By ASIM ALI / The Quint
For the last eight years, every opposition party has grappled with the problem of coming out with an effective narrative on communalism. The popularity of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and sympathy for its ideology among large sections of the electorate have meant that calibrating responses to Hindutva violence remains a political task fraught with challenges.
Given that we are in the midst of a particularly violent surge of Hindutva, many opposition parties have veered towards a more assertive response. An opposition letter, signed by 13 opposition parties, including the Congress, minced no words in assigning the blame for the heightened communal violence to “private armed mobs [that] enjoy the luxury of official patronage”.
There Are Two Aspects to AAP’s Stance on Communalism
After three years of silence, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is also trying to craft its own narrative on communalism post the assembly elections earlier this year. The first intimation of this attempt came with Kejriwal’s speech in the Delhi assembly, where he contrasted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promotion of the “false film”, The Kashmir Files, with his own delivery of schools and hospitals. The AAP’s response to the Jahangirpuri violence and the subsequent demolitions have further clarified the nature of this narrative. There are broadly two aspects to AAP’s narrative on communalism, separated into cause and effect.
The first aspect of the AAP’s narrative on communalism is that its fundamental cause is presented in a muddled manner. While the political blame for communal violence is still sought to be placed at the BJP’s door, every care is taken so as not to be seen blaming Hindus, including extremist Hindutva groups. In the immediate aftermath of the Jahangirpuri violence, Arvind Kejriwal’s first reaction was to condemn (Muslim) “stone-pelters” and not the Hindutva mob taking out the procession. Subsequently, senior AAP leaders, from Raghav Chaddha to Atishi Marlena, have located the violence in a conspiracy between the BJP and ‘Rohingyas and Bangladeshis’.
The fact that this doublespeak makes AAP’s narrative incoherent, or partly legitimises the narrative of the BJP, is not a problem for the party. The first-order objective of AAP’s narrative is not to alienate Hindus or be seen as a ‘pro-Muslim’ party.
For AAP, Communalism Is Wrong, But Only Because It Affects Governance
The second aspect of AAP’s narrative is to present the effects of communalism not in opposition to the secular, democratic framework of fundamental rights and equal citizenship, but in opposition to the tenets of good governance. In this framework, people have to make a choice between communalism and good governance, as Arvind Kejriwal outlined in Karnataka, a day after the Jahingirpuri demolitions.
“If you want riots, vote for them [referring to BJP]. If you want education, vote for me. If you want rowdyism, vote for them. If you want hospitals, vote for Kejriwal. I don’t know how to start a riot or be rowdy but I can give education, healthcare, water, roads, electricity and give a staunchly honest government,” the Delhi Chief Minister said.
Communal violence here is also subsumed under the larger rubric of ‘gundagardi’,or hooliganism, as more of a law-and-order issue rather than a Hindu-Muslim issue. This contrast between the gundagardi of the BJP and the good governance of AAP is also the fulcrum of the “nationwide survey” meant to be carried out by the party.
‘Junk Hooliganism for Development’
The starting assumption of the AAP’s narrative on communalism is that the majoritarianism birthed by Hindutva has already become mainstream in society. Therefore, the AAP believes that the opposition to communalism must not be made in terms of its inherent moral or political content but in terms of the self-interest of Hindus. The very notion of a choice implicitly concedes the possibility that the ‘hatred’ or ‘hooliganism’ of the BJP does carry a positive appeal with the Hindu masses, but which must be subordinated to their development aspirations. It is hard to think of a more damning indictment of contemporary Hindu society.
Even if this assumption is true, it does not follow that political cowardice in the face of Hindu majoritarian actions is always the more beneficial political course. For instance, the AAP could have opposed the Jahangirpuri demolitions as an onslaught on the poor, highlighting the presence of Hindu shop-owners among its victims. Less than a quarter of Delhi residents live in settlements that are fully legal, according to the Delhi Economic Survey of 2008-09.
Therefore, it isn’t entirely clear that the BJP’s ‘bulldozer politics’ plays as well among the poor of Delhi as it does within the drawing rooms of the rich.
In fact, the AAP itself took a more strident approach subsequently, taking out padayatras in “all 272 wards of Delhi” on Sunday. This was in response to Delhi BJP chief Adesh Gupta’s new letter to the mayors of South and East civic bodies to remove illegal encroachments by “Bangladeshis and Rohingyas” in their areas. The party accused the BJP of extorting people using the threat of bulldozers and called upon all their MLAs to firmly stand by people who were being “intimidated, blackmailed and threatened” by BJP councillors.
How AAP Compromises the Credibility of Its Own Narrative
Perhaps these protests would have been more powerful had the AAP not accepted the false premise of a horde of aggressive “Bangladeshi and Rohingyas” in the city, the main pretext of the BJP’s bulldozer politics. By yielding in such a craven and reflexive manner to BJP’s propaganda, the AAP has compromised the credibility of its own messaging.
The AAP’s narrative on communalism is broadly in line with its populist centrist character. It treats popular opinion as an external given, rather than something it ought to shape. And it crafts its messages to fit what people might want to hear, or not want to hear, with little concern towards what might be true. The effectiveness of this approach against the BJP’s communal juggernaut remains an open question.
This article first appeared on thequint.com