As we head into the long weekend of the mega, 75th Independence Day with persistently trending ‘Amrit Mahotsav’ hashtags, the political battle for hyper-nationalism is joined.
The Congress is mostly caught up in its latest juvenility, mocking Narendra Modi on Twitter over ‘Har Ghar Tiranga’ or raising issues like whether it’s made of plastic or polyester instead of khadi. The other non-BJP parties are caught in their own priorities, often set by the Enforcement Directorate and the CBI. Only two parties have responded to this BJP campaign. K. Chandrashekar Rao’s TRS in Telangana, and the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi and elsewhere.
The AAP response is more substantive and also relevant, because they are the only other challengers with a pan-national presence besides the Congress. In their case, this presence is growing while the Congress party’s is fading.
The Aam Aadmi Party is also way more capable of street fighting than the Congress. They were the quickest to figure that the war of the Tiranga would be the next chapter in the tussle of nationalism. And in this war, both the numbers and the size will matter.
That’s why they decided early to have the capital awash with the national flag — 500 of them. And each so big you can’t miss it even from a distance. The message: Not only is mine bigger than yours, there are also many more of mine.
The War of the Tiranga, however, is not some school-gang fight over some teenager issue. It is a metaphor for a new battle of ideas. The essential proposition on which Narendra Modi’s BJP built its post-2013 politics, was (Hindu) religion and nationalism. In most democracies, this is a killer combination unless the rival can make better claims to it. Which wasn’t the case with the Congress by that time.
Both the Congress and AAP have contested the BJP’s monopoly claim over Hindu religious sentiment over time. Rahul responded by visiting temples, carrying out rituals, and his people flaunted his sacred thread and Brahmin gotra. That, however, has come across mostly as apologetic. Like saying look, I am a Hindu, too. That doesn’t counter Modi’s appeal to the Hindus. If at all, it gives his party the opening to boast, see, we made even the Congress remember the gods, and acknowledge Hinduism as a factor in politics.
Arvind Kejriwal was more successful, even if it took mugging up the Hanuman Chalisa from his phone on his way to a TV studio and then setting up the unsuspecting anchor by defying him to ask if he could recite it from memory. And then wowed the Hindus by doing so himself. He also had the smarts to offer free pilgrimages to senior citizens, mostly to Hindu centres but also tossing in Ajmer Sharif and key gurudwaras.
But his government’s advertising featuring him as a modern day Shravan Kumar (the storied ideal Hindu son who carried his blind parents on pilgrimages across India on his shoulders), left nothing to the imagination.
He is fighting Hinduism with Hinduism. By the way, we avoid using ‘Hindutva’ unless it is in the specific, Savarkarite, political context. In power in Delhi, AAP did not speak up on the January 2021 riots, the incarceration of so many young Muslims. Nor on cow lynchings elsewhere. At least never in their hallmark activist spirit.
They’ve been sharp, now raising the question of the ‘destruction of temples’ in Gujarat to build infrastructure, never mind if they are built on encroached land. But they also know that on religion, the best you can do is fight a defensive or a hedging battle. Nationalism is different. This is where a bare-knuckle fight has now broken out between them and the BJP. It’s been flagged off by the Tiranga, what else.
Bare knuckles isn’t exactly the most apt metaphor since the immediate context is freestyle wrestling, but makes our point since we are mixing hard politics with contact sport. Watch, therefore, the fight between the BJP and AAP over the complaint by woman wrestler Divya Kakran, who just won a wrestling bronze at Birmingham.
Her complaint that although she lives in Delhi, the Kejriwal government has done nothing for her, has been widely used by the BJP to attack AAP. The insinuation is that its commitment to both the truth and nationalism is dodgy. The truth, because it apparently made promises to her in the past, and nationalism because after all, isn’t that what a sporting medal is all about?
If the Kejriwal government defends itself by saying she is from Uttar Pradesh, so why should they reward her, the response is that she lives and trains in Delhi, while being employed by Indian Railways here. Any which way, the BJP sees Kejriwal on the defensive. We wait now for the next move from Kejriwal.
Like the Tiranga, this too is a piece in the big picture where a new battle of ideas has begun in national politics. And it is about nationalism.
For three years after Modi won his second national mandate in 2019, Kejriwal carefully avoided making any attacks on him. It’s as if he didn’t exist as a threat or a challenge. Not even when he campaigned in the subsequent Delhi assembly poll and swept it again.
This was smart tactics. If so much of the BJP’s national sway is owed to one man, it was foolhardy to go head-to-head with him. Good politicians are not kamikaze pilots. And definitely not when they’re rising underdogs. They can wage guerrilla warfare. That’s why attacks on Modi, if any, were carried out mostly by AAP’s Twitter warriors.
Over the past few weeks, Kejriwal’s maun vrat on Modi has ended. This turn in Indian politics rivals the dramatic turn in Bihar.
We say this because while Bihar has given a new energy to the old social justice, Mandal-warriors, sparking hope that the good old days when caste could divide the Hindu vote were returning, the big picture is different. There is zero evidence yet that Bihar can have the same overhang over national politics as it had in 1989-91 (the Mandal-Kamandal juncture) or even earlier, in 1974-75 (pre-Emergency, JP-led popular protests). The battle for national power will still be over religion (the Hindu vote) and nationalism.
Two things follow. That the Congress isn’t yet ready to fight on these planes. At the same time, AAP is heading for the big test of its national ambition in the coming elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. At the very least, it’s aiming to displace the Congress as the alternative to the BJP. It cannot do so only by attacking the Congress. It has to take on the BJP.
It was adroit enough to fight the Delhi assembly poll without attacking Modi. Or in Punjab where the BJP doesn’t count. In both places, its approach could be described by twisting that famous Rajasthan slogan in the 2018 state assembly elections: “Modi tujh se bair nahin, Rani (Vasundhara Raje) teri khair nahin”. Or, we have no enmity with Modi, but we won’t spare his party’s chief minister Raje. For Kejriwal in Delhi and Punjab it was easy to de-Modi-fy their campaigning.
With their ambitions rising, that has to change. That’s why, to use another boxing metaphor, the gloves have to come off. India’s most audacious new party has joined the battle with Modi, over freebies and nationalism. The latter is more visible. So they will match it, Tiranga for Tiranga, slogan for slogan, tweet for tweet. It’s going to be an interesting — and important — few months in what remains of this political year.