It was a poker-faced Arvind Kejriwal who asked for the pictures of Hindu deities, Lakshmi and Ganesh, to be put on Indian currency notes — as it might improve the country’s economic well-being. For some, it was a tongue-in-cheek swipe at the government for its inability to improve the health of the economy — it now needs the help of the gods. For others, it was yet another reminder of Kejriwal’s Hindu credentials, which he is not shy of flaunting. After all, he had invoked Hanuman as his talisman — and even visited the famous Hanuman temple in Delhi and recited the Hanuman Chalisa — just before the 2020 elections in Delhi, which the AAP won convincingly.
The picture of Gandhi, he wrote in the letter he sent the PM, should be left “as it is” on one side of the currency notes, with Lakshmi and Ganesh adorning the other side — a combination of Gandhi and the gods!
Kejriwal had the BJP spokespersons tied in knots. Some of them were compelled to remind him that India is a secular country! Others described his demand as a “political stunt” — that he had the Gujarat elections in mind. Which, of course, he does. And so does the BJP, which is worried about the AAP’s expanding footprint. Not to be outdone, Kejriwal was quick to point out that if Lakshmi and Ganesh could garner votes, all the more reason why the BJP should go in for having them on the notes.
Kejriwal has come a long way from the activist he once was, who was awarded the Magsaysay Award in 2006 for his work in the Right to Information movement and for empowering the poor to fight corruption. When he was not such a well-known figure, an official had reportedly asked him, “Kya irada hai? Politics mein aana hai kya?”
“Of course,” Kejriwal had replied unabashedly.
From the Magsaysay Award, his journey led him to steering a movement to enact a Jan Lokpal Bill for public accountability, when scams were tumbling out of the UPA’s cupboards, managing to get the respected Anna Hazare to be the face of the movement in 2011, and then parting company with him to form the Aam Aadmi Party in 2012. The ugly split in the party three weeks after a stupendous 67 (out of 70) seat victory in Delhi in 2015 seemed suicidal. But Kejriwal knew what he was doing. He knew early on, for instance, that he couldn’t hope to be in electoral politics with a senior colleague in the movement (Prashant Bhushan) calling for a referendum in Jammu and Kashmir.
Over the years, he has infused new political energy into the AAP and not relied on disgruntled politicians from established parties to join him. Above all, he has ensured that the line of command in the party is clearly understood and followed — that it is his writ that runs in the AAP.
AAP today is not a movement for change — it is like any other political party. And yet, barring the Asom Gana Parishad in Assam, it is the only party in independent India which has come out of a movement and transitioned successfully into a political party – with three wins in Delhi, the state of Punjab under its belt, it is now spreading its wings in Gujarat, and eying other states.
Like Modi, Kejriwal knows that the Hindus have become “Hinduised”. Secularism has become synonymous with being pro-minority. And anything pro-minority is seen as anti-Hindu today. The non-BJP parties have not found a way to get around this trap that the BJP has successfully set for them. Either they resort to temple hopping or avoid taking a position on contentious issues like the abrogation of Article 370. Either way, they end up looking like the “B” team of the BJP.
Kejriwal is positioning his party as a pro-Hindu entity without being anti-Muslim — at least so far. Liberals criticised him for not visiting protest sites like Shaheen Bagh or places where demonstrations were held against the discriminatory CAA. But many Muslims from Patna to Pune will tell you, quietly, that they understand what Kejriwal is doing — trying to get the better of the BJP.
Kejriwal is also demonstrating that Hinduism — and the use of Hindu symbols as a means of communication — is not the monopoly of the BJP. Hindutva is the centrepiece of Modi’s BJP, and it is topped by nationalism, social welfarism, “labharthism”, the empowerment of the OBCs — in particular, the most backward amongst them which is likely to be a big issue in 2024 — all led by a strong and charismatic leader who has no family in tow. Kejriwal, too, is trying to give a distinct identity to his party: A pro-Hindu outfit, that is not seen as anti-Muslim, like the BJP, with a proven record in delivering cheap bijli and paani, government school reform and free medical care. A day after he mooted the idea of Lakshmi and Ganesh on currency notes, he went to a landfill in Delhi, taking the BJP to task for the mountains of uncleared garbage and promising a clean Delhi in five years, now that elections to the unified MCD are around the corner.
At the end of the day, all politicians are “nautankis”, some better than others. Kejriwal is among the more skilled performers, with sharp political reflexes.
With the unstemmed decline of the Congress, he is eyeing an opportunity nationally. But with an opponent like the BJP, his task is not going to be easy. Even though he is a marathon runner, it is going to be a long haul. AAP is positioning itself as a replacement for the BJP. But how different will it be from the BJP? That is a question which remains unanswered.
The writer is a senior journalist