When the Gujarat government decided to release the 11 prisoners convicted for the gang rape of Bilkis Bano and the murder of her family members in the 2002 post-Godhra riots, the move predictably came in for trenchant criticism from Opposition parties.
Virtually, all of them, including the Congress, the Trinamool Congress, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Left parties, which are not necessarily always on the same page, were one this time in slamming Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Gujarat government for allowing the perpetrators of such a horrific crime to walk free. The convicts had been sentenced to life imprisonment but were released by the state government under its 1992 remission policy. The welcome accorded to the released convicts, who were garlanded and fed sweets on stepping out of prison, further added to the outrage and anger.
While most political rivals of the BJP minced no words in hitting out at it, one political party stood out for its studied silence on this issue. The Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Admi Party (AAP), currently engaged in a bitter battle with the BJP in Delhi over its excise policy, consciously decided not to join the other opposition parties in condemning the Gujarat government’s decision on the release of the rape and murder convicts.
The reasons for AAP’s silence are not far to seek. After upstaging other major political parties in Delhi and Punjab, Kejriwal’s AAP now has its eyes set on Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, which go to the polls later this year.
The AAP has already got a toehold in Gujarat with wins in last year’s local elections and is also hoping to make significant inroads in Himachal Pradesh as it borders Punjab. Kejriwal has been leading a vigorous campaign in both states but he is especially focused on Modi’s fiefdom, Gujarat.
Though his campaign is centred on four guarantees – 300 units of free electricity, better facilities for tribals, jobs for unemployed youths and Rs 1,000 for women above 18 years – it is evident that Kejriwal does not want to alienate the majority Hindu community by wading into the Bilkis Bano debate, which he believes is risky in a communally-sensitive state like Gujarat, having the potential to damage him politically.
For AAP, Silence Isn't New
Now that he has embarked on an ambitious expansion spree, Kejriwal has chosen to adopt the BJP’s template by using religion for political gain. The party has not fought shy of openly playing the Hindu card with the much-publicised visits of Kejriwal and other party leaders to temples, their grand celebration of Hindu festivals and the provision of government funds for pilgrimages. Faced with charges of playing the communal card, the AAP has been at pains to explain that it is not fostering hate against minorities even as it seeks to court Hindus.
But the party’s explanation sounds hollow, for not only has the AAP deliberately chosen not to speak up on issues concerning minorities, but its leaders have also taken to demonising Muslims.
Besides competing with the BJP in wooing Hindus, the AAP is clearly attempting to outdo the saffron party in “othering” the Muslims. Last week, when Union Housing minister Hardeep Puri tweeted that Rohingya refugees would be provided accommodation and police protection, the AAP lost no time in accusing the BJP-led Centre of a conspiracy to settle illegal immigrants in Delhi, with Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia declaring that Rohingya refugees would not be allowed to settle “illegally” in Delhi. Earlier in April, AAP’s elected representatives were not present when Jahangirpuri witnessed communal violence and the homes of poor Muslims were being razed by bulldozers. Instead, the AAP’s seemingly progressive leaders, such as Raghav Chadha and Atishi Marlena, blamed the BJP for encouraging the influx of Bangladeshis and Rohingyas and using them as “pawns in rioting”.
National Alternative or BJP's 'B-Team'?
But then, this is not the first time that Kejriwal has chosen to go down this path. The AAP had endorsed the Centre’s decision to abrogate Article 370 in Kashmir and was conspicuous by its absence when angry demonstrators took to the streets to protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Similarly, AAP leaders were not to be seen or heard when Northeast Delhi was in the grip of ugly riots two years ago, in which 53 persons died and 200 were injured.
Born from the Anna Hazare-led 2011 anti-corruption movement, Kejriwal’s AAP is not ideologically grounded. It came to power with the promise of providing a clean, corruption-free government but has been shifting gears since then.
The campaign against corruption soon gave way to an emphasis on better civic services such as cheaper electricity and improved education infrastructure. The focus here was on reaching out to the poor and the marginalised with the avowed promise that the politics practised by the AAP would be distinct from that of the Congress and the BJP. It’s a different story today.
After a decade in power and with two state governments under his belt, Kejriwal now nurses national ambitions. And in order to compete on the big stage, the AAP chief has chosen to borrow from the BJP’s playbook by melding its message of good governance with a majoritarian agenda. Only time will tell whether the AAP’s soft Hindutva will improve its electoral prospects or whether it will be dismissed disdainfully as the BJP’s ‘B-team’.
(The writer is a senior Delhi-based journalist. She can be reached at @anitaakat. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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