The Aam Aadmi Party has, once again, swept Delhi – just months after the Bharatiya Janata Party won all of the capital’s seven seats. For many, this victory will come as a relief. Urban India has seen sustained and energetic protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, and the epicentre of these has been Delhi and Shaheen Bagh. That the BJP has been defeated here is therefore of national importance, especially as the party and its leaders sought to turn this into a quasi-referendum on Shaheen Bagh.
It would be tempting to see this result as a cutting rebuke to the style and tone of the BJP’s campaign. The days of the BJP selling itself as the party of governance are long gone, on the trash heap alongside its actual governance record. Instead, the Delhi campaign has been about everything but governance – unless traffic management problems caused by the Shaheen Bagh protests count as governance issue. The party and its leadership centred their appeal for votes on their true and unmistakable agenda: the demonisation of India’s Muslim minority and the identification of Indians of Muslim background with Pakistan. Even the party’s own partisans agree on the nature and theme of the campaign.
Thus I suppose some liberal triumphalism was inevitable, but it should be roundly rejected. It might feel wonderful to declare that this was the voter in Delhi rejecting divisiveness and declaring her disagreement with what the BJP had to say, but that would be a brazen misinterpretation of what has actually happened. In fact, the BJP won the argument. It simply did not win the election. The AAP has not disagreed with the BJP on the themes or substance of its critique of Shaheen Bagh, of the anti-CAA protests, and so on. Arvind Kejriwal himself complained the problem with the CAA was that Indians themselves were not getting jobs. He also declared that if given a free hand, he would clear Shaheen Bagh in a couple of hours, and that nobody had the right to block traffic indefinitely. Quite amazing hypocrisy from a man who rose to power on a record consisting solely of pointless, fruitless, and interminable protest. If the BJP’s campaign has been one of open malice, the AAP’s campaign has been no less damaging to India’s soul. This is a victory of not just cowardice, but of submission to the BJP’s core values.
There are those who think politics should only be about schools, and they might wish to rejoice over the AAP’s victory. But politics, especially in India has always also been about more than that – and doubly so in Modi’s times. There are those like Kejriwal, who seek to turn the conversation away from those aspects of the Modi agenda – Kashmir, the essential Hindu-ness of India, and so on – with which they have no dispute. The famous answer that Kejriwal gave a television anchor probing him about Shaheen Bagh was indeed revelatory – but it hardly deserved the plaudits it received. He said this was all a “distraction”. A distraction? Fighting to preserve what remains of India’s constitutional values is a “distraction”? Kejriwal ran away from power once; now, to keep power, he is running away from the issues.
Let us give the Aam Aadmi Party the benefit of doubt they do not deserve and assume that they have merely chosen a politics of cynicism and cowardice. Certainly, in spite of a record filled with such answers, it is possible that the Delhi Chief Minister himself genuinely disagrees, personally, with the RSS’ view of the world. The best we can then say is that he believes this disagreement is not worth pursuing politically.
Is he right? Leaders like Modi understand that politics is about the creation and contestation of ideas, ideologies, and identities as much as it is about bijli-sadak-paani. But Kejriwal wants to fight only on the latter – and even there he doesn’t have sadaks, given that Delhi’s voters decided the AAP couldn’t be trusted with the municipal corporation.
In some ways Kejriwal has always been the purest expression of the middle class Indian’s id. Middle class India’s idea of a perfect politician has always been some sort of Singaporean technocrat who focuses on material outcomes without doing any actual politics. Kejriwal fits right in. I used to think, once, that in the end it would be street protestors like Kejriwal who would lead the opposition to Modi while traditional politicians would roll over and play dead. But clearly I was wrong. Because Kejriwal seems to have no problem with a future in which all of India’s children learn the RSS’ values and its preferred history in school – as long as the school is nicely painted and air-conditioned.
The fact is that through protests like Shaheen Bagh and through election campaigns, political identities are born. Narendra Modi, the paramount politician of our times, understands this; he created the aggressive BJP of the 21st century not thanks to his handling of the 2002 riots, but through how he conducted the election campaign that followed. Kejriwal sought to win by avoiding the tough questions; Modi triumphed by embracing them. That is how you create a public, and that is how you change minds. There is an entire group of commentators and politicians who think that only by avoiding discussion of the real questions that Modi asks of the idea of India can he be defeated. Not only is that wrong, but even if it were to happen, defeating a politician without repudiating the ideas he represents is pointless.
The Aam Aadmi Party is not a national contender to replace Modi, nor should we welcome it becoming one as long as it does not seek to contest Modi’s vision for India. It is a regional party of a relatively small state – and, by the standards of regional parties, a relatively meek one. It has not spoken up in defence of federalism like the DMK. It has not run rallies in support of constitutional values and citizenship rights, like the Trinamool. It has not said a word for free speech, which even the new Shiv Sena has. So, yes, it is good news that the BJP’s vile campaign has not been rewarded with victory. But let nobody think that the Aam Aadmi Party is here to stand up against hate.
(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)
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