In Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal’s ‘suitable secularism’ trumped secularism of old

It's a crafty scheme to take on the polarised politics of Hindutva vs secularism.

WrittenBy:Vrinda Gopinath
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Are liberal-secular bhakts suddenly feeling left out in the secular-communal debate? Since the Aam Aadmi Party’s spectacular election victory in Delhi, led by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his band of citizen-legislators, there’s a sense of acute disbelief among a section of the liberal commentariat at the utter disregard shown by AAP and its leaders for the “noble” principle of secularism.

It seems Kejriwal has completely blown away this liberal’s idea of secularism that has defined the country’s politics so far, and instead brought in his own “suitable secularism” which, to the liberal’s horror, has junked their bargain-basement variety of secular politics for its reduced worth and faulty quality in the electoral arena.

The lament of this liberal-secularist against Kejriwal is unambiguous: that AAP has refused to take sides in the secular-communal binary of electoral politics, the most compelling credo of the liberal-secualarist in recent times. Kejriwal has been accused of playing, craftily, the majoritarian game of the Hindutva variety by default – from refusing to acknowledge the Shaheen Bagh protest, where an incredible group of Muslim women have kept a vigil on the street for the past two months protesting police violence against their children in nearby Jamia Millia Islamia University and the Citizenship Amendment Act, which slyly threatens to disenfranchise the community, to AAP’s own ambivalent stand on the CAA.

Its critics have decried the party’s steadfast refusal to be drawn into any discussion on the CAA during the campaign to avoid the tag of being pro-Muslim which the BJP, its main electoral opponent, would have gleefully pinned on AAP.

Then there was Kejriwal’s unwavering support to the Narendra Modi government on the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir last year (perhaps because he was keeping a beady eye on the then impending Delhi polls); his refusal to meet the students of Jamia and JNU who had been brutally attacked by police and unidentified hoodlums even as he criticized the stone-throwing and the burning of buses during protests against the CAA. Most significantly, Kejriwal astounded secular-liberals when he proudly called himself a Hanuman bhakt and proceeded to chant the Hanuman chalisa during an interview to a television news network on the eve of the election.

For the critics, Kejriwal has trumped constitutional secularism and gone for speedy politics instead – he merely shrugs at Hindutva nationalism, doesn’t challenge it in any way, and wears a cloak of Hindutva nationalism and jingoism to be electorally competitive. Even in AAP’s victory against the BJP, say the pundits, AAP has not challenged the ideological template of the RSS-BJP; it’s trapped in the political framework built by the BJP. In fact, according to one commentator, the BJP may have lost the election but it won the argument as AAP’s victory was a submission to the BJP’s core values.

Most opinionators agree that AAP won’t rock the ideological boat of the BJP-RSS, and that this new kind of majoritarian politics can become the template for winning future elections.

Now, the liberal-secular’s anxiety and disappointment with Kejriwal is not unfounded if one goes by the script that has always played out in the past, more so since Narendra Modi strode onto the national stage. This script presents the electoral game as a contest between secular and communal politics.

This new, sharpened communal politics has demonised the Muslim community more than any other minority group. In this politics, “Hinduness” is directly proportional to hatred for Muslims. The more “Hindu” a person is, the more invisible the Muslim. For the secular-liberal, it was pertinent to always acknowledge the Muslim in this situation. Kejriwal’s crime, according to them, is that he decidedly looked the other way.

But in the secular-communal rubric of electoral politics, you are setting up the other for definite failure. And in the godly-religious sweepstakes, there are no prizes for guessing who the winner is – the RSS-BJP. As the Congress party has discovered to its utter shock, its feeble, duplicitous and dishonest secularism simply crumbled in the face of a masochistic, virile and strident communal and divisive agenda of the RSS-BJP.

In an ideal world, the staunch upholders of the constitution’s definition of secularism should have won the day but it was doomed to fail in the face of the RSS-BJP’s potent mix of Hindutva nationalism, Hindu supremacism and jingoism. The reason is clear to see – none of the institutions that hold up democracy, from the media to judiciary to Parliament, have been able to withstand the onslaught of the absolutism and tyranny of Hindutva nationalism.

Take the media, and imagine what would have happened had Kejriwal fallen for the BJP’s desperate attempt to polarize the election.

How did the RSS-BJP try to ensnare Kejriwal? First, BJP ministers and legislators baited AAP with decidedly false, communal and provocative statements against Muslims – from union minister Anurag Thakur’s bloodlust prodding in his campaign speeches asking for the killing of traitors (read Muslims protesting in universities and cities) to BJP MP Parvesh Sahib Singh Verma who whipped up terrors of Shaheen Bagh protesters entering homes to rape sisters and daughters. The prime minister himself said those who cause violence can be identified by their clothes, alluding to Muslims, and Home Minister Amit Shah set the tone when he said Kejriwal and Imran Khan spoke the same language.

Then came two gunmen, as if on cue, one near Jamia, where one student was shot at, and the other at Shaheen Bagh, threatening to make the peaceful demonstrations perilous and dangerous for the protesters.

In this situation, if Kejriwal had leapt in, the media would have gleefully labelled both sides with lurid and goading hashtags – from anti-national, traitor, betrayer, terrorist, jihadist, Pakistan sympathizer, Muslim appeaser to Hindu defender, guardian, patriot, true nationalist and such like. No prizes for guessing who would have been pinned down by these invectives lobbed by the biased media – none other than Kejriwal.

In a free and fair media world, Kejriwal could have reached out to Shaheen Bagh, CAA protesters, and Jamia and JNU students without being painted as a Pakistani terrorist out to smash his country to bits. Remember the taunt of “tukde tukde gang”? But with a decidedly polarised media, can Kejriwal even dream of an impartial and honest reportage, that too in the face of fake news and the swarm of social media trolls? It was certainly judicious on Kejriwal’s part to engage with the RSS-BJP on his terms rather than on their devious communal agenda.

Meanwhile, the courts and the Election Commission remained sanguine even as the RSS-BJP’s divisive hate election campaign hit the Richter scale in acrimony and bigotry against Muslims. Acting on a complaint against hate speeches, a metropolitan magistrate asked the Delhi police’s Crime Branch to look into the remarks of Anurag Thakur and Parvesh Verma. The report is yet to be filed.

The EC barred both Thakur and Verma from campaigning for three and four days respectively. However, the order didn’t ban them completely, except stating that the expenditure incurred on their campaigns would be borne by the candidates themselves. The EC also gave a clean chit to Modi for making a statement in Parliament, in the midst of the campaign, about the formation of a trust to build the contentious Ram Temple in Ayodhya, on the site of the Babri Masjid destroyed by Hindutva marauders. It could have appealed to Hindutva voters.

The Modi government had even unleashed the Enforcement Directorate to vitiate the atmosphere.

In the face of such contempt and disrespect for constitutional propriety and institutions, and the dishonesty and falsehoods that dominated the Delhi campaign, it would be fair to say Kejriwal was canny and astute to have avoided being pulled into the RSS-BJP’s vitriolic and loathsome electoral fight.

It is not that secularism lost, but dexterity won.

It’s also time that Kejriwal visited Shaheen Bagh.


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