Grouse Questionnaire: An imagined interview with the AAP on its soft Hindutva strategies

It’s time to see opposition leaders and parties for what they really are.

WrittenBy:Vrinda Gopinath
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Now, who would imagine that opposition parties and not the BJP-NDA government led by prime minister Narendra Modi would be put through the wringer by the mainstream media?

The public flogging and whipping has been incessant, even as primetime anchors and reporters, especially on television networks, jeer and castigate opposition leaders and parties, berating them for the ruin and wreckage of the country. From the constitution to the economy, from gender to minorities – the list has been endless.

Yet, opposition parties, especially state regional parties, have tripped up the Modi government several times. It began with the Aam Aadmi Party’s stunning victory in Delhi in February 2015, barely seven months after Modi strode to power in May 2014. Only a few months ago, he was bested by AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal’s favourite mentor – “Didi” Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress – in the West Bengal state assembly poll held in April this year, who not only decisively outsmarted the powerful Modi-Amit Shah duo but ambushed them, despite their money, muscle and state power.

So, it’s time to see opposition parties and leaders for what they really are. And what better than the truth serum boosting Proust questionnaire – though Modi and his cohorts would like to call it the Grouse questionnaire – to put energetic and searing questions to these parties or leaders and, hold your breath, also give the answers, based truthfully on their ideas, motives, strategies and dealings.

Call it trans journalism, where the borders of traditional journalism are crossed, to scrutinise, explore and reveal the Other Side. And who better to begin with than the first Modi slayer: the Aam Aadmi Party.

Is the RSS-BJP so terrified of AAP’s Desh ke Mentor programme that there was a raid on its first appointee, actor and philanthropist Sonu Sood?

No, not in the least. However, an IT, ED and CBI raid is only part of the Modi government’s toolkit to harass opposition leaders and celebs if they dare go to the other side. And the raids are so blatant and overt that it’s even become predictable whenever someone moves against the BJP. “You are opposed to us, you are raided” seems to be the Modi-Shah mantra.

But the AAP seems to be yapping at the heels of the RSS-BJP with its deliberate Hindu religious symbolism, utterances and outreach?

Yes, the AAP has been accused by its political rivals of being the B Team of the RSS-BJP with its overtly Hindu utterances. Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has never hesitated to declare to the world that he’s a Hanuman bhakt and a Ram bhakt, that too just days before the Delhi state election was to be held on February 8 last year.

He had burst into reciting the Hanuman chalisa when challenged to prove his Hinduness; the AAP government called its Delhi state budget a “deshbhakti” budget; Kejriwal also pledged to sponsor trips for free for all senior citizens to Ayodhya when the Ram temple is built, even as deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia and the AAP state in-charge of Uttar Pradesh flagged off their election campaign in the state from Ayodhya last week.

Why is the AAP playing Hindu politics when it was voted with a glorious victory on governance alone in the Delhi state election of February last year?

Now, the AAP would have won on good governance and delivery of cheap electricity, water, good education and healthcare – kaam ki rajniti, as Kejriwal calls it – and the party did win a stupendous third victory yet again with 62 seats out of 70. But it was down from its earlier tally of a stunning 67 seats in the last state election of 2015.

It was not a major fall. But to the party’s alarm, as it sat down for a post-election brainstorming session, it was discovered that though the vote share of the AAP had barely come down by less than one percent from 54.3 percent in 2015 to 53.6 percent, the BJP’s vote share had shot up by six percent from 32.5 percent in 2015 to 38.4 percent in February.

The reason was clear to see: the BJP’s outright and illicit campaign of communalism and anti-Muslim rhetoric – which began two months before the poll in December 2019, soon after the the murderous police attack on protesting students at Jamia Millia Islamia University, then demonising the Shaheen Bagh protest by mothers and women against the attack on students and the CAA, the attack on JNU students by unidentified assailants on campus – all saw the BJP climb in the popular sweepstakes among a section of Hindu voters - the blood thirsty kind.

The AAP concluded that in an emotionally pitched religious, communal campaign, a chunk of the Hindu vote sways towards the BJP.

The AAP still retained its vote share despite the Hindutva emotional campaign by BJP’s top dogs, from Modi to Shah to others, so why play the Hindu card?

Yes, but as the AAP’s daily election survey and constituency monitoring from December showed, in the run up to the February 2020 poll, the BJP was climbing in vote share day by day with its communal, anti-Muslim utterances, even though the BJP had begun with a negligible vote share.

So, it was decided by AAP strategists that the party will not be lured into the anti-communal rhetoric of the BJP. The AAP studiously stayed away from communal hotspots during the campaign, from sidestepping and supporting or showing empathy for Jamia students to protesting against the BJP’s attack on peaceful Shaheen Bagh supporters.

But next time, who knows? Voters may get swayed by emotions if the communal campaign begins even earlier rather than two months alone.

So, are the AAP’s Hindu utterances about election strategy alone?

Seems like it because the AAP surprised everyone, especially the liberal, secular troopers amongst its followers and watchers, when it supported the Modi government’s bills in Parliament, abolishing triple talaq ostensibly to protect Muslim women, and the abrogation of Article 370 which bifurcated Jammu and Kashmir into union territories after removing its special status.

The move came soon after the AAP’s dismal performance in the general election of May 2019. It seems in the face of Modi and his communal campaign – post Balakot in the run up to the general election in 2019 – AAP had slid down to nothing.

It must be said here that the AAP’s support to the snatching away of J&K’s special status by the Modi government was stunningly ironic as Kejriwal has shouted from the rooftops for Delhi’s similar lack of autonomy in governance and law and order.

Will the AAP succeed in wooing the Hindu vote?

The AAP is very clear that to win the election outside Delhi, it is crucial to go beyond the liberal, secular bloc and woo the Hindu voter who is with the BJP. Also, just getting the withering Congress vote is not enough too.

In Delhi, what also worked for the AAP beyond its development platform is that both the BJP and Congress are in shambles in the state, without a party structure or leaders. Kejriwal, the AAP face, was the sure winner.

That's not necessarily the situation, say, in Uttar Pradesh, where chief minister Adityanath is the paramount and commanding face in the state. It's a huge challenge unlike Delhi.

Is AAP’s Uttar Pradesh’s election campaign then to be held in February-March next year, launched from Ayodhya, endorsing its Hindu identity campaign, challenging Adityanath's Hindutva?

Yes, the AAP’s Tiranga Yatra that set off its election campaign in UP, in the temple town of Ayodhya, earlier this week had party heavies Manish Sisodia and state in-charge Sanjay Singh offering prayers at the Ram Janmabhoomi temple and the Hanuman Garhi temple, besides meeting several important seers before holding a rally for supporters.

Can AAP beat the RSS-BJP in its own game with Hindutva upmanship, that too in the communally heightened state of UP?

Sisodia and Singh have made it a point to underline AAP’s Hindu sentiment strategy and, more importantly, to differentiate it from the RSS-BJP Hindutva stop shop. The difference is clear, as they assert everywhere: Ram Rajya is the best form of governance, they chorus, but AAP will govern on the “true ideals” given by “Lord Ram” of inclusivity, communal harmony and brotherhood without differences of caste, creed and religion, while clearly highlighting the RSS-BJP version of Ram Rajya of divisiveness, hostility and exclusivity.

The leaders also equated Ram Rajya with true nationalism, calling RSS-BJP fake nationalists. While the youth chant “Vande Mataram”, they also cry “Inquilab Zindabad”, the leaders pointed out, and true nationalism also means AAP’s credo of good education, good health system, employment opportunities, and a safe society where criminals will not roam free. They also started a rally in Ayodhya's twin town of Faizabad from the 18th century mausoleum of Nawab Shujauddalulah to Gandhi Park.

The AAP’s Hindu outreach is not the RSS-BJP’s bargain basement Hindutva brand then?

It’s underlining its difference, but one size does not fit all. In Punjab, for instance, which is also going to poll at the same time, the AAP is being seen as a frontrunner but without an absolute majority as poll surveys are showing. But the party will not be using the Hindu mantra there to such an acute degree. However, it has to shed its ultra Sikh extremist image, in fact, it lost considerable seats in the last state election, because it was attacked as a pro-Khalistani party by its rivals.

In Gujarat, where the state election will be held in December 2022, the AAP wants to set off its campaign from Surat, where it won 27 out of the 120 seats in the municipal election – the party will also contest all 182 seats. AAP is also campaigning with its development mantra of free bijli, paani, health and education, just as they succeeded in Delhi. However, it will be a daunting task as the AAP, which had contested 27 seats in the last 2017 election, not only lost all seats but also its security deposit.

Similarly, in Goa too, which goes to poll early next year, AAP saw 38 of its 39 candidates lose their deposits in the last election. In both states, which are traditionally bi-polar, the contest being between BJP and Congress, the AAP will have to be artful to break in with any success. Uttarakhand is another state where the AAP hopes to make a debut.

Will AAP trip over to the dark side by playing the Hindu game in its quest for electoral success?

Perhaps party leaders can learn lessons of caution from the late Rajiv Gandhi’s flirtation with fundamentalists from both sides: by overturning the Supreme Court’s decision for maintenance to divorced Muslim women in the Shah Bano case; and wooing Hindutva hardliners when he opened the locks of the destroyed Babri Masjid and permitted the shilanyas puja (foundation laying ceremony) later of a new Ram temple in Ayodhya. Look where it has landed the Congress: a split personality, schizoid secular Hindutva party.

AAP’s mantra: My Ram Rajya and my nationalism is the real one, of communal harmony and inclusive development. The RSS-BJP’s is fake, hateful and divisive.

If AAP can convince the public with its righteousness then perhaps it will never have to shy away from taking up terrorising, communal minority issues in a majoritarian Hindutva society, and will proudly and bravely hold up the constitution.

Time will tell.

Update: The Delhi state election took place in February last year, not this year. This has been corrected in the story.

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