight of the ten municipal corporations, sidelining the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party, besides putting its ally Shiv Sena on notice in the state. Following this successful political endeavour, the BJP displaced the Congress and emerged as the second largest party in the recent panchayat polls in Odisha. In the national capital, however, the equations are very different. Going by the actions of the previous and current Lieutenant Governors, it is very apparent that the BJP is still smarting from its stunning loss in the last Delhi Assembly elections, where it won just three seats. Despite party president Amit Shah overseeing the campaign personally and Prime Minister Narendra Modi staking his own credibility, the BJP lost rather badly in 2015. Thus, it has become imperative for Shah that the BJP maintains its hold over the municipal corporations of Delhi, which it has governed for the last ten years, and stop AAP in its tracks. But anti-incumbency is a real concern for the BJP. In light of these circumstances, media reports indicate that Shah micromanaged the party's affairs in these elections, roping in a whole host Union Ministers, Chief Ministers, and state leaders for the campaign. In a significant move, which indicates Shah's awareness of the massive anti-incumbency his party faces in these elections, he decided not to issue any tickets to sitting councillors. On expected lines, this move has caused a lot of consternation among the local cadre, although Shah's reasons are very valid. There is a definite attempt to break away from the party's poor record in the municipal bodies over the past ten years. Under its tenure, the MCDs have suffered from grave mismanagement, besides facing allegations of corruption. The campaign has more or less avoided any mention of the party's achievements and instead focussed on promoting Brand Modi.

One of the BJP's major promises before the 2012 MCD elections was to fundamentally change and improve the sanitation system in the city, allied with a massive door-to-door garbage collection and waste segregation, and construction of public toilets at all busy spots, especially for women. In the five years since the elections and three years after Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Mission, the sanitation system outside the confines of the NDMC area has gone from bad to worse. The city has suffered from a series of strikes by sanitation workers because they were not paid their wages on time, leading to piles of garbage strewn all across Delhi that leaves behind a putrid smell. Reports state that the incidence of communicable diseases (dengue and chikungunya) reached new highs high last year, while the MCDs barely spent any of the funds allocated to them under the Swachh Bharat Mission. In the recently conducted Swachh Survekshan in 2016, which is a survey published by the Ministry of Urban Development, it was found that less than 10% of Delhi's residents rate their city as clean. Less than 15% claim that they are always able to find a dustbin and just a quarter of the city is endowed with door-to-door waste segregation. Meanwhile, the state of public toilets in the city remains pitiable. For the most part, these toilets are dirty, unhygienic, and suffer from an inadequate water supply. Some of these toilets even pose safety hazards for women with no separate section for them, and in certain cases, there aren't any doors and lights. There are also over 1800 primary schools that are run by the MCDs. Once again, expert studies report that the state of education in these schools is rather poor with a significant number of students applying to other Delhi government schools from class 6 onwards unable to even inculcate basic reading skills. Most of the students in these primary schools are from low-income households, and such neglect of their education, one would argue, is criminal. It is imperative to note that the MCDs handle a whole host of concerns, but it is education and sanitation that have garnered the spotlight.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his party have a lot riding on these MCD polls. After its sweep in 2015, the party should have been in pole position moving into Sunday's elections. A humiliating defeat in the recent Rajouri Garden by-poll, where its candidate lost his deposit, besides losses in the recent Punjab and Goa Assembly elections, have stifled the AAP's electoral momentum. With its plans for national expansion suffering a setback, the party has decided to turn its attention back to Delhi and tighten its grip on the city-state. Despite the hurdles placed before the AAP government by the Delhi High Court, successive lieutenant governors and the Centre, it has managed to achieve significant successes in the spheres of public health and education. The Delhi government's relentless pursuit on upgrading the quality of instruction offered in public schools has borne fruit, complemented well by the formation of School Management Committees (an institution mandated in Section 21 of the Right to Education Act) and activities like Reading Melas—part if its campaign for better learning outcomes. In the sphere of public health, the AAP government has set up Mohalla Clinics, which are aimed at providing basic healthcare facilities to the ordinary person's doorstep. However, as Padmapriya Janakiraman, a Delhi-based public policy researcher asks in a recent column, "But what use is a mohalla clinic if basic sanitation is not ensured? What use are model schools if the foundations laid in primary school are insufficient? And what use is the idea of mohalla sabhas if the municipality cannot be held accountable for my unusable colony road?" It is for these reasons that AAP is desperate for a win.

For the Congress, these elections present an opportunity for a revival in the city-state. Ever since the party's loss in 2013 and humiliation in 2015, and the subsequent rise of AAP in Delhi and BJP across the length and breadth of this country, the Congress has looked to regain its political relevance under the leadership of senior leader Ajay Maken. Like the BJP, the Congress has also included its top leaders in the campaign. What will be the outcome of these MCD elections? We will find out on April 26.
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