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Is AAP turning Right or just wooing Hindus? What Kejriwal’s Ayodhya visit, Diwali puja mean

Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP's recent adoption of BJP’s slogan ‘Jai Shri Ram’ is in stark contrast to their earlier reported public remarks against the Ayodhya temple.

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New Delhi: Last Thursday, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his cabinet colleagues celebrated Diwali with a grand puja at the city’s Thyagaraj Stadium. The ceremony featured a pandal that was a replica of the Ram Temple being built in Ayodhya. 

For days leading up to Diwali, the Delhi CM advertised the puja, informing the city’s residents that it will be telecast live, and encouraging them to join in from their homes. The advertisement on FM channels ended with Kejriwal chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’  — a greeting that has become synonymous with the BJP in recent years — and hoping that Delhi is always graced by “Ram ji’s blessings”. 

While the puja in itself may not have attracted much attention — after all, Diwali is widely celebrated as the return of Ram-Sita to Ayodhya in the epic Ramayana — the fact that it was preceded by the Delhi government including Ayodhya in a list of pilgrim spots that are covered under the government’s free pilgrimage scheme for the elderly, made the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) dedicated pursuit of a deity that has been symbolic of the BJP’s political narrative, and Kejriwal’s relentless efforts to project himself as a Ram bhakt, difficult to miss.

The announcement of the free pilgrimage plan to Ayodhya came soon after CM Kejriwal’s own visit to the temple town last month. After offering prayers at the Ram Temple site on 26 October, Kejriwal had vowed to bring in more pilgrims to the place of worship, and also confirmed that he had made a donation for the temple. 

Earlier, in September, the AAP had formally launched its campaign for next year’s UP assembly elections with senior party leaders Manish Sisodia and Sanjay Singh offering prayers at the Ram Janmabhoomi and the Hanuman Garhi shrine in Ayodhya. Sisodia was also quoted as saying that “Ram Rajya was the best form of governance” and that the AAP would establish “Ram Rajya” in UP if voted to power. 

But as some BJP leaders have been quick to remind the party, the AAP’s recent visible devotion to Ram and taking up the cause of the Ram Temple is in contrast to many of its old statements on the subject.  

While addressing a rally in Kanpur in 2014, Kejriwal had reportedly said that his “Ram can’t reside in a temple built on the debris of a mosque”. An old Facebook post from 2014 also quotes Kejriwal saying the same thing, except crediting his maternal grandmother for having made the statement.

Kejriwal is not the only AAP leader to have reportedly spoken out against the construction of the Ram Temple in the past. In 2018, Sisodia had called for the building of a university at the then-disputed site. 

As Kejriwal visited the temple last month, BJP leaders like Sambit Patra shared old videos on social media, in which Kejriwal allegedly criticised the BJP for using Hindutva as a “poll-plank”. 

Today, Kejriwal ji has hurt his ‘Nani’… not only Nani…even Jawaharlal Nehru would also be upset…It is not right to disrespect elders like this ‘Sir ji’!” Patra wrote in a social media post. The AAP leader had also allegedly said in the past that he wondered whether India could have developed if the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had built temples instead of the Steel Authority of India.

BJP MP Gautam Gambhir too targeted the Delhi CM for his Ram Temple visit, alleging that the leader was “trying to wash away his sins”. 

Political commentators say the AAP is simply doing what most other political parties in the country are — trying to project itself as empathetic to Hindu sentiments in keeping with the present strong wave of Hindutva politics in the country. 

ThePrint reached AAP spokesperson Saurabh Bhardwaj and media coordinator Vikas Yogi through calls and WhatsApp messages, to understand what prompted its recent celebration of Ram, but there was no response until the publication of this report. 

Also read: Do Delhi parents agree with govt teaching ‘deshbhakti’ to kids in schools? This survey answers

‘Playing on BJP’s pitch’

Badri Narayan, political commentator and professor at the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute in Prayagraj, cited the example of Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati promising not to derail work undertaken by the current BJP government in the state in places of religious importance like Ayodhya, Varanasi and Mathura if voted to power in the next assembly elections. He also pointed to Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra invoking Durga at a rally in Varanasi, and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav’s recent temple visits to explain how the AAP is just trying fit into the Hindutva narrative. 

Even staunch BJP critic Mamata Banerjee was seen reciting the Chandi Path ahead of this year’s Bengal assembly election.

Sanjay Kumar, political analyst and professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), called it a political tactic. “In cricket language, it is equivalent to playing on the BJP’s pitch, trying to hijack their poll ideology,” he said. The AAP’s idea, according to him, “is to assure the Hindu vote bank, especially in the Hindi heartland, that they are empathetic to Hindu sentiments and are not anti-Hindu”. 

“AAP wants to expand its presence in the country and it is doing this (projecting a devout Hindu image) not just with an eye on the 2022 assembly elections, but the 2024 parliamentary elections,” he added.

Kumar said parties opposing the BJP began accepting the dominance of Hindutva politics after the 2019 elections. “Between 2014 and 2019, most political parties were still resisting the aggressive Hindutva politics of the BJP, believing it to not have a very long shelf life. But the BJP’s massive victory in the 2019 parliamentary elections has convinced most political parties that this is going to be the most important narrative in Indian politics, at least for the next decade, and therefore made them eager to project themselves as not being anti-Hindu,” Kumar said. 

While the AAP’s adoption of the BJP’s most-recognised Hindutva symbol — Ram — is more recent, the party and Kejriwal have been public in their display of religious devotion for sometime now. Last year on Diwali Kejriwal and his cabinet colleagues had participated in a Lakshmi puja, which too had been telecast live. 

Ahead of last year’s Delhi assembly elections, Kejriwal had chanted the Hanuman Chalisa and said he regularly visited the Hanuman temple in the city’s Connaught Place area. 

In September this year, while the Delhi government banned public celebrations of Ganesh Chaturthi, the Delhi CM had held a Ganesh Puja with his colleagues and invited people to join in virtually. 

The Kejriwal government had also been criticised and questioned for adopting a “soft-Hindutva stand” for its initial silence in the aftermath of last year’s Delhi riots, though the party later accused the BJP of “scripting” the violence. 

Also read: Was supporting AAP a historic blunder? An apology and a question to Congress: Yogendra Yadav

‘Will the real Aam Aadmi Party stand up’

While Badri Narayan feels that the AAP’s earlier statements against the Ram Temple will not be held against it by the public — he said “people have a short memory” — Kumar’s views are slightly different. 

“People may realise it to be what it is — an election gimmick. But I think what the AAP is aiming for right now is that even if they don’t benefit from all this, at least they should not be considered as being anti-Hindu,” Kumar explained. 

Political rivals, including Congress leaders, meanwhile question the party’s “lack of ideological consistency”. 

“For one, who recalls the hopes that the Aam Aadmi Party raised in its initial foray into representative politics; to see its old idealism replaced by unprincipled cynicism is truly disappointing,” said Congress MP Shashi Tharoor. “Can the Aam Aadmi Party tell us what they stand for and what they believe in, other than their own continuance in power?” 

Meanwhile, while some BJP leaders and RSS followers said the AAP was welcome to celebrate Ram, and Indian culture, they accused the party of presenting a pro-Hindu image only for political mileage. 

“BJP has been consistently promoting Indian culture since the 1990s. AAP is welcome to do it too, but they should do it consistently and not simply for political gain,” said BJP spokesperson R.P. Singh.

Hitting out at the Kejriwal government for the Delhi Disaster Management Authority’s (DDMA) earlier prohibition of Chhath Puja celebrations, Singh alleged, “On one hand they are doing Diwali puja and then they are banning Chhath. Where is the consistency in that?” 

In September, the DDMA had banned public celebration of Chhath owing to pandemic, drawing criticism from both the BJP and the Congress. Kejriwal, who is the vice-chairperson of the DDMA, had then written to chairman, Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal, to allow Chhath Puja in the city. The celebration has now been permitted at designated ghats. The AAP government has also declared a public holiday in Delhi on the occasion. 

While opinion is divided on whether the AAP’s recent show of piety will actually help highlight the dominance of the BJP and its ideological-political stand on religion and culture in the country, the message that the BJP and some RSS thinkers would like to communicate is that they fear no competition from Kejriwal and his party.

“It suits the RSS to have more people share their ideological stand and focus on Indian culture. The RSS does not think of itself as a licencing-authority on who will practice or propagate Hindutva. And as for the BJP, there is no competition, because they are the original ones who started discussing the importance of Indian values and culture. Anyone who takes up that narrative now, will be regarded as copies,” said Arun Anand, research director at RSS-linked think-tank Vichar Vinimay Kendra and columnist for ThePrint.

(Edited by Arun Prashanth)

Also read: India has two kinds of chief ministers. Regional stars, and BJP-Congress pick-and-throw


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