New Delhi: The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has decided to build 1,100 ‘ghats’ across Delhi during the Hindu festival of Chhath Puja in November, party leaders have told ThePrint.
It’s only the latest among a host of moves Delhi’s ruling party has made to tap into religion to bolster its prospects in next year’s assembly elections, quite a transformation for a party that was founded seven years back on the promise of “politics of change”.
The Arvind Kejriwal-led party has been increasingly seeking to appeal to voters’ religious sentiments as the election draws near, be it tirth yatras (pilgrimage) for senior citizens, courting kanwariyas, increasing the salary of imams or simply the portrayal of the AAP chief as “good son” Shravan Kumar from the Ramayana.
When Dalits organised protests last month over the court-ordered demolition of a Sant Ravidas temple at Tughlakabad in a forested Delhi area, the AAP joined agitators in questioning the action, which was led by the Delhi Development Authority, a central agency.
It appeared to be a far cry from just two years ago, when Kejriwal sought to reinforce his party’s secular credentials, tweeting that he wished there would come a day “when elections are fought on the agenda of education n health rather than caste n religion (sic)”.
To no one’s surprise, the opposition has taken a dim view of the AAP’s sudden religiosity, though the party claims it has given equal focus to all spheres.
‘Faith and sentiments’
After the Sant Ravidas temple was demolished last month, AAP MLAs as well as party workers from Delhi, Punjab and Haryana, where the spiritual leader holds deep relevance, held a protest at Jantar Mantar on 21 August.
The party said Prime Minister Narendra Modi should intervene in ensuring that the land is given back to the Dalit community to rebuild the place of worship.
Delhi Social Welfare Minister Rajendra Pal Gautum said at the time, “The BJP government is trying to annihilate the voices of Dalits… It is about the faith and sentiments of about 15 crore people. While on the one hand, the BJP is fighting to build a (Ram) temple (in Ayodhya) on the basis of faith, on the other, a temple was demolished which has all the documented proof of its existence.”
AAP leaders remained unmindful of the fact that the temple had been demolished in compliance with a Supreme Court order.
In the same vein, earlier this year, the party mounted an aggressive campaign against a demolition drive by the Uttar Pradesh government in Varanasi, under which several temples were reduced to rubble to make way for the Kashi Vishwanath corridor.
AAP MP Sanjay Singh held a two-day rally in Varanasi against the drive under the banner “BJP bhagao, Bhagwan bachao (Eject BJP, Save God)”.
Then, at the end of July, the AAP government expanded a state scheme offering free pilgrimage for the elderly, to 12 places, “on public demand”. It assures pilgrims of travel, food and accommodation costs.
The scheme, called the Mukhyamantri Tirth Yatra Yojana, was launched last year, and covers spots of religious significance to multiple faiths, including Badrinath, Kedarnath, Puri (Hindus), Ajmer Sharif (Muslims), Amritsar (Sikhs) and Sammed Shikhar (Jains).
Interacting with the first batch of pilgrims in the first week of July, Kejriwal seemed to invoke Shravan Kumar, a mythological figure from the Ramayana who carried his parents to pilgrimage on his shoulders and has now become a metaphor for filial devotion.
“To Delhi’s elderly, I want to say, this son of yours will send you on at least one tirth yatra (pilgrimage) in your lifetime,” he said.
Claiming that his government had undertaken much development work for the national capital, he added that this scheme was an effort to “undertake a divine good deed”.
Earlier in July, Kejriwal was seen dining with kanwariyas — Shiv devotees who undertake an annual pilgrimage every monsoon — in East Delhi’s Dilshad Garden.
The AAP leader was seen feeding the pilgrims with his own hands, and promised them that his government will make sure they face no problems.
In January, Kejriwal increased the salary of imams at Delhi mosques from Rs 10,000 to Rs 18,000, and that of their helpers from Rs 9,000 to Rs 16,000. The hiked salary is to be paid by the Delhi Waqf Board.
He also announced a salary hike for imams of mosques that are outside the domain of the Delhi Waqf Board — the first time that salaries of such mosques will be covered by a government body.
After the hike, the imams of these mosques are paid Rs 14,000 per month while their helpers get Rs 12,000.
Maulana Sher Mohd, an imam at a mosque near Qutub Minar, told ThePrint he had been receiving enhanced pay since January, saying it was helping him send his children to an English-medium school.
“We don’t want our children to live under the same circumstances. They deserve to enter other professions,” he said. “I want one of them to be a pilot, for which they need to study and we need money.”
‘No special focus’
According to the Congress, this sudden focus on religion is a sign of the AAP’s incompetence in governance.
“A party that promised a new type of politics… anti-corruption of all types, is now for retaining power… trying to bank on freebies and caste-religion politics,” said MLA and former Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee chief Arvinder Singh Lovely.
“It is a clear indication that they have not done anything in their five-year regime, which is why they want to divert people’s attention,” he added.
BJP MP Parvesh Verma said it was all part of the AAP’s votebank politics.
“Kejriwal suddenly realised that Muslim votebank is not enough for him? The Aam Aadmi Party first created clear preferential treatment for some and are now trying to talk about religion using temples again,” he added.
“He is making votebanks on caste, religion, age… He stands at 25-30 per cent voteshare today and thinks votebank politics can take it to 35-40 per cent… Whatever he is doing, it has only been in the last six months.”
Political commentator Apoorvanand said the AAP had always been embedded in Hindu symbolism. “I recall the use of the image of Bharat Mata in the ‘India Against Corruption’ phase and even slogans like Vande Mataram,” he said. “All parties, it’s true of the RJD of Lalu Yadav, the AAP and even the Congress, are vying with each other to prove that they are primarily-Hindu parties.”
The AAP, however, denied there was any special focus in the party on religion.
“Work is going on in all spheres, be it education, culture or economy,” said Delhi Labour and Political Affairs Minister Gopal Rai, “If salaries of imams have increased, those of teachers and wages of labour have also been increased.”
The AAP’s apparent shift in approach comes amid the party’s failure to sustain the momentum of its 2015 performance in Delhi, when it won 67 of the capital’s 70 assembly seats.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it came third in five of Delhi’s seven seats, winning just one seat, from Punjab, out of the 40 it contested across India. It has also drawn a blank in a series of assembly elections, with Punjab, where it won more seats than the BJP and the SAD combined in 2017, emerging as the sole holdout. Severe infighting and high-profile defections have also hit the party hard.