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Politics

Regional party silent on citizenship law ahead of Delhi poll

Modi's BJP eyes comeback after 20-year absence but faces uphill battle

Demonstrators carry placards and shout slogans during a protest in New Delhi on Jan. 9 against attacks on students at Jawaharlal Nehru University: The demonstrations are a wildcard in upcoming elections.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- India's capital is set to hold an election on Feb. 8 against a backdrop of protests against the country's new citizenship law, which critics see as discriminating against Muslims, and violent incidents at top universities in the city.

The polls will witness a three-way fight among Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, which is eyeing a comeback in the capital after two decades, the main opposition Indian National Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party, which currently rules the city government after landslide win in 2015.

"The general perception is that the AAP will return to power in Delhi," said political analyst Narayan Bareth. "They have performed remarkably well in improving the education and health care facilities for the weaker sections of the society. This should work in their favor," he said, pointing out that the AAP draws most of its support from rickshaw drivers, tricycle-pullers and other manual laborers.

The party, headed by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was launched in 2012 and won 67 of the 70 seats in the last Delhi election in 2015, with the BJP taking the other three. Congress drew a blank.

Concerned about maintaining its broad base of support, the AAP has been quiet on the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, which fast-tracks citizenship for non-Muslim minorities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Kejriwal's party is focusing instead on its development work in the capital during its tenure.

"The AAP is playing its cards cleverly by not openly supporting or opposing the CAA, as it wants votes from both Hindus and Muslims," Bareth said, noting that it also stayed away from the Jan. 13 meeting of opposition parties called by Congress to discuss the situation in the country in the wake of the CAA protests.

Student activists have been agitating against the CAA for more than a month. Violent incidents took place in December outside the campus of Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia university, where police attacked protesters with batons and tear gas, and they pelted the police with stones.

Earlier this month, masked attackers wielding sticks and iron rods entered Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and assaulted students and staff, triggering nationwide outrage. An investigation has been launched, with some accusing pro-BJP groups of carrying out the attack.

The BJP, meanwhile, has launched a public relations drive for the CAA, arguing the law does not target India's Muslims, who make up nearly 15% of the country's 1.3 billion people. Rather, it says, the legislation aims to help those who came to India before 2015, fleeing religious persecution in the three Muslim-majority nations.

In the 2015 Delhi polls, Modi -- who returned to power in last year's general election with even a stronger mandate -- personally campaigned against Kejriwal but the BJP still came up short. The capital overwhelmingly voted for Modi in nationwide parliamentary election, but voters appear to have different priorities when it comes to local polls.

In the general election, Modi had no serious challenger for prime minister, said Shubha Singh, an author and political analyst. "Now there's an effective chief minister in Delhi whose government's work is appreciated by people," said Singh.

She predicted the AAP will win a comfortable majority, although it may not repeat its showing in 2015, where it bagged almost all the seats.

However, the BJP will spare no effort in highlighting the achievements of the Modi government through its door-to-door campaign, while Congress, which has come out against the CAA, will try to woo Muslims, whose votes are expected to be split between it and the AAP, she added.

"A triple engine is needed for Delhi's strong development," said Prakash Javadekar earlier this month. Javadekar is heading up the ruling party's election effort in Delhi and is also the national government's information and broadcasting minister. He points out the BJP already rules at the national level and runs the city's municipal corporation, a civic body.

"The roadblocks to Delhi's progress will end" with a BJP win in the Feb. 8 election, Javadekar said, voicing confidence about his party's chances. The results will be out on Feb. 11.

Delhi was traditionally ruled by either the BJP or Congress before emergence of the AAP, which changed the city's political balance after the party entered the race for the state assembly in 2013. In that election, the BJP ended up four seats short of a majority. Kejriwal, whose party emerged as the second-largest, became chief minister with support from Congress, but his minority government collapsed in February 2014. After a year in which the state has had no government, the AAP won overwhelmingly in 2015.

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