It was three years too long in the coming. But when last fortnight the Government announced municipal elections in Delhi for February 5, it seemed at first that the Congress(I) could not have timed it better.The party was riding high on the success of the Asian Games and all six,It was three years too long in the coming. But when last fortnight the Government announced municipal elections in Delhi for February 5, it seemed at first that the Congress(I) could not have timed it better.The party was riding high on the success of the Asian Games and all six of Delhi’s Congress(I) MPs had advised Mrs Gandhi that the political climate could not be more favourable. All this, of course, was before the Congress(I)’s stunning defeat in the south. And in a space of four days the rising confidence of the Congress(I) was shattered and the morale of the Opposition received its biggest boost.The plans for the elections had obviously been laid carefully. According to informed sources within the Congress(I) the decision was taken by the high command on December 14 and Mrs Gandhi instructed the Home Ministry to inform the Election Commission about the Central Government’s willingness to go to the polls before leaving for her election tours. Another sign came on January 2 when President Zail Singh issued an ordinance amending both the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act and Delhi Administration Act to avoid the revision of the electoral rolls to include those who became 21 years old on or before January 1, 1983.This proved quite conclusively that the matter had been given careful consideration. According to the original schedule the elections to the 56-member Metropolitan Council (MC) and the 100-member Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) were to be held on February 20. The date was advanced, it is believed, to free the city administration and the police force for the non-aligned meet in March.advertisementPopular Mandate: For the Congress(I), this election was supposed to give their de facto rule of the city a popular mandate. Ever since the Central Government superseded the Janata-dominated MC and MCD on the grounds of inefficiency and maladministration, the party has tried to consolidate a power base. And the decision to hold the elections now proved that the ruling party felt sure of the 33 lakh electorate.Vajpayee addressing RJP workers (left) and Congress(I) workers at the party head quarter: Grim battleSaid H.K.L. Bhagat, Union minister for works and housing and Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee(I) president: “We are proud of our achievements during the last three years.Besides holding the Asian Games, we have ensured the uninterrupted supply of essential commodities, improvement in the law and order situation, effective implementation of the prime minister’s 20-point programme in resettlement colonies. Delhi looks better than what the Janata Party left for us.”Optimism was equally evident in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) camp who had 40 members in the MC and 60 in the MCD in 1980 and will prove the biggest challenge to the Congress(I). Before January 5, they had already had 40,000 ticket-seekers. After the news of the Congress(I) rout in the south broke the numbers swelled to over 50,000.Said a jubilant Vijay Kumar Malhotra, president of the BJP’s Delhi unit: “Our emphasis is on positive aspects. The people have seen our rule in the past and know that only the BJP can run Delhi with dignity and efficiency. And we will prove it again.”Aware of the Congress(I)’s main planks and strategies, the BJP seems determined to fight the party on its own ground. ‘Referring to the Congress(I)’s claims about the Asiad, BJP General Secretary Madan Lal Khurana said: “Asiad was a sports success but it is a monumental scandal as they have squandered money on many unwanted projects. People would like to scrutinise the Asiad expenses more carefully.” Expecting Mrs Gandhi to campaign extensively in the city, the BJP plans to prove that Delhi has suffered specifically because of her rule. The other weapon in the BJP arsenal is the charisma of its President Atal Behari Vajpayee. The party hopes that Vajpayee with his oratorial skills will swing borderline votes.Apart from the growth of corruption, the other issues that the Opposition will fight on are the worsening law and order situation, the humiliation of the bureaucracy by senior Congress(I) members and the unbalanced development of Delhi.Bhagat, Malhotra and Kishore Lal: Girding for the fraySpeaking on one issue, the Janata Party’s Delhi unit President Kishore Lal said: “If one goes by the number of unsolved crimes. Delhi has become quite safe for the criminal tribe. Ever since the Congress(I) come to power, over 50 per cent of the heinous crimes have not been solved.”Unity Moves: What has emerged so far is that the elections will be a straight contest between the BJP and the Congress(I). Recognising the Congress(I) as the common foe there have been two alliances: one between the BJP and the Lok Dal(C) and the other between the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), the Lok Dal (K), H.N. Bahuguna’s Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) and Jagjivan Ram’s Congress(J).advertisementOn January 10 the BJP conceded nine of the 100 MCD seats and six of the 56 MC seats to the Lok Dal(C). Just before the nominations were filed other electoral adjustments were hurriedly arrived at. Then CPI, CPI-M, the Lok Dal(K) and the DSP decided to band together with the Akali Dal (Longowal) supporting them.The Tara Singh faction went along with the Congress(I). With Muslims and Sikhs holding the balance on over 24 MC and MCD seats. Lal exulted: “With public declarations of Sikhs and some Muslim groups to vote against both the BJP and the Congress(I), our poll prospects have brightened.”The BJP, however, looks at the situation from a very different angle. Their thinking is that three-cornered contests would help the party. In Harijan-dominated east Delhi and the resettlement constituencies, a CPI, CPI-M or Congress(J) candidate will, it is felt, cut into the Congress(I) vote.The situation is the same with the Sikh and Muslim vote. Both these communities, though unwilling to vote for the BJP will nevertheless help it by choosing either an Akali candidate or one backed by the DSP because of their disenchantment with the ruling party.Populist Ploys: The Congress(I), however, is not entirely dependent on its campaign machine to woo voters. Just before the announcement of the election the Central Government regularised over 400 unauthorised colonies with a combined population of over 10 lakh.The government also sanctioned more than Rs 15 crore for the improvement of slums in Old Delhi, allowed private house owners to add a third storey, permitted the resale of Delhi Development Authority (DDA) flats and plots before the expiry of the 10-year limit, announced the new pay scales for 6,000 DDA employees and promised accommodation to all the commercial squatters on public land.The vote-catching devices were more than necessary. The Delhi unit of the party is hopelessly split by factionalism and the lack of a strong local leadership. The three main warring groups are headed by Bhagat who has a following among the Punjabis.Delhi Pradesh Youth Congress(I) President Jagdish Tytler who has carved a niche with the youth and labour, and MP Dharam Dass Shastri leading the Harijans. Another impediment is the strained relationship between Bhagat and Delhi’s powerful Lt-Governor Jagmohan. With the electoral debacle of the Congress(I) in the south still fresh in the public mind, prospects for this divided house seem to be dim.