Prime Minister Narendra Modi must watch out. Arvind Kejriwal, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader and Delhi’s Chief Minister, is set to out-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.
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 the papers reported that Nehru had lent his overcoat to Shastri 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.
Today it is outright blasphemous to carry out such speculative caricature. 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, I sense that Modi’s position remains unassailable within his party and across India.
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, with its allies, is arguably the likeliest candidate to do so, its current frailties notwithstanding. It may 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 (RJD) in Bihar—that may rise to the occasion. From time to time, many have entered into negotiations to put up a joint anti-BJP Third Front. Whether their efforts will fructify time alone will tell.
However, the party that perhaps warrants most of our attention governs neither at the national level nor the regional level. Much like hapless Mughal emperor Shah Alam II, the Kejriwal-led AAP 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 twenty 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. What about them, then, demands our attention? Put simply; it is AAP’s new political strategy. Observe their recent actions and it will be abundantly clear that it is out to burglarise the BJP’s time-tested formula of using Hindutva, expressed through an emphasis on nationalism, Hindu history, glorification of the military and, most importantly, cult (i.e., 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 pilgrimage sites, namely, Sitamarhi, Janakpur (Nepal), Varanasi, Prayag, Chitrakoot, Hampi, Nasik, and Rameshwaram, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) 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 a scheme called the Mukhyamantri Tirth Yatra (MTY). Meant exclusively for senior citizens, MTY 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 Shareef. (Even Modi understands the value of projecting one’s image as an inclusive leader. Recall how after his win in the 2019 election, he pledged: sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka 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 into 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 after, 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 who had “two bullets inside his body” the laudatory compliment “braveheart”, Kejriwal promised the people of the state that this ‘Bhole ka fauji’ (warrior of Lord Shiva) and ‘deshbhakt fauji’ (patriotic warrior) alone would “bring change in Uttarakhand”. “When 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 or Indian flag march) with a focus on, yes, Deshbhakti, again. Note 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, “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 the cost of Rs.85 crore (about US $11.5 million).
The latest in Kejriwal-style Hindutva propaganda is the ‘Deshbhakti curriculum’ for government-funded schools in Delhi. On 28 September, Shaheed Bhagat Singh’s birth anniversary, the government of Delhi released a full-page advertisement in the Delhi editions 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 there is nothing path-breaking about the curriculum. It contains what we have studied in “civics” classes since childhood—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 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 AAP may well, for a short time, pose a challenge to the 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 a time in the past. 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.
The author is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, and formerly ICSSR National Fellow and professor of South Asian Studies at JNU. The views are personal.