A few days before Delhi voted, a prominent news anchor asked Arvind Kejriwal whether he could recite the Hanuman Chalisa. It was a godsend for the AAP supremo, who not only sang it with aplomb, but quickly tweeted the video to his 16 million followers. The video, in which Kejriwal claimed that he was a kattar Hanuman bhakt, was watched 6 lakh times on Twitter alone and got 31 thousand likes.
Around the same time, pro-AAP Twitter handles began questioning the political sagacity of the women of Shaheen Bagh. Their worry was that the sit-in was alienating Hindus and that would work in the BJP's favour on voting day. Kejriwal, himself, claimed that if he had the Delhi Police under him, he would have cleared "the area within two hours."
This made the BJP's campaign to brand Kejriwal as anti-Hindu doubly difficult. Here was a Hanuman Bhakt who was also hinting that he would have been tougher on Shaheen Bagh if he had the authority to do so. Everything the BJP represents - exhibitionist majoritarianism, muscular nationalism, hard-headed administration - was being usurped by Kejriwal.
The Delhi Chief Minister made one last move to defuse the BJP's charge of being anti-Hindu. One day before voting, he went to a Hanuman temple in Delhi's Connaught Place and prayed there. Kejriwal tweeted about it a little later, saying that the lord had spoken to him and had told him to continue his good work.
Kejriwal's 'Soft Hindutva' wasn't a sudden discovery in the late stages of the election campaign. He has repeatedly shown that on several key issues, he is on the same side as BJP when it comes to Political Hindutva. AAP backed Modi Sarkar's decision to scrap Article 370. Earlier, after the Pulwama terror attack, Kejriwal had called for a "befitting reply" to Pakistan. In March 2019, when a BJP leader from Maharashtra had called him a "secret colonel of the Pakistan Army," Kejriwal had responded by saying that he is a Hindu and his Hindu culture does not allow him to respond with abuse.
Similarly, way back in August 2015, six months after he had steamrolled his way into the chief minister's chair, Kejriwal had shown where he stood on the issue of rewriting India's history. At a time when liberals were fighting moves to wipe out the memory of the Mughals in India's public culture, Kejriwal congratulated his twitter followers when Aurangzeb Road was renamed APJ Abdul Kalam Road. This was a politically loaded administrative decision, for it physically inscribed, on a map, the Hindu right's vision of the bad vs good Muslim.
So, why has Kejriwal always played this soft-Hindu card, even when he has vociferously taken on the Modi government? Part of the reason lies in his history as a public figure. Kejriwal rose to national prominence as a crusader against the UPA's alleged corruption. This brought him in close proximity with elements of the Sangh Parivar, which was already standing in political opposition to the UPA. When India Against Corruption split, some of Kejriwal's fellow-travelers joined the Narendra Modi camp. Some of these were key strategists of the Anna movement, and their ideas about mass-mobilisation must have continued to influence Arvind Kejriwal even though he distanced himself from the BJP.
However, the bigger reason for Kejriwal's use of soft-Hindutva is purely electoral. It is based on a pragmatic assessment of the content of the massive mandate that AAP got in 2015, less than a year after Delhi had overwhelmingly voted for Narendra Modi. Since late-1998, the BJP has polled about one-third of the votes cast in Delhi assembly elections. In the 2013 assembly polls, the BJP got 26 lakh votes. The Modi wave pushed that up to 38 lakh in 2014. This dropped to 29 lakh in the 2015 assembly elections.
Kejriwal's AAP, on the other hand, had got a little over 23 lakh votes on its debut in 2013, which rose to 27 lakh in 2014, and then a massive 49 lakh votes in 2015. In less than a year, about 22 lakh voters had switched to AAP from other parties. About 12 lakh of these - including a large chunk of Muslim votes - came from the Congress and the BSP. Another 9.5 lakh votes came from the BJP.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the numbers turned on their head. The BJP won 49 lakh votes, and AAP dropped to third position with less than 16 lakh votes. Out of the 33 lakh people who moved away from AAP between 2015 and 2019, 11 lakh switched to the Congress, and 22 lakh switched to Modi. That was more than double the number of people that AAP had got from Modi between 2014 and 2015.
Kejriwal knows that Delhi's Muslims have no option but to vote for AAP. Their single-point agenda would have been to defeat the BJP, which has run the most openly communal campaign in recent history. Where the choice is between soft and hard Hindutva, Muslim voters are bound to choose the former, especially because the Congress is not a credible option. Additional Muslim votes, compared to 2019, would have helped AAP move to about 24-25 lakh votes in 2020. It was still going to need another 14-15 lakh votes back from the BJP to stay safely ahead of it.
This is the key electoral arithmetic behind Kejriwal's soft-Hindutva. Without this, AAP is in grave danger of losing Delhi to the BJP. This also tells us very clearly, that even if the exit polls are right, and AAP has indeed swept Delhi, once again, it has done so on a base of political Hindutva. That suggests AAP's possible victory in Delhi should not worry Narendra Modi in the least bit. A section of AAP's voters will easily switch back to him in 2024, if he plays his cards right.
(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV's Hindi and Business news channels.)
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