For the past eight years, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has blatantly stoked communal sentiments to woo voters and stay in power. Now, the decade-old Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has jumped onto the right-wing Hindutva (Hindu supremacist) bandwagon.
AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal, who is also Delhi chief minister, recently raised eyebrows when he urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to put the picture of Hindu deities Lakshmi and Ganesh on Indian currency notes to revive the Indian economy. At a press conference, Kejriwal said that “130 crore [1.3 billion] Indians” wanted the pictures of the Hindu goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, and the god of prosperity, Ganesh, alongside that of India’s founding father, Mahatma Gandhi, on rupee notes, as divine blessings would help India’s sagging economy.
Incidentally, Kejriwal’s proposal comes at a time when the AAP is attempting to unseat the BJP from power in Gujarat in the upcoming assembly elections. Boosted by its recent victory in Punjab, where it now has its first state government, the AAP aims to end the BJP’s 27-year-long rule in Gujarat. It is seeking to outdo the BJP at its own game – playing communal politics to rake in the votes.
Senior AAP leader Manish Sisodia recently said that the party “has emerged as a strong alternative [to the BJP] in Gujarat” and common people will benefit from AAP rule.
Several celebrities who had supported the AAP in its initial days are shocked by the party’s openly communal pitch. Music composer Vishal Dadlani tweeted that the Indian Constitution declares India to be “a secular socialist republic.”
“Religion must have NO PLACE in governance,” he added.
Actor Gul Panag also distanced herself from the AAP’s attempt at competitive communal politics.
Withthe AAP threatening to eat into its turf, a belligerent BJP hit back. BJP leader Ramvir Singh Bidhuri alleged that “Kejriwal’s Hindu love” had woken up just before the Gujarat elections.
Facing flak from several quarters, AAP leader Sanjay Singh said that the BJP had intended to put the picture of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue Vinayak Damodar Savarkar on Indian currency notes. The AAP suggestion was to thwart such a move, Singh claimed. While the BJP reveres Savarkar, other parties ridicule him as a traitor and an ally of the British colonial rulers.
However, not everyone is convinced. The Congress’ Punjab unit chief, Amrinder Singh Raja, accused the AAP of “competitive Hindutva” to outmaneuver the BJP.
“The fallacy is Arvind Kejriwal demanding [a] Hindu goddess to be printed in Indian currency, sitting right beneath the photo of Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh…” Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) activist Dipsita Dhar tweeted. While Dalit leader and President of India’s Constituent Assembly B. R. Ambedkar had denounced Hinduism, freedom fighter Bhagat Singh was an atheist.
This is not the first time that the AAP has bared its communal fangs. When opposition parties across the board had denounced the BJP government for freeing the Hindu men who raped Bilkis Bano, a victim of the 2002 riots in Gujarat, the AAP maintained a studied silence on the issue. Clearly, the party is wary of antagonizing Hindutva voters in election-bound Gujarat.
While the BJP brazenly uses anti-Muslim rhetoric to polarize voters, the AAP does not speak out in support of Muslim minorities. It is careful to not be perceived as a party of “Muslim appeasers” especially when it intends to wean away voters from the BJP. It might be recalled that the AAP steered clear of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests in Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi in 2019 -2020. When communal riots broke out in northeast Delhi later that year, the Delhi government under the AAP “did precious little to mediate between the communities,” a Citizen’s Committee probing the riots reported. It is no secret that the AAP government was a silent bystander during the riots, where 50 people were killed.
Incidentally, the AAP’s stand on the Muslim Rohingya refugees was no different from that of the BJP. Not only did AAP leaders label the Rohingya as illegal infiltrators, but also AAP legislator Atishi Marlena tried to blame them for the communal flare-ups in Jahangirpuri in the capital last year.
For some time now, the AAP has been severely criticized for practicing “soft Hindutva.” So while BJP leaders openly whip up communal hatred against Muslim minorities and champion Hindu supremacy, the AAP has positioned itself to appeal to Hindutva voters who are uncomfortable with the BJP’s hardline approach.
Kejriwal has been blatantly appeasing the Hindu majority by conducting Lakshmi pujas (Hindu prayer rituals) during Diwali, live telecasting these events, funding teerth yatras (Hindu pilgrimages) for elderly citizens of Delhi, and declaring “Ram Rajya” (the Hindu deity Ram’s ideal kingdom) as the goal of his Delhi government. He is playing the Hindu religious card to boost his Hindu credentials.
Recently, AAP’s Dalit minister Rajendra Pal Gautam resigned after participating in an event where thousands of Dalits, denouncing the ills of Hinduism, converted to Buddhism. Apparently, Kejriwal was displeased with Gautam and hence the resignation.
The AAP’s embrace of Hinduism is not only aimed at wooing voters in the Gujarat Assembly elections but also intended at taking on the BJP on multiple turfs. It is trying to wrest control of the Delhi municipal corporation from the BJP. Kejriwal appealed to Delhi residents to vote for him as he, like the dutiful son Shravan Kumar in the Hindu epic Ramayan, had facilitated the religious pilgrimages of elderly Hindus.
In an earlier article on the normalization of communal politics in India, I highlighted how the AAP did not condemn Hindutva hate speech rallies, even those held at Jantar Mantar in the heart of New Delhi, which is part of Kejriwal’s assembly constituency.
Describing the AAP as the “B team of the BJP,” senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh alleges that while the AAP is posturing to take on the BJP, its real aim is to cut into the votes of the Congress to help the BJP.
Ironically, the AAP originated as a platform of alternative politics in 2012 and gained massive popular support. It swept to power as a credible alternative to the corrupt and self-serving politics of established parties like the Congress and the BJP. With its thrust on education, better health facilities, subsidized electricity and drinking water, the AAP’s support base in Delhi expanded to include the educated middle class and public intellectuals.
However, post-2019, in its bid to expand its national footprint, the AAP has jumped onto the Hindutva bandwagon. It has attuned itself to the extremely polarized landscape in the country and is appealing to voters by offering a brand of benign Hindutva.
Kejriwal’s espousal of Hindutva politics reeks of opportunism and is far removed from the lofty principles the party was founded on.
With the BJP and AAP engaging in competitive Hindutva politics, the secular principles of India’s constitution are under ever-increasing pressure.