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Home / Columns / How AAP beat BJP at its own game, writes Shekhar Gupta

How AAP beat BJP at its own game, writes Shekhar Gupta

The party got the mix of religion, nationalism, and socialism right. Not relying on Twitter helped

columns Updated: Feb 11, 2020 22:13 IST
Shekhar Gupta
Shekhar Gupta
Arvind Kejriwal addreses supporters after party's victory in the assembly polls, New Delhi, February 11, 2020
Arvind Kejriwal addreses supporters after party's victory in the assembly polls, New Delhi, February 11, 2020(PTI)

The history of democracy tells you that nationalism and (majority) religion is an unbeatable combination. What light does the Delhi result throw on this?

Let’s expand the argument. If you can also deftly throw in socialism, it makes for a proposition cast in titanium. Nothing can challenge or hurt it. We’ve been living through this reality since 2014, the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah era.

This has awed pundits on all sides. Arun Shourie had famously called the BJP, Congress plus cow. Another eminent friend of mine in Kolkata, who has followed the politics of the Left closely for decades, suggests a rewrite after the latest budget. Now, he says, Narendra Modi is nothing but Prakash Karat plus CAA, or the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

Now you can see why the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a 92% (seats won in May 2019) success record against the Congress, with a 23% lead in votes. When Rahul Gandhi goes temple-hopping, it looks like a spectacle, unconvincing, and worse, defensive. As if to say, see, I am Hindu too. This is also why the Left died in West Bengal. Then, Congress leaders ask for evidence of surgical strikes and Balakot, are ambivalent on Article 370, triple talaq and Sabarimala and call Modi a “chor”.

Mamata Banerjee took away their socio-populism, and unlike them, she is happy to dress in any religion’s colours — even the hijab — on its festivals and be as nationalist as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. India’s older parties are either not getting this change, or are unwilling to accept this reality.

How does a tiny and young party like the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) then defy these odds to seal its second near-clean sweep in Delhi, within nine months of finishing a distant third behind the BJP and Congress in the May 2019 Lok Sabha elections?

Because, while nationalism plus religion and socialism is a killer combination electorally, none of these are beyond the reach of any of your rivals. No one party has a copyright on Bharat Mata, Lord Ram, Ram Charit Manas or socialism/welfarism/populism. Watch the victory speeches by Kejriwal and his key leaders today. There’s been plenty of Bharat Mata ki Jai, Vande Mataram, praise for Lord Hanuman and temple visits without pomp and bandobast.

For months now, Kejriwal and his party have faced woke condemnation over their silence on Jawaharlal Nehru University (which Rahul Gandhi visited in 2016), Jamia Millia Islamia, Shaheen Bagh, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and other such issues. Also, over their “teerth yatra”, pilgrimage-type schemes. Their success lies in the fact that they held their nerve. If they had succumbed to this pressure even a little, to come up to the standards set for liberalism/secularism on Twitter, Amit Shah would have sent them not just a box of mithais, but the entire halwai shop.

They would then have lost both, the gods and the nation, and let these be the BJP’s monopoly. Not only did they not do it, Kejriwal himself sang the Hanuman Chalisa on TV, sounded sincere and convincing, and a bhakt of the Hindu gods, rather than that of the two-member ruling pantheon today.

If you are a non-bigoted, god-fearing Hindu, which is a large majority of Hindus, this is a more convincing expression of religiosity and faith than a “Jai Shri Ram” shouted menacingly or in anger and resentment. Further, it gives no offence to other religions, including Islam. Just as a Muslim cannot be “judged” for looking, sounding, praying like a Muslim, this is merely a mirror image of a Hindu publicly expressing his religiosity. None is setting a code of conduct for the other and insisting that it be followed, on the threat of, who knows, even citizenship.

And on nationalism, please do remember that among the first steps the Kejriwal government took was to announce ex-gratia payments to the families of soldiers killed in action at a scale unprecedented in India. It voted with the BJP government on Article 370, welcomed the surgical strikes and Balakot rather than express any scepticism at all about the armed forces’ claims.

On welfare, they devised their own giveaways and, just like Modi and his Ujjwala and other schemes, ensured efficient and leak-proof delivery. The combination of nationalism-welfarism-religion was established. The most important tactical approach lay in not attacking Modi or the BJP on any of these.

The big takeaway from this election is that the larger Modi-Shah method has been, and can be gamed. Nobody can take Modi away from the BJP. No leader seems to be rising anywhere at this point who could conceivably challenge Modi even in 2024. But you can surely deny them the exclusivity over their winning formula, and make the contest much less one-sided.

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The views expressed are personal.