Kejriwal is no Gandhi

Poornima Joshi | Updated on March 13, 2020 Published on March 13, 2020

New age, new ways: Sworn in as chief minister for the third time, Kejriwal has shown an astute sense of strategy and timing, as also a political agenda   -  PTI / MANVENDER VASHIST

But the mistake is on the part of those who assumed that

For a bitterly cold winter almost signifying the sinister politics that pushed grandmothers on to the streets to erect the indefinite sit-in at Shaheen Bagh and its replicas elsewhere, it was an unusually warm Sunday in February when over a lakh people gathered in Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan. They were the delirious invitees to Arvind Kejriwal’s public swearing-in as third-term chief minister after he won the most heartening victory over perhaps the ugliest and the most communally virulent campaign that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had run since the dark aftermath of Gujarat riots in 2002. In his trademark maroon sweater, with the flaunt of a red tilak that most optimists explained was a political counter to Hindutva’s searing edge, Kejriwal seemed to complete the picture: “All of you, call your families back home. Tell them there is nothing to fear now. Your son has become CM. There is nothing to fear now.” He then proceeded to sing the iconic song of hope, “Hum honge kamyaab ek din (We shall overcome some day).”

This was balm to the nerves strained by persistent chants of “Goli maaro saalon ko (shoot the traitors)”, a slogan that epitomised the BJP’s campaign against Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the run-up to the elections held on February 8. Decency seemed to have prevailed as about 54 per cent Delhiites voted for AAP despite the BJP’s brazen efforts to polarise the election on communal lines. The police attack on students in Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University and the killing of 19 Muslims in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh largely in relation to protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) — which has, for the first time, made religion a criterion for granting citizenship rights — had apparently not yet paved the pitch for the Delhi elections as “a match between India and Pakistan”. Delhi chose AAP for its delivery on health and education, for mohalla clinics and a clean governance record, and Kejriwal was the white knight for the moment. Even his summarily expelled and humiliated comrades from the heady days of the anti-corruption Anna Hazare movement celebrated his triumph. “AAP must be saluted for this extraordinary victory,” said his former colleague and Swaraj Abhiyan founder Yogendra Yadav.


But within 10 days of Kejriwal’s elevation to the role of promoter of progressive political engagement, what he himself termed as “new politics beyond community and caste”, the Delhi chief minister is being mercilessly pilloried for betraying the cause. Two events defined the transition of Kejriwal from the champion of progressive politics to an apologist for Hindutva. The more critical is his near-absence from the scene when the worst riots since the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 broke out in north-east Delhi between February 23 and 26. Fifty-three people were killed in these riots while the chief minister watched from the sidelines with just a prayer photo-op at Rajghat by way of intervention. The second is the sanction granted by the Delhi government to prosecute former JNU students’ union leaders Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid et al for sedition for allegedly raising “anti-national slogans” on the campus. The sanction was reportedly granted despite being advised against it by the Delhi government standing counsel Rahul Mehra.

“Kejriwal’s conduct was shameful. For three days when the riots raged, a chief minister with 62 MLAs out of 70 expressed no strong sentiment against what was happening under his watch. Nor did he intervene in any constructive way while people who wholeheartedly voted for him were butchered on the streets. Even the relief camps were set up after much pressure was put. Even now, victims are being provided relief in private homes. In one home, there are 300 women and children with just five toilets. And then he has allowed a sedition case against students,” says activist Shabnam Hashmi, who runs a socio-cultural organisation called Act Now for Harmony and Democracy (Anhad). Over 100 activists and intellectuals who have been largely supportive of Kejriwal, including Harsh Mander, Anjali Bhardwaj, Vrinda Grover and Kavita Krishnan, came out with a strong statement urging all authorities, including the Delhi CM, to take “immediate steps to put an end to all violence and hostilities against ordinary people” and have since been extremely critical of what they perceive as a surrender to the BJP-ruled Centre.

Neither AAP nor Kejriwal have overtly responded to this criticism, but within the party, most leaders are bristling at what they believe is an unfair and unnecessary targeting of their leader, who is neither responsible for creating the riot nor for containing them as the Delhi Police functions directly under the command of the home ministry.

“What was he supposed to do? Go out and take a bullet on his chest? The CM has been on the streets since February 25. He has toured the area, urged for peace and we have been actively providing relief. Ten relief camps have been set up. The deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia has been literally stationed there. He comes home every day past midnight. What else are we supposed to do,” asks an AAP leader who did not wish to be named.

The “left liberal congregation”, according to this leader, believes they can run AAP and Kejriwal just because they supported him in the election. “These are people with no future. We have a future. We have to work with a strategy. And what is the strategy in supporting those who are perceived to be tukde-tukde gang? First of all, those who had been supported by not granting sanction for prosecution for sedition, such as Umar Khalid, have been abusing Kejriwal in public. So we support these people, get abused by them and lose the middle ground in the process? What sense does it make for us?” asks an AAP leader.


In the definition of “middle ground” lies the confusion about AAP since its emergence out of an anti-corruption movement led by social activist Anna Hazare and yoga guru Baba Ramdev and supported actively from the sidelines by the RSS, its affiliated think-tank Vivekananda Foundation and former Sangh ideologue KN Govindacharya-led Rashtriya Swabhiman Andolan. Even in its ultra-nationalist symbolism with the Bharat Mata adorning the dais and former police officer Kiran Bedi waving the national flag and spouting epithets against mainstream politicians, the Anna Hazare movement still attracted people from across the political spectrum. AAP sprung out in its wake, attracting eminent lawyers, activists and academics including Prashant Bhushan, Yogendra Yadav, Admiral Ramdas and Lalita Ramdas, Amit and Madhu Bhaduri and many others. The absence of ideology, according to historian Dilip Simeon, was an advantage for AAP in that it became an idea that common people owned and adopted.

“People were joining them in thousands and moulding its progress. That in itself is a positive, dynamic movement in politics. The deterioration happens when free exchange of ideas, especially on critical issues such as nationalism, stops and a personality cult overtakes structural and philosophical growth. That seems to have happened with AAP,” says Simeon.

For a lot of intellectuals who joined this new political force, AAP symbolised an honest, democratic and moderate counter to extremism in the name of regional, communal or caste-oriented identities as also in the form of market fundamentalism. In an appeal circulated to AAP members and supporters in January 2014, Admiral Ramdas and Lalita Ramdas articulated the vision of “AAP’s Place in Indian Democracy” that was put together by a “small passionate group of people who have subsumed their doubts, scepticism, their very different ideologies” to participate in the growth of this new force.

Under the subhead “AAP and moderate Indian nationalism”, Admiral Ramdas’s appeal outlined what a number of intellectuals and activists felt was the “middle ground” that the new party should aspire for. “Indian citizens are faced with the choice of moderation versus extremism. Extremism can appear in the name of regional, communal or caste-oriented identities. It can also appear as market-worship whereby the interests of contractors and corporate are sold to us by a controlled media as the interests of all Indians. Extremist ideas and politics often lead to violence. The AAP is a strong proponent of moderation and non-violence. This issue is central to the AAP’s place in Indian democracy. It is the fresh votary of moderation, ahimsa and composite nationalism. It is potentially the representative of all marginalised Indians. Its open membership and ideological fluidity are part of its attractiveness,” said the appeal.

As it turned out, Bhushan, who vociferously opposed the selection of certain candidates for the 2015 Delhi elections, Yadav and Anand Kumar, retired professor of sociology at JNU, were summarily sacked by Kejriwal. He even removed Admiral Ramdas from the post of the party’s internal Lok Pal. In the five years since, Kejriwal has moulded the party in his pragmatic approach to day-to-day politics. A heavy emphasis on welfarism and the largest spend on education and health consolidated his popular support base among the urban poor. While the initial years of his tenure were marked by almost daily confrontations with the Centre, he withdrew from these tussles about a year before the 2020 Delhi elections and, on the advice of his strategist Prashant Kishor, adopted a conciliatory approach in his engagement with the BJP and stopped attacking Prime Minister Narendra Modi in public. The shift from what earlier supporters such as Admiral Ramdas defined as “moderate and composite nationalism” towards the BJP’s brand of ultra-nationalism was reflected in AAP’s support of the abrogation of Article 370 and dissolution of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in Parliament. It also remained strategically silent in the wake of the Supreme Court’s verdict on the Ramjanmabhoomi issue.

Missing in action: Kejriwal’s near-absence from the scene of the worst riots in Delhi since the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984 has been roundly criticised   -  SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA / THE HINDU


His former colleague Yadav has tagged these developments with Kejriwal’s inaction during the Delhi riots and grant of sanction for prosecution of the former JNU students as AAP’s emergence as a “second supplier” of political Hindutva. Yadav analyses that while Kejriwal would be anxious not to lose the Hindu vote, it would be a “keen, even fierce competitor for the BJP in some parts of the country. Ideological proximity does not lead to friendly matches; more often than not, it results in an intense, bitter and personalised fight. In all likelihood, AAP will eschew any overall political perspective, avoid taking the BJP on secularism and democracy, and focus its critique only on governance-related matters”.

Political scientist Manoranjan Mohanty does not quite agree although he, too, is critical of Kejriwal’s inaction during the Delhi riots. Mohanty believes Kejriwal would have acquired a truly national, moral stature to take the BJP on if he had done more in terms of prevention and rehabilitation.

“I shouldn’t be so quick to judge, especially when there is no viable political opposition to the BJP. It would be wrong to say that Kejriwal and AAP do not have an ideology. They do. They are for neoliberalism, but I also believe they have a certain commitment to constitutional, democratic values and secularism too. What Kejriwal has shown is a lack of moral fibre,” Mohanty says.

Clearly, Kejriwal is no Mahatma Gandhi. But what he has shown is an astute sense of strategy and timing, as also a political agenda that is forward-looking with the largest expenditure on health and education anywhere in the country. That should count for something in these desperate times.

Poornima Joshi

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Published on March 13, 2020
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