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Kejriwal & AAP’s Tryst With Hindutva – When Populism Trumps Ideology

Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal believes in telling people what they want to hear, and being silent on what they don’t.

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Opinion
7 min read
Kejriwal & AAP’s Tryst With Hindutva – When Populism Trumps Ideology
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A seemingly endless stream of words has been lavished over the last few years at the Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP) flirtation with Hindu majoritarian symbolism. That flirtation has arguably shaded into active co-option in recent months. On Diwali, Arvind Kejriwal led his Cabinet in prayers at a “state of the art” replica of the Ram Temple of Ayodhya. This article would seek to answer two questions: one, why has the AAP swerved rightwards, and two, would this new politics of AAP help or hurt it in its plans for national expansion?

It is clear that Arvind Kejriwal has now gone beyond mere public displays of religiosity, his Hanuman Chalisa phase. If he had limited himself to just that, Kejriwal could perhaps be excused for only fashioning a creative mix of religion and politics that has long found legitimacy across political shades in India.

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'Politics is Short-Term Religion, Religion is Long-Term Politics'

Gandhi, famously, expressed much of his politics in a religious idiom. The Congress party, even under the atheist Nehru, wasn’t beyond using Hindu iconography in its political messaging. In the very first election of 1952, the ubiquitous Congress poster showed a pair of sacred cows, along with the picture of Nehru, imploring people to “vote for a stable, secular, progressive state”.

Lohia drew upon the resources of Mahabharata and Ramayana to communicate his socialist ideals, formulating that “politics is short-term religion and religion is long-term politics”.

Meanwhile, the ascent of Modi has meant that piety parades have now simply become an unavoidable facet of being a big political leader, much like holding a Twitter account. Everyone, from Rahul Gandhi and Mamata Banerjee to Akhilesh Yadav, make sure their visits to temples happen in the glare of cameras. Nobody wants to be credibly labelled as "anti-Hindu", the ultimate slur in contemporary Indian politics.

However, the AAP’s audacious attempt to wrest a part of the political ownership of Ram Mandir – a symbol of the ‘victory’ of Hindu India over both Muslims and a secular idea of India – from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), isn’t just defensive Hindu symbolism. It is a well-thought-out part of Kejriwal's broader push of re-orienting the ideology of his party.

The AAP has always been a populist centrist party, railing against all established parties on behalf of the forgotten “Aam Aadmi” (common man). But within that broad framework, the AAP has swerved in different directions, trying to expand its political space.

AAP Made Two Calculations After 2019

Before 2019, the AAP assumed a vocal anti-BJP character, with Kejriwal regularly feuding with the Central government, and particularly with Modi personally, at one point even terming the Prime Minister a “coward and a (sic) psychopath”. He appeared on TV channels accusing the ruling BJP of being the handmaiden of ‘Ambani and Adani’ and slaying government policies such as demonetisation. While he was never an outspoken critic of Hindutva like Rahul Gandhi, he could occasionally condemn Modi for his ‘Hindu-Muslim’ politics in public rallies. The path to expansion then lied, for Kejriwal, in capturing the opposition space by attacking the BJP.

All this changed after the 2019 election when AAP was humiliated by the BJP in all seven seats of Delhi. But for Bhagwant Mann’s win in Punjab, it would have lost all the forty seats it contested. Almost overnight, the AAP lost its anti-BJP voice, and it has spent the next two years pursuing a thorough course correction.

All of AAP’s subsequent politics has been informed by its reading of the 2019 election mandate. The party made two calculations, both valid in this author’s estimation. One, the ideological centre-ground of Indian politics has shifted Right, and two, for the foreseeable future, India would be under a BJP-dominant system. Gauging these larger structural shifts, Kejriwal set about refashioning his centrist populism in a distinctive rightward mould.

A common refrain invoked in discussions on this topic is that AAP’s rightward turn is doomed to fail. “When the original metal [BJP] is available, why should anyone lust after the imitation [AAP]?”, wrote Partha S. Ghosh in The Dhaka Tribune, echoing Ruhi Tewari’s argument in ThePrint.

This is a rather simplistic conclusion. Whatever the moral objections to AAP legitimising Hindutva majoritarian symbols in the public sphere, it is quite possible that this new politics might aid the party in its expansion plans.

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AAP Wants to Become the Congress of 'New India'

The Delhi election of 2020 already provides some preliminary evidence. In a journal article, Ankita Barthwal and I constructed an ethno-majoritarian index for the Delhi electorate using their responses to election surveys on issues such as the Ram Mandir, Article 370 and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. We found that the average AAP voter was wedged between the BJP voter and the Congress voter in their preference of majoritarian politics.

In other words, the AAP could court voters having majoritarian preferences better than the Congress. This was crucial, as we found that all Hindu caste groups in Delhi (Dalits, OBCs, upper castes) fell on the Right-wing side of the majoritarian scale.

It was not that voters chose the AAP over the BJP for its ideological positions (per the real/counterfeit ideology). The most important predictor for the AAP vote was still benefiting from welfare schemes, but they could only make its welfare appeal salient by muddying the ideological waters and thus largely taking ideology out of the electoral equation.

The ambition of the AAP is no less than to become the Congress of ‘New India’. This entails capturing political space from a declining Congress to emerge as the alternative national pole in the BJP-dominant system. Raghav Chaddha, currently overseeing AAP’s attempt to replace the Congress in Punjab, has emphasised the party messaging that the AAP is the “only alternative” to the BJP’s dominance, not the Congress, which he described as being “on a ventilator”.

This is a long-term project that the party is preparing to fight state by state. Kejriwal has pivoted away from national politics to pour all his energies in these state contests. The party has evidently matured from its youthful brash phase, chastened by the twin decimations of 2014 and 2019.

The Party Knows its Weaknesses

The first phase of this expansion plan is relatively straightforward. The party is focusing on small states with generally a bi-polar competition between the Congress and the BJP. These include Uttarakhand, Goa, and Himachal Pradesh. Punjab is another high-growth state as it is the state with the highest level of anger against the political establishment, across parties – a dream scenario for the AAP.

The AAP understands its limitations, and seeks to play around them. It is organisationally very weak and has no defined social base, both problems exacerbated by its ideological centrism.

Smaller states help the party in overcoming its weaknesses of organisational resources. Bi-polar competition, especially where social bases of the two existing parties largely overlap (such as Delhi and Uttarakhand), helps it skirt the problem of undefined social base. Whereas in a factionalised polity such as Uttar Pradesh, the AAP would struggle to gain a toehold without taking clear positions on ideological issues or making identity-based appeals to specific communities, a bipolar polity facilitates its broad-based appeals of anti-corruption and politics of universal welfare.

In the view of the AAP, the leadership of the Congress has drifted too far from the median voter on ideological issues such as Article 370, whose removal the Congress opposed and the AAP supported. This enables the BJP to deliver poor performance in states such as Uttarakhand, and still be in pole position for the next election, as even dissatisfied right-leaning voters consider voting for the Congress as a bridge too far. In this argument, the AAP provides a middle ground pitch: Right-leaning voters can vote for their populist promises, without compromising on their ideology.

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But AAP's Dilly-Dallying May Soon Catch Up With It

As for anti-BJP voters, such as minorities, the AAP portrays the Congress as too weak to take on the BJP. This worked well at least in Delhi, with almost 70% of Muslim voters choosing the AAP over the Congress, despite the latter’s more supportive stand on the CAA protests.

Thus, the AAP seeks to become the new party of consensus, but it holds political consensus to be a given rather than constructed. The Congress, the original centrist party, believed in shaping the political consensus through moral persuasion as well as its control of political and social institutions.

This is perhaps the key difference between a populist centrist party and one with roots in the political establishment. Rahul Gandhi has framed the fight against the BJP as “a battle of ideas” against the “ideology of hate and anger”. Kejriwal believes in just telling the people what they want to hear, and being silent on what they don’t want to hear.

It has no sentimental attachment to any “idea of India” of the past. In fact, there is perhaps no Indian party as uninterested in ideas (and as unconcerned with any intellectual support) as the AAP.

It no longer pretends to be a party with an alternative politics, just a party with an alternative model of governance, and it hawks the Delhi model of clean governance and universal welfare as aggressively as the BJP marketed the Gujarat model of ‘vikas’ a decade before.

Being unconstrained of any ideological compunctions isn’t without its pitfalls. One, as it expands, the baggage of its conflicting stands in different states might catch up with it (note the courting of Purvanchali migrants in Delhi, and 80 per cent job reservation promises to locals in Uttarakhand and Goa). Two, it is unclear how the party can expand beyond its first phase high-growth states without making hard political choices on contentious issues, and appealing to specific political constituencies. And three, by remaining silent on national issues, and shunning all joint opposition platforms, it might end up ruling itself out as a major player in the next Lok Sabha elections.

But What if the Goal is 2029, Not 2024?

But perhaps the Lok Sabha election that Kejriwal has set his eyes on is not 2024 but 2029. If opinion polls are to be believed, the AAP might relegate the Congress to the second position in Punjab and third position in Goa. Kejriwal is already more popular than Rahul Gandhi in four of the five states going to polls, according to Cvoter surveys.

If the AAP manages to keep up its gradual rise, and the Congress fails to stem its decline, it is well within the realm of possibility that AAP might realise its dream of becoming the second pole of national politics by the turn of the decade.

One might only look at the example of Israel, where a string of centrist and centre-right parties have almost completely displaced the space of Labour, the left-wing party that built modern Israel, as the challenger to the right-wing Likud. Given what the AAP has already achieved in less than a decade of its existence, one wouldn’t put it past the party to deliver a similar coup de grace to the Grand Old Party of India.

(Asim Ali is a political researcher and columnist based in Delhi. He can be reached @AsimAli6. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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