The Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party (AAP) led by Arvind Kejriwal returned to power in the state of Delhi after winning 62 out of 70 seats in the Legislative Assembly elections held on February 08. The electoral victory gave Kejriwal a third term in a row as Chief Minister. Delhi being the national capital, it plays an outsized role in the politics of India, hence it is crucial who runs it. Voters backed the AAP in the election which pitted them against India's ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP led by Prime Minister Naredra Modi has won remaining 8 (eight) seats. India's main opposition Congress Party drew a blank for the second time in the election despite the party ruled the Delhi government from 1998 to 2013.
The election results brought to a close for the moment a highly divisive and ugly campaign in the capital city. The BJP to seize the political initiative chose to fight the election on so-called national issues by championing its Hindu supremacist agenda to rally the voters to its side. The agenda in operation already resulted bringing in Indian-held Jammu and Kashmir under the control of the central government (Noam Chomsky termed Indian-held Jammu and Kashmir now as a prison) and moving ahead with building a Hindu temple on the site of razed 500 years old mosque in Ayodhya. This flurry of activities including the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Citizens Registrar (NCR) were aimed at transforming India into a Hindu rasthra or Hindu state in which Muslims would live on sufferance.
Delhi is ethnically and culturally diverse Union Territory of 18.5 million people. Delhi has been the focal point of nationwide protests against the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). While students from Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) University and Muslim housewives in the impoverished Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood of Delhi initiated the anti-CAA protests in Delhi, it quickly spread across the country, cutting across the ethnic, caste and religious divides.
But the eruption of mass protests against the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the BJP also sought to use the Delhi Assembly election to mount a political counter-offensive. Modi's chief henchman and Union Home Minister Amit Shah took the lead in the election campaign and denounced opponents of Hindutva policies as anti-national in league with India's arch enemy Pakistan. He even said that the Congress and the AAP were creating "mini-Pakistan like Shaheen Bagh''. Even Yogi Adutyanath, Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (already under criminal indictment for inciting attacks on Muslims) and a notorious Hindu chauvinist, was drafted into the campaign for the BJP and declared Shahin Bagh protesters were traitors who should be fed with bullets not biriyani. Not to be outdone, Anurag Thakur, Union Junior Finance Minister led BJP supporters with the cry "shoot them down'' directed at anti-CAA protesters. Embolden by such criminal incitements, three Hindu supremacists opened fire at Shaheen Bagh protesters within days following Thakur's provocation.
In response to rising mass opposition, the BJP government responded with massive police crackdown, imposing ban on protest marches. When students from JMI sought to assert their right to protest, they were brutally attacked by the police. Shashi Tharoor released a video of police brutality perpetrated on JMI students without provocation. Meanwhile, thugs from the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyathri Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the RSS, the BJP's ideological mentor, savagely attacked students at Jawarharlal Nehru University (JNU) and seriously injured Aishe Ghose, President of the JNU Students Council, among others. Ms Ghose ended up in hospital with a broken arm, multiple contusions and 16 stiches in her scalp along with 33 other injured students and academics. The Delhi police (under the direct control of Union Home Ministry run by Amit Shah) not only failed to intervene until the pre-plan assault was finished, but also filed charges against Ms Ghose.
AAP STEERED CLEAR OF DIVISIVE POLITICS: While BJP leaders suggested a vote for the AAP was a vote to supporting "Islamicist terrorism'' and continuing their strategy of dividing Delhi voters along Hindu-Muslim religious lines, the AAP steered clear of that divisive politics. Instead campaigned hard on governance and development and emphasised on its success in effective implementation of its local welfare programmes: free health care and bus fares for women, cheaper water and electricity and better state-run schools. Overall, emphasis was on in Kejriwal's words "kaam ki rajneeti (politics of work)''.
It appears that Indian liberals have found in Delhi election results an alternative to Hindutva tide. They were jubilant and many of them declared the AAP victory assured yet again that desperate acts communal polarisation have a limited currency in India. Also, the results indicate winds of change alluding to the electoral defeats suffered by the BJP in the states of Harayana, Jharkhand and Maharasthra in recent state elections. Kejriwal was hailed as the harbinger of inclusive politics in the country. Others called it development trumping over command politics (coded term for fascism). Many even went as far as calling the AAP victory as Delhi voters standing up to protect the soul of India.
But all are not that convinced that the show that put by Kejriwal and his party has been what it appeared to be. Voters' turn-out was 62 per cent compared to 67 per cent in the previous polls in 2015. In a first-past-the-post electoral system, the scale of popularity has been exaggerated; the AAP secured 62 seats (89 per cent) with 54 per cent of votes while the BJP secured 8 (11 per cent) seats with 39 per cent votes. The AAP lost 5 (five) seats in this election compared to the 2015 polls while the BJP gained 5 (five) more seats relative to the previous election. That translates into a gain of 166 per cent seats for the BJP in this election.
In Delhi election, while the BJP mounted a vigorous campaign using its core political capital of the Hindu-Muslim communal divide, it realistically did not expect to win the election, but successfully increased its presence quite substantially (in percentage term) in the legislature. It will be a grave mistake to underestimate this success of the BJP. The fact that once the dominant Congress Party has literally disappeared from the Delhi election scene has enormously helped the AAP to grow.
Furthermore, many observers of Indian politics are also very cautious to read this as electoral verdict against Prime Minister Modi or his party. A pre-election survey by the highly respected Delhi-based think tank, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) found that nearly 70 per cent of the city respondents support Modi's anti-Muslim citizenship law and oppose protests against the law. In Delhi people approved the work done by Kejriwal and the election results are no indication of change in the national mood against Modi or his party.
A BBC correspondent quoting an informed source indicated that Indian voters may be "ticket splitting'': strategically picking the BJP at the national level and other parties in local elections. Therefore, one can argue that the BJP is set to win the 2024 election at the national level despite some setbacks in some state elections.
The Indian secularists (secularism is an obscure term for overwhelming number of Indians as in all languages in the South Asian sub-continent including Hindi and Bengali there is no word for secularism) are also in many ways on the defensive to claim that the election results stemmed the tide of Hindu supremacist nationalism. While Kejriwal campaigned on politics of work, he was careful as well not stray away from his rivals in the BJP on the issue of displaying his Hinduness by carefully positioning himself as a devout Honuman (Monkey god) devotee during the campaign. After the election victory, Kejriwal thanked the people of Delhi for voting him back to carry on his development work, then touched base with his religious identity let there was any doubt about it by thanking Hanuman ji for his victory. Thereafter, he along with his family members and party leaders visited the Hanuman Temple at Connaught Place to offer prayer and asking Hanuman ji to show them the right path.
HINDU MAJORITARIANISM: The AAP like the rest of the Indian political establishment is deeply steeped in Hindu majoritarianism if not Hindu chauvinism. During the election campaign Kejriwal conspicuously failed to speak out against the BJP's Hindu supremacist policies nor criticised Modi personally. He also did not visit centres of opposition to the BJP like JNU, JMI and Shaheen Bagh. He did not undertake any public campaign in predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods.
He is critical of the CAA not because of its anti-Muslim bias but for purportedly opening up the door to mass migration to India. I think Kejriwal has a very bloated idea about his country to fear mass migration to take place. It remains rather very problematic for me to think who in one's right mind would like to migrate to India. To contemplate to migrate to India must be an act of terrible desperation.
The BJP plan is primarily geared to use the 2020 National Population Register (NPR) to link it with the National Citizens Registrar (NCR) to mount a drive to push out poor Muslims principally to Bangladesh or else put them into concentration camps (Chomsky also noted symptoms of fascism in India under the ruling BJP government) which are already being built in Assam. The CAA is principally designed to force people out of the country based on religious identity, not to encourage people to move in.
The implementation of Hindutva politics by the BJP government is now clearly manifested in increasing hostility by all state apparatuses against Indian Muslims day by day. While the political and economic marginalisation of Muslims started right form the day India gained independence in 1947, that process has accelerated many folds under the BJP government. The anti-Muslim bias is not only evident in deliberate misconduct by police forces (for instance, one female student from JMI told India Today that one of the female police officers took her burqa off and hit her on her private parts with a lathi. Also, doctors attending injured students at JMI told India Today that more than 10 female students were hit by police forces on their private parts and they also found blunt injuries on some of the protesting JMI students) but also written into law as in the Disturbed Area Act in Gujarat. Now there are only 25 Muslim members in the National Parliament out of 543 MPs accounting for 4.5 per cent of total MPs while Muslims constituting 15 per cent of the population.
In today's India it is clearly evident that fighting BJP on its Hindu supremacist ideology could invite backlash from the majority Hindu community (80 per cent of the population). The whole institutional structure of India and the great mass of the Hindu population are supportive of the BJP policy based on Hindutva. It is not Kejriwal alone who has to prove his Hindu identity, Rahul Gandhi, the dynastic leader of the Congress Party, took a trip to Kailash Mansarovar before the central election last year to declare himself being a devout Shiva devotee, hopping from one temple to another prominently displaying the big red dot on his forehead. More surprisingly, Shashi Tharoor, an intellectual heavy weight of the Congress Party and a former union minister, outflanked most other devout Hindus. He has even written a treatise on his Hindu identity and went on giving television interviews to explain why he is a Hindu alluding to be a better one than RSS and BJP leaders.
As the BJP is increasingly becoming authoritarian in dealing with political opposition, it is increasingly resorting to gangsterism to send a message to political opponents, civil society and minorities especially Muslim minority that they would be forced to toe the line in the reconstruction of Indian into a Hindu rasthra. But the BJP only secured 38 per cent of the national vote in the last year's general election, yet it gained 56 per cent of parliamentary majority given the electoral system.
Kejriwal's victory does offer a window of opportunity for the demoralised opposition parties, in particular the Congress Party, that parties pursuing good governance can win votes. Also, sustained strength of national protests against the CAA, complete lockdown in Kashmir with the consequent flow on effects from it can have chastening effect on the BJP. As the economy continues to slow down with rising unemployment, each political setback like the one in Delhi has the potential to escalate to encompass wider national concerns.
Muhammad Mahmood is an independent economic and political analyst.
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