Is Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal’s massive victory in Delhi elections this week a cause for celebration for those who oppose the Bharatiya Janata Party’s religiously polarising, majoritarian politics? Or is it proof that the BJP’s ideology has won, even if the party itself was roundly defeated?

Ever since AAP won a whopping 62 seats to the BJP’s eight in the 70-member Delhi Assembly, opinion pages in print and online have carried reams of commentary on the issue.

Some of this is the result of Delhi being the nation’s capital and hence over-covered by the media – after all, the BJP was also handily defeated in Jharkhand barely two months ago. But these were also the first proper elections since the BJP passed amendments to India’s citizenship laws that many fear are the first steps of an effort to turn the country into a religious state.

For every piece on how Kejriwal’s massive victory over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party might be emulated by others or give him a bigger national presence, there was another saying AAP only won by not contesting the BJP’s politics:

The debate is a classic one.

Should parties going up against the BJP attack Hindutva – Hindu nationalism – head on? Or should they avoid a direct clash, and instead co-opt elements of the BJP’s campaigns in an attempt to endear themselves to the electorate that has given the Hindutva party two massive national mandates in the last five years?

The Aam Aadmi Party picked the latter option, and won handily.

“It has polled almost 54% of the popular vote, similar to what it had in 2015, winning 62 out of 70 assembly constituencies,” wrote Roshan Kishore in the Hindustan Times. “In no major Indian state has a party managed to get re-elected with more than 50% vote share both times.”

Of course, election campaigns can’t be reduced to simple binaries. AAP Member of Legislative Assembly Amanatullah Khan was at the forefront of the Citizenship Act protest at New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh picked up a massive 66% of the votes in that constituency.

Kejriwal himself opposed the Citizenship Act amendments. And Manish Sisodia, the Number 2 in the AAP-led Delhi government, said that he stands with the people of Shaheen Bagh, the site of an “Occupy” style protest led by women over the last two months that has become a symbol of the nation-wide movement against the discriminatory law.

Voters stand in a queue as they wait to cast their vote outside a polling booth during the state assembly election, in Shaheen Bagh on New Delhi February 8. Credit: Reuters

Yet as the Bharatiya Janata Party upped the pitch on the Citizenship Act amendments, calling all those who opposed them “anti-national”, the AAP campaign tried harder to avoid it. Kejriwal first described the matter as a distraction, then asked why the Union Home Minister had not cleared the road where the protest was taking place, since he is the official to whom the Delhi police reports.

He added that, if his government had control over the police, “we would have cleared the area within two hours.” The comment prompted much reaction, not least because Kejriwal’s party itself emerged out of a protest movement.

Beyond the Citizenship Act amendments, the Aam Aadmi Party and its support base hardly have a neat overlap with the kinds of people who have taken to the streets over the past two months. Kejriwal toed the government line on Jammu and Kashmir being stripped of its autonomy and welcomed the Supreme Court’s extremely flawed judgment on the Ram temple in Ayodhya. As Supriya Sharma reported, a large section of AAP’s voters in this election also picked Modi in 2019, and see no contradiction between the two.

Many will also point to the rather public display of being Hindu that Kejriwal resorted towards the end of the campaign, as the BJP worked harder to link him to the Shaheen Bagh protests, which in the language of right-wing television channels has become an Islamist anti-Indian event. Kejriwal agreed to recite a popular Hindu chant in a news interview and his party’s rallies have started to feature “Bharat Mata ki Jai” (Long live Mother India), a slogan more associated with the right than “Jai Hind”.

“Nobody should grudge Kejriwal or any other political leader a personal space to hold and practice her religious and spiritual beliefs,” wrote political scientist Suhas Palshikar in the Indian Express. “But by making that into a public virtue, are we not implicitly shifting the criteria of both a public worker and the public sphere? This insistence of holding your faith on your shirtsleeves characterises the BJP’s Hindutva.”

Even former BJP president and Union Home Minister Amit Shah made this point. Though this may well be a post-facto explanation for an embarrassing electoral loss, Shah in his first interview after the results said that the party fights not just for its own victories but for that of its ideology too.

Not everyone agrees that the BJP ideology did indeed win.

For starters, the nature of Hindutva is complex. The BJP has successfully reclaimed the once-problematic ideology, known for advocating rape as a political tool, and to many people outside academia the term now just refers to someone who is Hindu and in politics.

Yet, India has a long legacy of politicians who are upfront about their religiosity – and for major public leaders that is almost always Hinduism – without necessarily veering into the Hindu nationalist territory that is Hindutva.

Then there is the idea that Kejriwal, by not taking the BJP’s ideology head on, is allowing the Hindutva party to shape the contours of the debate. Except one could argue the debate has already been shaped: the BJP won a huge mandate in the 2014 general elections, won even more seats and votes in 2019 and in Delhi, picked up more than half of all votes in the general poll.

AAP knew that if it had to win, it would have to draw in BJP voters.

Indeed, when the party was asked why it did not make common cause with the protests against police violence on students of Jamia Islamia or Jawaharlal Nehru University, its leaders were quite honest.

“If we protest, we are called Urban Naxals. And if we don’t, people question our absence,” said AAP leader Sanjay Singh in an interview. “If Kejriwal had joined the protests even by mistake, the BJP would have incited big riots and then put all the blame on him.”

A police officer breaks the windshield of a tempo during a protest against the Citizenship Act in Seelampur, Delhi, on December 17. Credit: Reuters,

Law and order in Delhi is controlled by the Union Government led by the BJP, so even if AAP wanted to do more, it would have been hamstrung. Instead it kept its talking points simple – governance and welfare – and focused on getting to the date of voting without falling into the BJP’s rhetorical traps.

At a time when being in charge of a state might be the most powerful way to push back against the Hindutva ideology built into the Citizenship Act amendments, this focus on winning votes and not the rhetorical argument need not be considered cynical.

“Focusing on denouncing polarising propaganda is noble but it can also have the opposite effect of entrenching it and forcing even fence sitters to take defensive positions,” writes Pragya Tiwari in the Quint.

“Winning the argument might seem crucial to those largely unaffected by ground realities but to the ordinary citizen in harm’s way, there is much more solace in keeping power out of the hands of those who are certain to misuse it against them.”

This is a familiar concern for India’s Muslims, who have often had no choice but to pick the hollow, pandering secularism of the Congress since it was often the only way to prevent the blatant Islamophobia of the BJP from winning out.

Hindu nationalists call this the “Muslim veto”: the idea that Muslims have been able to keep the BJP out of power in many places because they vote as a block and have the numbers to matter. In the last decade, the BJP has worked to build an opposing pan-Hindu votebank that can counter this “veto” by simply turning all Muslims into the villains to vote against.

With the “veto”, the BJP sees an impediment standing in the way of its political aspirations, but for Muslims it is also politically restrictive – forcing them to pick the other side only because that is the party not trying to take away their rights or, in the current moment, their citizenship.

“The Muslim vote is actually the easiest to win,” one protester at Shaheen Bagh told an Indian Express reporter after results were announced. “No one has done anything for us. We’ll vote for anyone who says they care about us.”

The Congress and its many allies would often ask for votes specifically on this platform – to protect India against “communal forces”. And indeed, though some in the Congress will be much more vocal about the fight against the BJP’s exclusionary politics, the party can easily also be accused of soft Hindutva.

AAP’s technocratic language takes a different approach.

Though this may be different at the individual leader level, as a party it rarely tries to advertise its secularism or defence against communal forces. Instead, its promise of development and subsidies for all mirrors Modi’s “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas” (development for all) line, but it does so without the underlying Islamophobia that pervades the BJP.

As it stands, AAP – a young party born out of a movement that meant many things to many people – is seen as an alternative to these old narratives. One that Delhi’s Muslims and a huge number of Hindus, voted for in droves.

“If there is one message behind AAP’s victory in these elections,” wrote Roshan Kishore in the Hindustan Times, “it is that the only way to effectively counter the BJP is to offer a better welfare narrative than what the BJP has rather than taking on its Hindutva ideological narrative head-on”

Of course, at one time the Congress’ secularism was not just pandering – and the knowledge that AAP may, from now on, always get Muslim votes in Delhi could eventually lead its leaders to treat the community cynically as well.

But, as Jyoti Punwani writes in Rediff, the hope is that Kejriwal offers something different, far from the debates over whether AAP should be directly attacking Hindutva or not:

“For many intellectuals, the CAA-NRC protests are all about Muslim identity.

Yet, the epicentre and role model for these protests, Shaheen Bagh, seems to have exercised the power of the vote fully in favour of the man who refuses to talk about their religious identity.


In a Delhi Muslim Whatsapp group, in response to a comment that ‘Muslims mean nothing to Kejriwal’, came a rejoinder: He has built hundreds of classrooms for Muslims, he’s given electricity free to thousands of Muslims... ‘But he’s done so for Hindus too’, was the response.

That’s precisely it, came the rejoinder. He has given you exactly what he has given the majority community.”