AAP’s spin to secularism: counter Hindutva with Hinduism
Kejriwal’s party wants to neutralize the BJP’s use of Hindu symbols by regularly employing them. It wants to normalize them in ways that prevent the BJP from distinguishing itself merely by the use of these symbols.
Even as there has been considerable debate over whether its victory in Delhi at all signifies an ideological challenge to the BJP’s Hindutva, the Aam Aadmi Party surprised everyone on Tuesday by announcing a plan for public recitals of the Ramayana’s Sundar Kand every month.
AAP MLA from Greater Kailash, Saurabh Bhardwaj, said that the recitation of the Sundar Kand would be held in different parts of Delhi on the first Tuesday of each month, to seek the blessings of Lord Hanuman. He added that the party had got sponsors for the programmes.
This suggested that AAP’s strategy of silence on the BJP’s polarized campaign over Shaheen Bagh while focusing only on its governance was not merely an electoral tactic to keep the contest non-ideological.
Arvind Kejriwal publicized his visits to a Hanuman temple before and after the election, in what was seen as a soft outreach to Hindus. However, it seems that this “electoral tactic” is now metamorphosing into some sort of an ideological pitch.
Bhardwaj underlined this when he told the media that the idea was to reclaim “the warmth of Hinduism” that was threatened by the “toxic propaganda of Hindutva”.
“The BJP believes that only they have the moral authority over Hinduism and that all other Hindus who believe in secularism are anti-national. We want to change this view of Hinduism in Delhi,” Bhardwaj was reported as saying.
The Sundar Kand is a section of the Ramayana that is dedicated to Lord Hanuman and extols His heroism.
The decision of the AAP government to have public recitals of the Sundar Kand in the capital puts paid to the belief that the party is attempting an ideology-neutral form of governance where it is only service delivery – cheap water and power, better government schools, and mohalla clinics – that matters.
It has chosen its own brand of cultural intervention – one that seeks to challenge the BJP by countering its rampant use of Hindutva themes, not by avoiding all religious symbolism, but by seeking to employ religious symbolism in what it sees as an inclusive manner.
Significantly, Bhardwaj uses the term ‘secular Hindus’ here. In other words, secularism is seen here as a possible religiosity that isn’t meant to target the other. This is also the idea behind Sarv Panth Sama Bhav, often seen as the crux of Indian secularism.
The AAP is bound to face criticism from liberals and the left, who would be tempted to see this as an attempt at trying to counter the BJP without challenging its propensity to use the majority religion indiscriminately as a mobilization tool – something that ends up marginalizing the minorities.
However, it is significant that AAP, as the preferred party of Muslims in the capital, is not using Hindu symbols to target Muslims, something that the BJP has been repeatedly accused of.
The AAP, in other words, has a prescription of its own to counter the BJP. Rather than steering clear of religious symbols altogether, it is looking to prevent the BJP's exclusive use of religious symbols for mass mobilization.
This isn’t electoral exigency any longer: Kejriwal’s party wants to neutralize the BJP’s use of Hindu symbols by regularly employing them. It wants to normalize them in ways that prevent the BJP from distinguishing itself merely by the use of these symbols.
There are quite a few possibilities once this happens. One, the use of these symbols may actually help the BJP, both electorally and in terms of hegemony, as the “original” representative of political Hinduism. Two, this may make these symbols so normalized that the BJP may not be able to ride a Hindutva wave merely by evoking them. It will then have to distinguish Hindutva overtly from practised Hinduism and thus accept that opposition leaders are also Hindus but in a different, and more inclusive, way. Third, the symbols may themselves lose their political potency through use by more than one party.
It remains to be seen how the party’s strategy pans out: whether it is seen as a reaffirmation of the centrality of the BJP’s politics, or as a counter to it by interpreting Hindu symbols in ways that are different from their Hindutva reading of it, thus forcing the BJP to come back to policy issues rather than just ride its monopoly of these symbols.
The jury is still out on what has better countered Hindutva: strident secularism or inclusive Hinduism. If Jawaharlal Nehru sought to frontally combat Hindutva voices in the 1950s, he could do so successfully perhaps because Mahatma Gandhi had already denied Hindutva a monopoly over Hindu symbols.
But the real failure of Hindutva came in the north Indian states after independence. Given the strong presence of traditional Hindu leaders in the Congress in states like Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, the Jana Sangh found it difficult to project itself as the sole sentinel of Hindu interests.
It tried to champion Hindi in UP and MP post-independence, but Congress leaders like Govind Ballabh Pant and Sarvasri Sampoornanand had already promoted Hindi, robbing the Jana Sangh of an issue. Not only this, Sampoornanand, the Chief Minister of the state from 1954 to 1960, was himself well-versed in Sanskrit and enjoyed a certain traditional prestige because of this.
In Madhya Pradesh, Seth Govind Das and Dwarka Prasad Mishra of the Congress were strong votaries of Hindi, and the Jana Sangh failed to make a mark here too.
Congress governments in northern India also banned cow slaughter – choosing to implement Article 48 of the constitution, which comes under the Directive Principles of State Policy – thus robbing the Jana Sangh of its theme of cow slaughter. The latter had to, in fact, up the ante through an agitation in 1966 to demand that the constitution be amended to make it possible for Parliament to ban cow slaughter throughout India by placing the matter in the Concurrent List. This agitation saw violence, and the Jana Sangh’s seats did jump to 35 in the 1967 Lok Sabha polls. It also improved its tally in the UP assembly, becoming the second-largest party after the Congress.
Indeed, Rajiv Gandhi tried to wade into a Hindutva agenda in the 1980s by opening the locks of the Babri masjid and allowing shilanyas at the disputed site. This issue, however, helped the BJP, as LK Advani's Rath Yatra soon after helped the BJP sweep north Indian states.
However, it may well be argued that Rajiv Gandhi was trying to outsmart the BJP on its turf by involving the government in a long-standing Hindu-Muslim dispute.
Where Hinduism is defined in opposition to Islam – as in the Ram temple controversy – the BJP has the default advantage. However, this may not necessarily mean that evoking Hindu symbolism in ways that don’t see Muslims as the other will necessarily benefit the BJP.
AAP has clearly broken with the line secular parties have adopted since 1992 to take on the BJP. This was a line that by and large sought distance from public use of Hindu symbolism. However, this did not succeed in stalling the growth of the BJP.
AAP’s ideological experiment in Delhi tries to take a cue from the politics of Gandhi and the Congress conservatives instead: religious symbolism here is used to neutralize their use by Hindutva.
However, Gandhi went a step further: his prayer meetings transcended exclusive Hinduism to take up themes from other religions like Islam too. It isn’t clear whether AAP is open to doing this, even if gradually.
It remains to be seen whether AAP’s new politics of religious symbols – alongside its development pitch -- works, but it would be hasty to dismiss it prematurely.
However, to evoke religion and not fall into identity politics is indeed like walking a tight-rope. It remains to be seen whether AAP can walk the talk. And it isn’t clear yet whether it can attract Hindus and Muslims alike with such a strategy.