Why AAP may fall into its own trap with 'politics of glamour' in Punjab

It is turning into yet another opportunistic party pandering to religious sentiments and deserting the aam aadmi.

 |  18-minute read |   30-07-2016
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As Punjab elections approach nearer, political parties are going hyper and the target for both Akali-BJP alliance and the Congress party is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), whom they see as a threat to their convenient power sharing rounds.

AAP and its leaders, particularly Arvind Kejriwal, are now accused of all kinds of religious misconduct and causing religious tensions. It was seen in Malerkotla, the only Muslim majority small town of Punjab, where AAP was accused of spreading unrest between Muslim and non-Muslims (such an allegation occurred for the first time since Independence!).

AAP was also taken to task for wearing Nihang robes to "insult Sikhism", and more seriously, using the Golden Temple picture for politicking. Sikhs supposedly got upset seeing the image of their holy shrine with the AAP election symbol - the broom, or the "jhadu"!

Now, the Hindu Sena is also targeting Kejriwal. A number of criminal cases have been filed against many AAP MLAs, leaders and activists.

Also read: AAP leaders arrested, BJP members let off for similar offences is lopsided justice

AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal, who at one time was described as an atheist – being an admirer of Bhagat Singh, the pronounced atheist socialist – has since changed track after joining parliamentary politics.

During 2014 general elections, while contesting against Narendra Modi from Hindu religious city Varanasi, Arvind Kejriwal’s semi clad photographs with tilak on his forehead taking a dip in the river Ganga early morning, made as many headlines as newspaper photos.

Presently, his "Nihang"-style turbaned photograph is being splashed on the cover of a national multilingual political magazine, for which he is being targeted. Moreover, the AAP Punjab unit has been using Arvind Kejriwal’s Golden Temple picture on their youth manifesto, juxtaposed with the broom symbol, an action which has, strangely enough, attracted ire from some section of the Punjabi Sikh community.

aap_073016034031.jpg The AAP Punjab unit has been using Arvind Kejriwal’s Golden Temple picture on their youth manifesto, juxtaposed with the broom symbol.

Delhi MLA Naresh Yadav has been touted as the main accused in fomenting Hindu-Muslim tensions in Malerkotla, though everyone knows that Hindutva organisations have been on an overdrive, mastering such practices in western UP, including certain central ministers and some local BJP MLAs as well.

But it suits to target AAP politically, so let’s pin the blame on the newbie.

Aam Aadmi Party is trying to retrieve the situation by offering apologies in certain cases or doing seva at Golden Temple, such as what AAP leader HS Phoolka did, and now Arvind Kejriwal himself has "washed utensils" as part of the penance!

But why and how the AAP got embroiled in this quagmire of religious politics?

One needs to give a cursory glance at the pre-Independence and post-Independence political movements, to get a grip on this sensitive issue.

Also read: AAP shouldn't have apologised for Guru Granth Sahib controversy

Freedom movement and religion

Indian people’s resistance to British colonialists from 1757 to 1947 had got stuck in religion’s enormous influence on the bodypolitick, despite its such vast diversity. In fact, religion started playing havoc in social life from 20th century onwards, when communal rioting started under the aegis of British colonial policies of "divide and rule".

The 1924 Kohat riots, on which even Bhagat Singh wrote an essay, "Communal Riots and their Resolution", were perhaps the first major violent Hindu-Muslim conflict. In the "Revolt of 1857", or the first Indian War of Independence, Hindu and Muslim kings of India fought together under last and ageing Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar.

In a true sense, the secular form of freedom struggle took shape with the 1913 Ghadar Party, formed in the USA with its failed Ghadar attempt in India in 1915. Bhagat Singh and his comrades took its atheistic tradition further through the formation of the Socialist HSRA, with the famous "Inqlab Zindabad" slogan.

In the Indian National Congress as well, despite it being the platform for multi-religious people’s freedom struggle, a socialist and secular outlook was developed by CSP – the Congress Socialist Party – and by leaders with strong secular principles such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Narender Dev, Jai Prakash Narayan and Ram Manohar Lohia.

On the other hand, Sardar Patel, Rajender Prasad, Madan Mohan Malviya, Lala Lajpat Rai, Lokmanya Tilak, Purshotamdas Tandon, and even Mahatma Gandhi, stuck to Congress’ older religious format, which in fact gave space to Muslim religious faithful freedom fighters such as Maulana Azad. But Hindus being present in larger numbers in Congress with many feudal lords as well, soft Hindutva kept flourishing inside the Congress movement.

Also read: Sidhu can decidedly tilt scales in Kejriwal's favour in Punjab

The Dalit movement under Dr BR Ambedkar and Periyar adhered strictly to the non-religious character of their mass struggle and remained focussed on Dalit issues, whereas the Hindu religion, with its caste biases and entrenched anti-Dalit character in practice, was a presence within the Congress-led freedom movement against which Dr Ambedkar fought resolutely.

The "Quit India" movement of 1942 as well as Netaji Subhas Bose-led Azad Hind Fauj resistance with "Jai Hind" slogan and Indian Navy revolt of 1946, had nothing to do with religion and focused on the ideal of Indian freedom from colonial regime.

The two forms of secularism developed in pre-independence India within Congress: the "separate politics from religion" type of Nehruvian/Subhas Boseian vision; and, the "Sarv Dharm Sambhav" of the idea preached by the Gandhian/Patelian/Maulana Azadian camp.

First prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, in his 17 years of governance, adhered to secularism in the stricter sense of keeping religion away from politics.

Unfortunately, his own daughter, Indira Gandhi, killed his tradition and brought in "Sarv Dharma Sambhav" kind of soft Hindutva, which fully flourished during the Narsimha Rao regime.

Anna Hazare and JP movements

Aam Aadmi Party, rather than following Netaji Subhas Bose, Bhagat Singh, Jawaharlal Nehru, or Congress Socialist party (CSP) or the Navy revolt ideals, is actually tracing the footsteps of Indira Gandhi and Narsimha Rao, fanning their "Sarv Dharam Sambhav" vision, which, it’s fair to say, suits BJP/RSS equally.

In 1974, in the first major mass movement against Indira Gandhi regime, Jai Prakash Narayan himself never resorted to religion. His main plank of non-Marxist socialist ideology was reinforced by his socialist student followers, such as Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar. But the Jansangh party very cleverly joined the movement and created a big space for itself.

So much so that it merged the Jansangh into the Janata Party for a while and secured two of the most important ministries under Janta Party rule in 1977 – foreign affairs and information and broadcasting ministry led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishan Advani respectively.

Also read: Entire political class is complicit in Centre's relentless targeting of AAP

With the failure of Janata Party experiment, they revived themselves in the old Jansangh form with the new name – Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP). Slowly, they regained more space from just two seats in Lok Sabha in 1984 to today’s full majority in Lok Sabha. JP died as a frustrated person just as Gandhi was frustrated in 1946-48 from communal conflagrations all over India.

Almost a similar political pattern got repeated during the Anna Hazare movement known as "India Against Corruption". While many idealist youths, including many Leftists, joined the Anna movement, the BJP was again at its favourite game of controlling the mass uprising in order to expand its own political space.

kejriannabd_073016034623.jpg Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal.

The searing irony was how the Delhi gangrape of a young girl, Jyoti/Nirbhaya, was used by BJP to force the then UPA government at the Centre for creating sterner, some would say more oppressive, laws, interestingly demanded by Leftists themselves.

This is why the whole advantage of the massive turnout of Leftist JNU students in this case was ultimately encashed electorally by none other than the Modi-led BJP in its favour during the 2014 parliamentary elections.

While CPM and Socialists/other Leftists, including the non-parliamentary Left, had taken part in the resistance to Indira Gandhi-imposed Emergency, the CPI at that time supported the Emergency citing CIA or RSS threat! I myself remained imprisoned for seven months in jail along with thousands of other Leftists of various hues.

Yet looking at the outcome of two movements – that of Jai Prakash Narayan and Anna Hazare – bringing net political advantage to the RSS-BJP combine, bringing them, at first, partially in power, and then in 2014, in complete power, it becomes imperative to review the whole political phenomenon in more dispassionate manner.

Coming back to the AAP, just like the JP movement, which had contributed to the creation of Janata Party in 1977, a mixture of former Congress, Socialists and Jansangh members, it was the Anna Hazare movement which became the cause behind the rise of a new, ideologically-agnostic but broadly secular party – the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party.

The rise of AAP

The Aam Aadmi Party, though it looks to be a new political phenomenon, yet it actually is a similar mixture of socialists, leftists and soft Hindutavites, mostly disgruntled with the Congress party. One must acknowledge, however, that the AAP has certainly attracted fresh youth to its political playing field in really large numbers, young persons who were fed up with older political formations, even with the "honest", but increasingly politically irrelevant, Left parties.

AAP attracted this new youth base by using the images of youthful revolutionaries of the Indian freedom struggle such as Bhagat Singh and Chandershekhar Azad. Ironically, the same tactic was used by Baba Ramdev also in his initial phase of popularising Yoga, and his website those days was full of eulogisation of revolutionary martyrs of freedom struggle and icons such as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.

During the 2014 general elections, while AAP used youth icons of freedom struggle to the fullest extent, the BJP/RSS camp, which had nothing to showcase in its kitty as to have had contributed to the independence movement, took refuge in soft Hindutavite icons from the Congress movement itself, such as Madan Mohan Malviya, Sardar Patel, et al.

It needed to somehow link itself to the freedoms struggle legacy, apart from its own heroes – Veer Savarkar and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee – who, ironically enough, had little role to play in the independence movement.

After getting a more-than-expected response during Lok Sabha elections in Punjab and the Assembly elections in Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal took no time to throwing AAP’s most credible and respected faces, such as Prashant Bhushan, Yogender Yadav and Anand Kumar, out of party and marginalising the popular member of Parliament, Dr Dharamvir Gandhi.

The reason being their critical approach towards the one-man leadership model preferred by Arvind Kejriwal. Leaving aside personal attacks from both sides in those days, one can say that perhaps Yogender Yadav was wrong in having AAP put out 400+ candidates in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and getting only four elected.

But that’s hindsight. It’s easier to say now that had the party just focused on Punjab, Haryana and Delhi with few more symbolic seats in other states, they would have got at least 10+ seats in the Lok Sabha and would have emerged as one of the major national opposition parties, apart from the Indian National Congress.

Yet throwing them unceremoniously out of the party and the subsequent fiasco of the Jan Lokpal Act, the issue on which AAP tried to emotionally mobilise people against corruption, dented AAP’s as well as Kejriwal’s own image, and they were reduced to just any other party indulging in political opportunism to expand power base.

From Gul to Sidhu: The Punjab quagmire

Apart from using religious symbolism, the AAP also indulged in glamour tactic in the 2014 elections, and is trying to repeat the same strategy now the in context of Punjab Assembly elections.

In 2014, from the Chandigarh Lok Sabha constituency, AAP gave ticket to Bollywood actress and activist, Gul Panag, to counter actress Kirron Kher, (significantly, the wife of Anupam Kher, who later joined BJP and has now become an important though unofficial spokesperson for Narendra Modi).

gulbd_073016034842.jpg In 2014, from the Chandigarh Lok Sabha constituency, AAP gave ticket to Gul Panag.

The ticket to Gul Panag was in lieu of denying ticket to AAP’s most active face from those days – Professor Manjit Singh from Panjab University. The Gul Panag trick did not work, but if Manjit Singh had been given the ticket, the message would have gone out that AAP respects ground-level workers.

Later, even Manjit Singh met the fate of Bhushan-Yadav-Gandhi.

Moreover, rather than having certain humility in public conduct, AAP is increasingly taking on an aggressive tone towards not only its political opponents, but against its own well-wishers also, which in the long run would prove counterproductive. Dr Daljit Singh, a famous ophthalmologist and Padma awardee, as the AAP candidate from the Amritsar Lok Sabha seat in 2014, had made impact by his humility, going even to opposition Congress and BJP meetings to seek out votes.

Everybody respected him not only because of his 80+ age, but because he made the connect, and even though he lost, he created a respectable image for AAP in Punjab. Sadly, even he has been marginalised by AAP now. As far as the 2017 assembly polls are concerned, the AAP, by trying to woo Navjot Sidhu to its fold, is falling into the earlier trap of glamour over grassroots.

Sidhu may be a famous comedian on television and a past cricketer of medium talent, he, nevertheless, carries the baggage of having sided with the BJP for opportunistic purposes for too long, leaving his father Bhagwant Sidhu’s Congress party legacy of Patiala, citing which Captain Amrinder Singh is trying to woo him back to the Congress fold.

Navjot Singh Sidhu carries the ghost of a murder case as well, when a village old man died due to his rash driving in Patiala. He was convicted, but later the sentence was suspended/cleared. Just as his haranguing videos on Kejriwal during his BJP days are going viral online, the opposition will eventually dig out his quasi-criminal past and bring it to fore as well.

Lip-service to secularism

Strange part of this whole political gimmickry is that AAP is resorting to usual politicking, despite having tried to project an alternative image of a party that "wants to change the system", and not just "change rulers". This, AAP draws from Bhagat Singh himself, who used to say during the struggle against colonialism that "Indian people don’t need power to be changed from white hands to brown, they need a new system of freedom from exploitation".

Jawaharlal Nehru may have had many flaws in his personality, yet he never compromised on his atheism. He never visited temples/mosques/Gurdwaras, never indulged in "Bhumi Pujan" like Hinduised rituals in construction of government-sponsored buildings and always focused on people’s issues, such as fighting against the feudalism-capitalism complex of postcolonial India and instead focus on socialism as a political principle and building huge socialist infrastructure.

Let’s say he did not fully succeed as he could not change "system".

But if the AAP says that it’s committed to changing the system, then why could they not focus on people’s real issues, which in the context of Punjab are the following.

Farmer suicides

First and foremost, the string of suicides by peasants. Not a day goes when some newspapers, at least the Punjabi language ones, do not carry the news of a poor farmer committing suicide due to non-payment of debt. Thousands of peasants have already committed suicide in Punjab in the last decade or more.

The Tribune carried almost 20 in-depth stories series on peasant suicides, a major issue which no political party is taking up in earnestness, leave aside the ruling Akali-BJP combine or the main opposition in the Congress party. Peasant suicides is a more pressing issue than even so-called drug menace, by now glamourised through movies like Udta Punjab.

Economic insecurities of younger generation

Due to impact of the so-called neoliberal economy or corporatism, the Punjab government (other state governments too) has resorted to "contractisation" and outsourcing of government jobs, making the youth work at meagre pays, despite having very high qualifications. Worse still, they continue to work in such positions for decades and not just months or years. In the 70s, large number of school teachers/other employees were appointed on ad hoc basis, but they were paid full salaries of a regular employee at least ten months in a year and were regularised in about two-three years’ time.

Nowadays, with most jobs following the American pattern, people are appointed on various forms of contract, with no surety of regularisation of jobs. There is the added problem of huge unemployment among the youth, due to which they are not getting even low-paying contractual jobs as well. Actually, the widespread drug problem among Punjab’s youth is really a manifestation of deeply-felt frustration and their prolonged anxieties over the present and the future. Unless this basic problem is tackled, no amount of money spent on fixing drug problem will actually help.

Glamorisation of marriage/lifestyle and dowry on film and television

It is absolutely true that the uncritical glamourisation of show-off, capital-intensive wedding ceremonies in films, as well as the glorification of dowry system in several saas-bahu TV soaps, have reinforced and reinculcated the social evils like ‘dowry’ and discriminatory rituals. In effect, this has enormously contributed to pauperisation of Punjab’s peasantry and other sections.

Peasants and other sections following middle class mores of show-off and overspending beyond their means, have to resort to getting loans that they are unable to pay back, leading in many cases to suicides and in some cases to a life of unwitting crime.

Both the Congress party and the Akali-BJP combine are neck-deep in exploiting people’s misery for their personal and party gains. That is why people are in crying for a real regime change in Punjab. And they are looking to any alternative to these two thoroughly discredited parties/combines.

The Aam Aadmi Party gave them some hope of change, so they responded to their Lok Sabha candidates with vigour in 2014. So much so that even the so-called "Maharani of Patiala" could not withstand people’s wrath. But due to contradictions within AAP springin up in few months, Congress brought back the same candidate, Praneet Kaur, in Punjab and defeating the AAP candidate massively in Patiala.

Not only Punjab, the whole of India is in a crying need of a political party, that is truly liberal with solid anti-corporate, pro-poor economic policies, and which could emerge as the real alternative to potentially fascist BJP/RSS which is deadly in anti-people, anti-minority stance. It won’t be a mistake to say that we have a rather antinational party in power at the Centre.

The Left alternative is nowhere in sight and perhaps not yet acceptable to majority of our people. But AAP has the true apotential to become such a centre-of-left liberal party, but it is dissipating its energies due to self-created traps of pandering to religious sentiments and recruiting glamorous stars in the party.

Must eschew religious appeasement

Religion has caused much havoc everywhere in the world and in present times, the most peaceful nations are those, where people have little interest in religion, such as New Zealand and some small European countries.

AAP should remember what Bhagat Singh wrote about religion in the context of 1924 Kohat riots: "Under these conditions the future of Hindustan seems very bleak. These ‘religions’ have ruined the country. And one has no idea how long these religious riots will plague Hindustan. These riots have shamed Hindustan in the eyes of the world. And we have seen how everyone is carried on the tide of blind faith."(From "The Religion Oriented Riots and their Solution", 1927.)

The Congress and Akali/BJP combine are really used to exploiting political power for their personal ends, and they use religion with equal ease to achieve their power-profiteering goals.

The Aam Aadmi Party, if tries to beat them in their own ring by resorting to same tactic of religious appeasement and glamourous illusions, though may succeed for a while, but it will be largely due to people’s frustrations with two political camps. But it will be a short-term honeymoon as the AAP too will be exposed, and much faster than these two combines, as yet another opprtunistic party, and will lose people’s faith as quickly as they gained it.

AAP as an alternative

Had AAP not lost its "Wise Four" – Prashant Bhushan, Yogendra Yadav, Anand Kumar and Dharmvir – they would have been more in tune with the ground realities in various Indian states. Instead, AAP’s "Clever Four" –Ashutosh, Kumar Vishwas, Sanjay Singh, and Ashish Khetan – have given short-term "strategies", not true alternatives. They will keep on falling into the same traps, sometimes in their bid to "please all religions", sometimes in their bid bring in the "glamour quotient".

Even the Congress party in the pre-Independence period had more space for dissension that the AAP does now and had allowed the socialists and the communists as well as rightists, to express themselves in its broader platform. Even after independence, Jawaharlal Nehru continued in the company of soft Hindutvaites like Govind Vallabh Pant, Sardar Patel, as well as Leftists like Krishna Menon, KD Malviya, et al, in his ministry and party.

Nehru never tried to throw them out as Arvind Kejriwal did in just two years of his party formation. Kejriwal’s behaviour with his former colleagues was extremely disgraceful.

Ultimately, it may lead AAP to fall into the same trap – becoming another "Janata Parivar", eventually splitting into many factions and becoming part of the "Great Indian Circus of Parliamentary Democracy", serving the corporates but not the people, the aam aadmi.


Chaman Lal Chaman Lal @profchaman

The author is a retired professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University and the author of Understanding Bhagat Singh.

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