NEW DELHI: In poll-bound Delhi’s Sangam Vihar, Mohammad Abbas Ali puts an arm around friend Vijay Gupta, and says, “Why are we preoccupied with the matter of giving citizenship to outsiders, when Indians themselves don’t have employment or food on the table?” “This Citizenship Law will have no real impact on the vote here,” Vijay adds. “We’re unconcerned with the law; we’ve all been living side by side for years.”

Delhi goes to the polls on February 8 in a closely watched election. It’s the first election in the country since the government passed the Citizenship Amendment Act on December 11, prompting widespread protests.

(Mohammad Abbas Ali and Vijay Gupta in Sangam Vihar say the election will be won on the plank of local issues, not CAA)

“This communal hera pheri (foul play) is all wrong,” Abbas says. “Whoever is doing the work should win.” Abbas says Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party has a strong chance. “Finally, this area has a road, we have water and electricity. This will translate into a vote for AAP,” he says.

Vijay is less certain - holding the Delhi and central governments equally responsible for the state of affairs in the area -- as parts of Sangam Vihar remain dug up given delays that have plagued the massive (and still incomplete) effort to bring piped water and sewage to the area’s 1.5 million residents.

Like Abbas and Vijay, Akash, a fruit seller in Sangam Vihar, is more concerned with local issues than with the Citizenship Law. “Jhadu (broom) will win,” he says, referring to AAP’s election symbol. “They’re the ones who have done all the work. They’ve built roads, brought electricity, given us water.” “I’m not concerned with the Citizenship law,” he says. “I don’t think it will have any impact on the vote here.”

(Akash says it’s advantage AAP. “Kaam usi ne kiya hai”)

“This election is about vikas (development),” echoes Rahul. “We now have a sewage system, a proper road, water and electricity - AAP has done all this.” Mehfooz, a customer at Rahul’s small fruit cart nods in agreement. “Jo vikas karega, wo jeetega, (those who bring development will win)” Mehfooz adds.

(Rahul and Mehfooz. “Jo vikas karega, wo jeetega,” says Mehfooz)

Rahul says he voted for the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections, because he didn’t think AAP stood a chance. The Vidhan Sabha election is different. It’s about vikas, he says. “Kejirwal will win.”

We hear this repeated a few times in varying forms. “Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha are different,” says Makhan, sitting comfortably on the pavement with an array of shoe polishing material. “Many who voted for the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections will vote AAP for Vidhan Sabha. Because we are happy with AAP’s work. Lok Sabha is about the Prime Minister; it’s different.”

(Makhan says many who voted for the BJP in 2019, will vote for AAP in the upcoming elections)

A recent Lokniti-CSDS survey in Delhi found that as many as 24 percent of those who voted for the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections said they prefer AAP in power in the state. AAP’s success in the 2020 Delhi assembly elections will depend, in part, on this vote -- and the narrative of vikas (development) remains a strong determinant.

A few meters further along, Lakshmi is perched on a small cart overflowing with bananas. “Jhadu,” she says, when asked about the vote in the area. “They are the only ones doing any work,” Narul Islam, a customer at Lakshmi’s stall interjects in agreement. “Everyone else is preoccupied with communal drama and party propaganda.”

(Narul and Lakshmi. Both say AAP has the best chance of winning in this area as work’s been done)

Anuj Gupta says that five years ago - this area had nothing; no proper roads, no water connections, no regular electricity supply. “Even if there are delays and inconvenience, at least some work is being done,” he says. “People will vote for AAP because of this,” he says. “No other party has bothered doing anything.”

(Anuj Gupta at his paan stall)

The AAP voter here is vocal - as most residents live in rented accommodation, and have benefited from the state government’s schemes to reduce electricity and water bills.

“Bus ticket prices have been slashed, water is on time and free, electricity is affordable. The chota (small) worker is happy with all this,” says Vishnu. “No one thought we’d have roads. Galli galli mein kaam ho raha hai (in every lane, there’s work being done.)

When asked about the citizenship law, Vishnu dismisses it and says, “we are concerned with khana aur kamana (eating and earning).” “These are just attempts at stirring political tensions and violence. People have been living here all this while; they will continue living here,” he says.

(Vishnu. “People have been living here all this while; they will continue living here,” he says)

The Citizenship Amendment Act - which led to widespread protests across the country - seems to have limited electoral impact in this area. “There are always attempts to communalise the vote on the basis of religion,” says Pushminder, seated in a paan stall. “If the voter is intelligent, these attempts do not work.”

Pushminder at his paan stall in Sangam Vihar.

(Mahesh Verma at a fruit stall. He says people will vote for AAP because the party has done work in the area)

“AAP will win. Not just here, but across Delhi. Neither the BJP nor Congress stand a chance,” Nayab declares. “Look at the work being done. There are cameras in every galli (lane), free electricity and water.”

(“We’re khane-kamane wale (earning members of society). There’s no question of us having to leave,” says Nayab)

The Congress doesn’t seem to have any presence in the area. This isn’t surprising, as the party received 9.7 percent of the vote share in Delhi in 2015, failing to secure a single seat, and losing deposits in 63 of 70 seats. “There’s no Congress here,” is the general consensus. The Lokniti-CSDS survey found that one-fourth of Congress’ 2019 Lok Sabha voters said they’ll vote for AAP in the state.

“Congress is khatam (over)” says Kanhaiya, tending to customers. “AAP has done work in the area,” Kanhaiya repeats what we’ve heard thus far. “I don’t know much about this Citizenship law, nor am I concerned; I need to earn a living - that’s what I am preoccupied with.”

(Kanhaiya stands next to his cart loaded with utensils and kitchenware)

(Hemlata. “I’m the sole earner in my family,” she says. “AAP has done a lot of work.”)

While AAP seems to have an edge in the area, locals are not dismissing the BJP’s chances. “BJP is also strong,” says Pritam. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP dominated - winning a huge 56.6 percent of the vote in Delhi, and all seven Lok Sabha seats in the state. The party will need to retain a large part of this vote share if it’s to perform well in the state elections, and the Citizenship Act may well be an essential tool in the party toolbox, aimed at consolidating some of this vote.

Pritam doesn’t know enough about the Citizenship law, he says, but doesn’t think it will be a factor either way.

(Pritam at his small stall)

Sapna is seated in a small paan stall a few steps away from Pritam’s cart. “It’s BJP all the way for me,” she says. “I’ve supported them since I was a child; my whole family are supporters.” But Sapna too doesn’t think the citizenship law is going to be a major determinant in the vote. “It’s about performance and work,” she says. “We’re happy with the government. We’re happy with Modiji.”

(Sapna. “We’re happy with the BJP,” she says)