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From silence to blaming ‘Bangladeshis, Rohingyas’, why AAP’s vocabulary on Muslims has changed

As AAP expands nationally, new approach is part of attempt to woo Hindu voters aligned with BJP but disaffected by its governance, say party leaders. But some fear it may backfire.

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New Delhi: There’s been a sea change in the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) political vocabulary on issues involving Muslims, from its earlier strategy of staying silent and keeping a distance, to now blaming “Bangladeshis” and “Rohingyas” for the communal violence in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri earlier this month.

According to party insiders — some of whom are critical of the new approach — this is part of an attempt, as AAP expands nationally, to appeal to Hindu voters who are ideologically aligned with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but are disaffected by its governance.

Earlier, AAP had maintained a safe distance from the Shaheen Bagh protest — largely led by Muslim women — in late 2019 and early 2020 against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), and on multiple issues concerning Muslims in the following two years.

At the same time, the party included core Hindu elements in its politics, such as the worship of Hanuman and organising grand events on Diwali with structures that replicated the under-construction Ram temple in Ayodhya.

But, in case of Jahangirpuri, AAP put two Muslim communities at the centre of a blame-game in pursuing its larger strategy of attacking the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This, several party functionaries said, is a major change in the party’s vocabulary in terms of taking a political stand on a communal issue.

Commenting on the Jahangirpuri violence, Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia and AAP spokesperson and MLA Atishi alleged that Bangladeshi nationals and Rohingyas were being settled across India by the (BJP) to stage riots. BJP leaders had themselves pinned the blame on the same communities.

Speaking at a press conference Tuesday, Sisodia alleged, “There is hooliganism across the country because of the BJP today… I ask them, in the last eight years why did the BJP give shelter to Bangladeshis and Rohingyas across the country? They gave shelter to them and then used them to cause communal disharmony across the nation.”

According to several senior AAP functionaries, this change in the party’s vocabulary from Shaheen Bagh to Jahangirpuri is in line with its electoral strategy to appeal to a voter base comprising Hindus who may be ideologically aligned with the BJP but disgruntled with it over issues such as unemployment, lack of development, and inflation.

They believe that this could be electorally favourable for the party ahead of assembly elections in the BJP-ruled states of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh later this year.

However, another set of senior AAP leaders believe that this strategy could backfire as it may act as an obstacle to a potential consolidation of Muslim votes for the party in Gujarat, Karnataka and Telangana — the latter two are scheduled to hold elections next year — which have sizable Muslim populations.

ThePrint reached out to Sisodia, Atishi, and other AAP spokespersons for comments on the matter through phone calls and messages, but they had not responded by the time this article was published. The article will be updated with their comments when they respond.

Also read: ‘Can’t afford to take risks’: Why AAP leaders have been avoiding Jahangirpuri since the riot

AAP’s shifting stance

In January 2020, ahead of the Delhi assembly polls, Sisodia had said that he stood with the people of Shaheen Bagh, which triggered criticism from the BJP. But eventually, AAP stepped back, saying it had no responsibility towards the Shaheen Bagh protesters.

Later, on several occasions, AAP chief and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal said that the party would oppose the CAA, but he continued to maintain a distance from Shaheen Bagh. He also said that if his government had the Delhi Police under its jurisdiction, it would have opened the road blocked by the protesters in two hours. After the CM’s statement, a large number of Shaheen Bagh protesters claimed that they felt let down by AAP.

Around the same time, AAP threw its weight behind the Hindu deity Hanuman, with Kejriwal reciting the Hanuman Chalisa in several TV interviews and his party colleagues investing in Hanuman rallies and religious events such as the recitation of Sundarkand — a chapter from Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas that is dedicated to Hanuman.

Soon after AAP won its second term in Delhi with a majority in February 2020, communal riots rocked northeast Delhi, claiming 53 lives.

Kejriwal visited the affected areas after three days of violence, organised a peace prayer at Rajghat, and blamed “outsiders” — maintaining silence on how the violence had primarily started with clashes between groups led by Hindus supporting the CAA and groups led by Muslims opposing the law.

A year later, when 25-year-old Rinku Sharma was stabbed to death in Mangolpuri, AAP claimed that the youth was killed for chanting “Jai Shri Ram” while the Delhi Police, which comes under the BJP-led Union government, ruled out a communal angle in the case.

Then, in August 2021, when a group led by a BJP leader chanted anti-Muslim slogans in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, Kejriwal remained silent on the issue. Jantar Mantar is located in the New Delhi assembly constituency where Kejriwal is the MLA.

However, in its reaction to the communal violence in Jahangirpuri this month, AAP went one step further by putting Bangladeshi nationals and the Rohingya community — both predominantly Muslims — at the centre of a blame game while training its guns on the BJP.

“I don’t remember any such instance earlier in which the party has put any community at the centre of a political blame-game,” said an AAP legislator who did not wish to be identified.

The BJP, too, has been blaming Bangladeshis and Rohingyas for the Jahangirpuri violence.

AAP has also maintained a distance from Jahangirpuri. No AAP leader visited the spot between 16 April, when the violence took place, and 20 April, when the BJP-ruled North Delhi Municipal Corporation demolished several shops and other structures in the area in an “anti-encroachment” exercise that was eventually stayed by the Supreme Court.

On Thursday, AAP sent an MLA to the area.  

Also read: Delhi’s Jahangirpuri back to normal, says police as they monitor 24/7

Electoral calculations

An AAP functionary who did not wish to be named told ThePrint, “What you call a change in vocabulary is directly linked to electoral politics. The party is expanding across states. You have to see how there are a large number of voters who may have voted for the BJP but now there is disgruntlement among them because the BJP has failed to give them jobs, better education, better healthcare, better income, better living, etc. AAP has to tap those votes.”

Another AAP leader, also speaking on condition of anonymity, asserted that the party had never discriminated against Muslims or any community in terms of the delivery of good governance, welfare benefits, or financial assistance.

“But when it comes to what to highlight and what not to, what stand to take on certain affairs involving Hindus and Muslims, that’s a total political issue. AAP’s strategy is simple: If the BJP has to be replaced, you have to beat it at its own game,” the leader said.

However, another senior functionary asserted that this strategy could backfire, saying, “Maintaining silence over an issue that affects Muslims is one thing, but to put Muslims at the centre of a blame game is another thing. This is something that we have seen the party do for the first time. This can backfire. In Gujarat, Karnataka and Telangana, there is the possibility of consolidation of Muslim votes — as happened in case of Delhi. The recent stand of the party may give a wrong signal to voters in those states.”

In the 2020 Delhi assembly election, AAP emerged victorious in constituencies with high Muslim populations, such as Okhla, Jaffrabad, Seelampur, Matia Mahal, and Mustafabad, with these areas witnessing a consolidation of Muslim votes in favour of the party, said several AAP leaders.

Former AAP leader Ashutosh told ThePrint, “This is political opportunism of the highest order. AAP is knowingly jumping into communal politics, and that can be dangerous. A Hindu vote base, which the party does not want to disrupt, is clearly at the centre of its politics, and Kejriwal is projecting himself as a CM for Hindus.”

Ashutosh recalled how he had accompanied Kejriwal when he visited the family of Akhlaq in Uttar Pradesh’s Dadri in 2015 — a prominent case of a Muslim man being lynched by a Hindu crowd over suspicion of beef stored in his refrigerator.

“From those days, the AAP has definitely come a long way in terms of its political vocabulary — a decline that has been evident only in recent years,” Ashutosh added.

Praveen Rai, a political analyst with the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, told ThePrint, “The political posturing of AAP on the Jahangirpuri incident is not only intriguing, but is also bereft of political wisdom. It departed from its earlier stand of either maintaining silence or guarded statements on Hindu-Muslim issues to avoid unnecessary controversies and negative electoral impact.”

“The change in strategy with the aim of eyeing Hindu votes to expand its political outreach could alienate the Muslim community that seems to be gravitating towards it due to the  Congress vacating the opposition space. It has the potential to backfire, especially at a time when they are invested in assembly polls in the states of Gujarat and Karnataka, where they may end up losing both Hindu and Muslim votes,” he added.

“The humongous victory in Punjab seems to have turned the Kejriwal-led party arrogant, but they need to realise that it can emerge as an alternative to the BJP only if it practises inclusive politics and mobilises the electorate cutting across different religious communities,” said Rai.

(Edited by Manoj Ramachandran)

Also read: Why AAP is turning up its nose at joining Mamata’s proposed non-BJP opposition front


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