The optical shock of mountains of garbage and large, open sewage drains is matched by a stark divide among communities that inhabit India’s most densely-populated district in the north-east of Delhi (as per Census 2011 data). In these utterly squalid, cheek-by-jowl slums and living quarters where communal riots flared up just before the Covid-19 pandemic struck in 2020, deep divisions still mark voter behaviour in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections.

Congress has fielded former JNU Students Union President Kanhaiya Kumar, whom the BJP is at pains to paint as the leader of the mythical ‘tukde-tukde gang’. Defending his seat is the two-term MP and popular Bhojpuri singer and actor Manoj Tiwari, who is currently trending on social media with a video and a song titled ‘baby beer pee ke nache (Baby is drunk on beer and dancing)’.

Both are ‘poorvanchalis’ (people from the east) but are far removed from the routine wretchedness of existence in these parts, inhabited largely by daily labourers, small shop owners, and self-employed armies of migrants largely from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Kanhaiya is the up-and-coming youth leader in the Congress, popular among the educated elite of Delhi for his activism and intellectual heft. Tiwari is the icon of popular culture who has benefited from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity in the last two general elections, although the abysmal living conditions and absence of infrastructure in his constituency are a testimony to his credentials as an ineffectual MP.

“We don’t care who the candidate is. We will vote for the BJP. This whole locality will vote for the BJP,” said Amar Singh, standing outside the narrow Shri Ram Gali in Brijpuri, where each tiny tenement was decorated with images of Lord Ram emblazoned across saffron flags.

The owner of Rajat Jewellers, a Yadav from Uttar Pradesh, has two houses: one in Shiv Vihar in north-east Delhi and another in Noida. He and his sons are supporters of the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh. The sons have voted for the SP-Congress alliance in UP. But in Delhi, he would vote for the BJP.

“My shop was looted and burnt here during the 2020 riots. Things are normal here now. But you have to keep a balance of power. My support here goes to the BJP, although we are traditionally SP supporters,” said Yadav.

According to Vivek Goel, a local Congress worker in the area, his party’s alliance with Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will ensure that the BJP loses this time. “I will give you an example. In the Corporation elections, from this ward, the AAP got 5,000 votes, Congress got 5,000 and the BJP raced ahead with 13,000 votes. Now we have an alliance with AAP so there is an even contest,” he said.

The census figures show that against 68.22 per cent Hindus, there are 29.35 per cent Muslims scattered across localities like Seelampur, Shahdara, Maujpur, Jafrabad, Khajuri Khas, et al. There is total consolidation of Muslims towards the Congress candidate. But the reverse polarisation of Hindus means that the BJP has an advantage while the Congress has initiated a major outreach towards different Hindu communities in the district.

At a late-night meeting of Gujjars who are scattered across the constituency, former Rajasthan Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot joined Kanhaiya Kumar in eliciting support from the community. “The community has to rally around for ‘hissedari’ (participation). OBCs have supported the BJP for so long but what have they done for us? This time, we are asking for Nyay, that only the Congress can provide,” Pilot said. Kanhaiya, who combines rustic charm with sharp repartee, talked about the “real issues” of the people as opposed to the “imagined narratives” that the BJP propagates.

But unless the campaigning and roadshows that Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has done in the past few days have changed the chemistry of this election, this is a tough seat for Kanhaiya. The electorate is still polarised on communal lines in a number of pockets and that favours the BJP.