Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has become bolder over time in the political and public display of his religious beliefs. He was earlier known to cite the benefits of reciting the “Hanuman Chalisa” on television and his visit to the Hanuman Temple in his constituency on the eve of the last Delhi state Assembly elections. Even then his behaviour had raised more than a few eyebrows.
At the time his liberal supporters exulted that this homespun image of a humble Hanuman-bhakt (Devotee of Hanuman) was absolutely the best antidote to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) polarising communal politics. But now by holding a massively advertised and televised Lakhsmi Puja on Diwali together with his entire Council of Ministers (with spouses in tow) his religious signalling has gone on to another plane. While not yet a show to rival the excesses of Yogi Adityanath’s Diwali celebrations in Ayodhya, it no less identifies his entire government machinery with the celebration of the rituals of the majority religion at Delhi’s Akshardham Temple.
Unlike Yogi Adityanath, Kejriwal, the Mechanical Engineer from Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, knew he was talking utter nonsense when he exhorted the citizens of Delhi with the promise that “when 2 crore people of Delhi will pray together, wonderful vibrations will emanate. Visible and invisible powers will bless the people of Delhi.”
If it was once possible to argue that Kejriwal’s appeals to the majority Hindu vote bank were harmless, then it is no longer possible to hold on to that fond dream. Despite his claiming Gandhi as a mentor, his Hinduism is nothing like Gandhi’s pluralist and inclusionary religiosity. Gandhi stood firmly against communal violence and spoke up for communal harmony against the same hate-mongers and when he could not control it he put his own life at risk several times by undertaking fasts unto death. Gandhi believed that national unity could not be built by excluding Muslims at any level. The question is: Does Kejriwal’s Hinduism also believe that?
Kejriwal has refused to speak up on two political moments absolutely critical for Indian Muslims. The revocation of Articles 370 and 35A in Jammu and Kashmir which he supported and the blatantly communal amendment to the Indian Constitution in the form of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The first would lead to the breakup of India’s only Muslim-majority state and shorn of its special provisions, facilitate its symbolic ‘integration’ into a unitary state. Here he was on the same page as the Hindu voters that he was trying to engage with.
On the CAA he not only did not challenge the Centre but he did not even want to be seen standing in solidarity with any of the unprecedented street protest sites, forgetting that he himself was a leader born from street protests. His supporters claimed that in keeping a low profile on these issues, Kejriwal was avoiding the trap set for him by the BJP. Naive Muslim voters believed he was doing the right thing tactically because they “knew in their hearts” that he would speak up for them once he won the election. They were still waiting for him to speak up when the communal riots in Northeast Delhi began. Kejriwal and his ministers not only refused to visit the main riot-affected areas (although he later visited some victims in the hospitals) but he even held back from demanding criminal action against the BJP men who provoked the riots. Sitting in silent mourning for a few hours at Gandhi’s memorial was hardly adequate after 53 people, two-thirds of them Muslim, had been killed!
What would Gandhi have said to Kejriwal’s calculated refusal to intervene to stop the riots? In one of his articles the late Asghar Ali Engineer recalls a conversation with Subhdra Joshi. Joshi went to Gandhi after the Partition-related riots in Delhi. When the Mahatma asked her how many people had died, she said 10,000. Gandhi asked her how many of you (i.e. peace workers) have been killed? When she replied none, he retorted, “Then how can I believe you are trying to prevent communal violence?”
Those who abhor the BJP’s harsh polarising politics still look to Kejriwal as an alternative and repeat the mantra – Hinduism is not Hindutva. The uncomfortable truth is that political actions based on religious mobilisation are the basic building blocks of the hate-filled Hindutva ideology. This has been underlined in India’s history from the early 20th century onwards. Unless Kejriwal’s Hinduism is inclusivist like Gandhi’s – of which there are no signs – then it can only feed into the BJP’s larger project of creating a Hindu majoritarian state.
Rahul Gandhi’s temple hopping, displaying the sacred thread and announcing his gotra is still different from Kejriwal’s trajectory. This is because the Congress party still displays inclusivist traits whereas the Aam Adami Party seems to have jettisoned any strategy of standing with the minorities. Arguments about how Kejriwal’s “Soft Hindutva” will neutralise the BJP’s “Hard Hindutva” cannot hold before the active Hinduisation of his government now.
If one’s Hinduism is not inclusive then it is communal. And communalism can never be soft, cuddly or likeable. At its core, it is hard and exclusionary. It must be recognised as such. That is why it is erroneous to see Kejriwal as “Modi-minus Hindutva”.
Kejriwal’s Hinduism is not the Hindutva of the lynch-mob, the karsevak ready to bring down an inconvenient religious monument or even of prudish bigots disrupting St Valentine’s Day and ready to take on ‘love jehad’. It is differently packaged as an extension of his “Hindu family values” (his daughter saying – “He used to wake us up at 6 AM, make us read the Gita.”), his going to a temple, reciting devotional hymns, facilitating religious pilgrimage for the elderly and now collective Lakshmi pooja. Kejriwal’s Hinduism is just a slower acting strain which achieves the same objective as its more virulent form – destroying Constitutional norms and bridging the gap deliberately sought by our Constitution’s makers between religion and politics.