Prime Minister Narendra Modi must watch out. Arvind Kejriwal, the Aam Aadmi Party leader and Delhi’s Chief Minister, is all set to out-BJP the BJP. He is cloning all its election-tested strategies. Since many Indian states will have their assembly elections before the general election of 2024, which will decide whether Modi gets a third term, one cannot help but wonder how effective Kejriwal’s cloning operation will turn out to be.
When I was in school, decades ago, an often-discussed question was: After Nehru, who? It was common to hear in response that his most likely successor was Lal Bahadur Shastri. When it was reported that Nehru had lent his overcoat to Shastri for use during one of his critical Nepal visits, it was quickly interpreted as the proverbial straw in the wind.
My adolescent curiosity, however, was directed in a different direction. Would the overcoat not be too large for the diminutive Shastri, I wondered? Oversized coats notwithstanding, Shastri did indeed succeed Nehru.
After Modi, Who?
Today, it is outright blasphemous to carry out such speculative caricature today. But whisper it quietly, we must. After Modi, who? Although some surveys talk about his fading charisma and, correspondingly, the growing popularity of the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, my sense is that Modi’s position remains unassailable both within his party and across India at large.
If not the man, then what of the party? Is there any other political party, or coalition of parties, that can dislodge the BJP from power in 2024? India’s grand old party, the Indian National Congress, along with its allies, is arguably the likeliest candidate to do so, its current frailties notwithstanding. It may well be that 2024 will be a repeat of 2004. Much as Atal Behari Vajpayee’s “India shining” slogan failed miserably then, so too might Modi’s “new India” slogan flop three years from now.
Besides the Congress, there are a handful of regional heavyweights – the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar – that may rise to the occasion. Many of them have from time to time entered into negotiations to put up a joint anti-BJP Third Front. Whether their efforts will fructify time alone will tell.
The party that perhaps warrants most of our attention, however, governs neither at the national level nor the regional level. Much like the hapless Mughal emperor, Shah Alam II, the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party’s rule extends only until Palam (the suburb home to Delhi’s international airport).
Although Delhi is the capital of the nation and has well over 20 million citizens, it remains a semi-state within India’s federal structure. Not surprisingly, therefore, AAP’s political base is still very small. Its attempts to expand into other states, most prominently Uttarakhand, Goa and Punjab, have thus far met with mixed success and are, in any case, long haul projects.
New Political Strategy
To put it simply, it is AAP’s new political strategy. Observe their recent actions and it is abundantly clear that they are out to burglarise BJP’s time-tested formula of using Hindutva, as expressed through an emphasis on nationalism, Hindu history, glorification of the military, and, most importantly, cult (ie Modi) worship. Kejriwal wants to pursue exactly the same strategy.
In response to BJP’s pro-Hindu innovation in flagging off the Shri Ramayana Express which would transport Hindu pilgrims from Delhi to many Ram-related pilgrim places, namely, Sitamarhi, Janakpur (Nepal), Varanasi, Prayag, Chitrakoot, Hampi, Nasik, and Rameshwaram, the Aam Admi Party government of Delhi responded by a secular, but religion-loaded, blitzkrieg. To placate all religions across the board, Delhi’s Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, launched the Mukhyamantri Tirth Yatra. Meant exclusively for senior citizens, the Yatra offered participants the opportunity to visit a panoply of sites important to Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs.
These included the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the India-Pakistan border at Wagah, Anandpur Sahib gurudwara, Vaishnodevi, Mathura, Vrindavan, Haridwar, Rishikesh, Nilkanth, Pushkar, and Ajmer Sharif. (Parenthetically, even Modi understands the value of projecting one’s image as an inclusive leader. One may recall how after his win in the 2019 election, he pledged: sab ka sath, sab ka vikas, sab ka vishwas, meaning, together with everyone, with progress for all, and with everyone’s trust.)
Three days before the 2020 Delhi Assembly election, when the Modi government announced the formation of a trust for the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya, Kejriwal remarked: “There is no right time for good work.” By identifying himself with the Ram temple project, he neutralised any possible detractors. No longer could they point to his stance on the temple to declare him anti-Hindu, which in the India of today is tantamount to calling someone a traitor.
As part of a bid to expand his electoral turf in Gujarat, Kejriwal inaugurated the AAP’s entry in the state by cleverly seeking the blessings of Lord Krishna in an Ahmedabad temple. Lord Krishna is the most popular deity in the state. Shortly thereafter, in end-August, he added deshbhakti (patriotism/nationalism) to his Hindutva kitty, when he chose retired colonel Ajay Kothiyal as his party’s chief ministerial face in Uttarakhand.
By bestowing upon the colonel the laudatory compliment “brave heart,” who had “two bullets inside his body,” Kejriwal promised the people of the state that it was this “Bhole Ka Fauji” (warrior of Lord Shiva) and “Deshbhakt fauji” (patriotic warrior) who alone would “bring a change in Uttarakhand.” “When the politicians were busy looting the people of Uttarakhand, Retd Col Ajay Kothiyal was facing bullets on the border to protect the people of Uttarakhand,” Kejriwal thundered.
Having made the connection between patriotism and the Hindu religiosity of the people of Uttarakhand explicit, Kejriwal quickly set about selling the same patriotism-infused narrative in Uttar Pradesh.
Led by Manish Sisodia, the Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi, and Sanjay Singh, a Rajya Sabha member of the party, AAP initiated the Tiranga Yatra (the tri-colour march) with a focus on Deshbhakti, once again. Let it be noted that the march is supposed to culminate at the Ram temple at Ayodhya, though this decision is on hold for the time being.
True to his style of combining religion and politics into an irresistible brew, while not abandoning secularism altogether, Kejriwal said, inter alia: “But the politics of work will have to be peppered with our definition of nationalism and religiosity that does not involve hating or hurting others.” Witness the AAP government decision to install 500 high-mast Tricolours across Delhi at a cost of 85 crore rupees (about $11.5 million).
The latest in Kejriwal-style Hindutva propaganda is the “Deshbhakti Curriculum” for government funded schools in Delhi. On September 28, on the occasion of Shaheed Bhagat Singh’s birth anniversary, the government of Delhi put up a full page advertisement in the Delhi edition of all leading English and Hindi dailies to announce the curriculum with immediate effect. In the advertisement, a beaming photo of Kejriwal declares: “Now every child will learn patriotism. Now every child will become a true patriot.”
Closer scrutiny shows us that there is nothing path breaking about the curriculum. It contains that which we have studied in civics classes since childhood – that our constitution is the source of our civic values. Were we not told all along that our duty to the nation does not end with hoisting the national flag on Independence and Republic days, but is instead a lifelong commitment?
Does it require a special curriculum, that too an informal and self-assessed one, to tell everyone that they should behave well in society? If we as a society have stooped so low that these basics of life now need to be taught through a structured curriculum, then perhaps – to invoke a Hindu framework – it is time for Vishnu to descend in his next avatar and rescue us all.
Through this exercise in cynical plagiarism, the Aam Aadmi Party may well for a short time pose a challenge to BJP. But if human wisdom is any guide, the market for counterfeit gold is rarely sustainable. When the original metal is available, why should anyone lust after the imitation?
To defeat the BJP a clear alternative has to be presented to the electorate. Only then will they be willing to switch allegiances, as they have done many times in the past. Arvind Kejriwal’s antics thus far demonstrate an imagination bereft of the ability to offer a viable alternative. If the AAP under him continues down this path, they will end up as the BJP’s B-Team.
Partha S Ghosh is Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.
This article first appeared in Dhaka Tribune.