At the inauguration of the Golden Gate lookalike, the cable-stayed Signature Bridge in north-west Delhi in November 2018, Arvind Kejriwal was the modern erudite chief minister with a scientific vision, something not strange about him because he is an IIT graduate.
He mocked the Narendra Modi government’s installing of the tallest Indian statue of Sardar Patel in Gujarat, saying: “What the country needs more are world class bridges and not tall statues.”
His speech was also a brave call for modernity, a call for eschewing imagined notions of greatness and national valour which was what the Sardar Patel statue signified.
Two years later, Kejriwal is a changed man. A few days back, on Diwali, the three-time chief minister (he has completed only one full term), was sitting in the wide portico of the grand Akshardam temple in East Delhi, doing an official Lakshmi puja sponsored by the government, probably the first time any state government has done such a thing.
Kejriwal made a big splash about the programme which was telecast on TV apart from being livestreamed on social media. He had summoned senior priests to be on stage and conducted proceedings as he played the proper Hindu devotee. This was a far cry from the rebel who stormed Delhi where pujas were far from his mind.
With this puja, done to placate or thank the Hindu voters of Delhi for choosing him for the third time this February, Kejriwal was officially anointing himself as another or perhaps more original version of the Hindu BJP party which has some modern credentials to add to its increasingly saffron posturings.
Lighting the Hindutva cracker
With BJP as his main opponent, what better way to steal the Hindu thunder by being seen close to the goddesses than to those who talk of modernity and a future vision. With this religious grandstanding in Akshardam temple, Kejriwal was not celebrating Deepavali, but was instead lighting the fire to the loud cracker of Hindutva.
Still, strangely, he chose the Akshardam temple built by the Hindu reformist Swaminarayan sect, where no pujas are held. Kejriwal may have been reminded of his secular past, but in any case, what better place than a touristy temple full of tacky museum pieces to formally shed the tag of rebel against corruption and become part of the game?
— ANI (@ANI) November 14, 2020
The signs of this grand shift from the man asking for a shift to modernity at the Signature bridge inauguration to the Akshardam event has been visible since he won the elections in February 2019 when the Aam Aadmi Party won 62 seats out of 70 in a near repeat of his earlier performance in Delhi elections (67 seats in 2015).
BJP MP and loudmouth from Bengaluru, Tejasvi Surya who was in Delhi on November 14 for BJP-sponsored Diwali celebrations, had this to say about Kejriwal. “Those who were ashamed of using Bharat Mata picture on the stage during Anna Hazare agitation, today, Arvind Kejriwal along with his cabinet is going to temple to perform Diwali puja. India has changed. Politicians like Arvind Kejriwal are now realising that they cannot do politics by opposing Hindus and insulting Hindu faith. This is political reality,” Surya said.
Strategic (Kishor) move
The turning point in Kejriwal’s embracing of the Hindu vote and applying of the Hindu tint came during the 2020 elections on the advice of the freelancing, purely commercial election strategist, Prashant Kishor, who has now been hired by the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal.
Kishor had advised AAP not to be pro-secular or pro-Muslim, to tone down the anti-CAA rhetoric and not to be seen anywhere near the protesting anti-CAA Muslim women who were out in strength for four months at Shaheen Bagh in south Delhi.
The ploy worked. The 2019 election was the turning point in Kejriwal’s post-ideology political positioning. He decided to shift right after dumping all what he stood for. He cut out the anti-BJP rhetoric, silenced supporting voices for the minority, stopped talking modernity and progress and instead embraced the saffron ideology to become a duplicate BJP party seen only in Delhi.
To this positioning, the BJP or Modi had no answers. What would have convinced Kejriwal even more was that his right hand man, Manish Sisodia, who virtually runs the government, almost lost from Patparganj constituency to an unknown BJP candidate.
The conclusion reached for this surprise voting which went against the so-called popular sentiment was that Sisodia was seen to be pro-Muslim and had supported the anti-CAA protestors.
The reason why Kejriwal and his entire cabinet was sitting in Akshardam temple was not just because of this shift. The prime reason of course was that the BJP had swept Delhi in the general elections in May 2019 and so by February 2020, for the state elections Kejriwal had become a different animal.
After his victory, Kejriwal was convinced about the saffron colouring he needed to have and also tried on many occasions to steal the Hindutva thunder from Modi.
Left vs riot
He gave sanction for prosecuting JNU student leaders Umar Khalid and Kanhaiya Kumar in the trumped up sedition case in an attempt to steal the Amit Shah agenda too. Shockingly, Kejriwal or AAP has had no complaints against the Amit Shah administration (Delhi police, which comes under Amit Shah’s Home Ministry) plan of rounding up Muslims in Delhi for the imagined crime of participating in the riots which shook Delhi.
All this while the main culprit, BJP leader, Kapil Mishra who instigated the February Delhi riots moves around scot free.
A few of these innocent Muslims have been granted bail by magistrates and lower court judges who have expressed surprise at people being arrested with no proper charges.
In his hey days, Kejriwal would have given vent to the crying of his conscience. But now he has no conscience left.
He has also for the last one year stopped complaining against the Modi Sarkar which was his staple. This comes just six years after he contested against Modi in Varanasi.
Before he entered the Akshardam temple, he had shed the last signs of the anti-BJP stand that had created his party in the first place — the anti-corruption movement which Kejriwal and Anna Hazare had started in Delhi, supported by the BJP initially as another weapon against the Congress.
For all that, he has been labelled as the BJP’s B-team for the last one year. It is rightly so, leaving Modi’s party wondering why they had let the camel into the Hindutva tent in the first place.
Kejriwal’s political opportunism is not going to last. First of all, Delhi is a fully cosmopolitan city where ideology is not the sole vote-winner. Delhi has elected BJP and the Congress in turn.
Although most AAP leaders, including Sisodia and young MLA Raghav Chadha are post-ideology creatures, they might be viewing with suspicion this saffron shift of the party.
Because sooner rather than later, the BJP will turn the tables on this ideology game and easily swallow the AAP which is extremely small in its appeal and sway having struggled to move into neighbouring states. Also voters will realise that the A team is slightly better than the B team, if it comes with no value addition.
Delhi has voted Congress thrice to power, and those voters (including Muslims) who shifted to AAP. as the party best positioned to beat the BJP, might rightly think later that Congress is better at opposing the BJP rather than its carbon copy version.
Also the chief minister will realise soon that dancing on the tight rope between secularism and Hindutva can be a slippery act.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)