After Diwali, Delhi is now all set to celebrate Chhath Puja over the next two days. Chhath is the most important festival of Bihar spread over four days. It’s more about piety than festivity.
But who cares about piety when the ‘sentiments’ of Bihari voters in the National Capital have to be ‘protected’ and cashed in on by our political parties? Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has announced a public holiday, and his party is locked in an intense battle with the BJP to ensure that Covid-related restrictions on public gatherings are lifted.
For those pursuing Covid politics today, it seems the mayhem of the pandemic witnessed last summer never existed. The second wave on COVID-19 turned Delhi into a ‘City of Pyres’ with never-ending queues at the burning ghats and burial grounds. For our political parties, it’s not ideal to ask for the removal of restrictions that seek to keep the deadly virus at bay. But then in politics appeasing the sentiments of electorally strong community matters more than dousing the fire of the pyres!
‘Biharis’ (loosely synonymous with the migrant labour population), whose sentiments are so much being looked after today, were left to fend for themselves during the second wave. Many of them died and those who survived had to go back to their native places, having been let down by one and all. Chhath seems to be an opportunity for both the parties to ‘make amends’ and woo this large chunk of voters.
However, coming in their way is the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) directive which has prohibited celebrations of Chhath Puja on the banks of Yamuna this year. The DDMA’s 30 September order prohibits the celebration of Chhath at public places due to Covid-19. The directive says that Puja celebrations will be allowed at designated sites in the city, except on the banks of Yamuna.
Now this has given the leaders from the ruling AAP an axe to grind with the BJP. An AAP MLA has blamed the DDMA for acting at the behest of the BJP, which was ‘anti-Bihari’. On the other hand, the BJP has claimed that traditional puja spots were being readied by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) for the festivity. The point to be noted here is that the DDA and the MCD are controlled by the BJP and the holding of festivity in those areas would not allow political latitude to the AAP. No wonder the Bihari faces of the AAP — Sanjeev Jha and Somnath Bharti — are crying hoarse and already seeing a conspiracy. The plot has got messier with BJP MP Parvesh Verma ‘challenging’ Arvind Kejriwal to stop him from visiting the Chhath ghat at the Yamuna banks near ITO.
Those living in the city for long would have never thought that holding of a Chhath festivity could actually become an agenda for a full-blown political battle. Till about two decades ago, Chhath just found a passing mention in Delhi newspapers. Today they make front-page news.
The lone Bihari member of the Delhi Assembly in those days, Mahabal Mishra, who later also became a member of the Lok Sabha, would then appeal to at least allow a restricted holiday for the Chhath festivity. Today the chief minister announces a public holiday on Chhath before anyone demands it, lest the credit goes into someone else’s basket.
The first political image of Chhath celebrations was ahead of the 2003 Assembly elections. The then BJP chief ministerial candidate, Madan Lal Khurana, had arranged an ‘arghya’ at the Prithviraj Road residence of then deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani with Poonam Azad, wife of cricketer-turned-politician Kirti Azad, doing the rituals.
This was done as the BJP then wanted to come out of the Bania-Punjabi mould, making an attempt to woo the Bihari voters. Kirti Azad, being the son of former Bihar chief minister Bhagwat Jha Azad, was projected as the face of the community in the party. However, the arrangement did not work out and Sheila Dikshit returned to power.
In 2008, again ahead of the Assembly polls that year, the BJP made an attempt to woo the Bihari voters on Chhath with its chief minister candidate, Vijay Kumar Malhotra, visiting the ghats in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh shorts. That year Dikshit competed with Malhotra in ghat hopping, and in the political battle that followed a few months later, she again emerged the winner.
But then those were not Covid times and the rivalry over the Bihari voters is still not that bitter. Punjabis, Banias, Delhi rural populations and minorities, in that order, were the dominant vote chunks in the national Capital.
However, 2021 is different. Migrants from the eastern state not only form the major workforce in Delhi but also now have an effective role in the city’s politics. Delhi today actually is more replete with ‘Chhath Ki Badhaiyan’ posters and hoardings than they can be seen in the mother state of Bihar!
Be that as it may, which way the Bihari voters would tilt would be known only in April next year when Delhi goes for the municipal elections.
The writer is author and president, Centre for Reforms, Development and Justice. Views expressed are personal.