Muslim voters in Delhi have supported the Aam Aadmi Party in the last two rounds of Assembly elections partly because they thought the party could beat the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The AAP’s policies on electricity, healthcare, and education were an additional attraction.
However, there have been rumours of disillusionment with the AAP’s alleged “soft Hindutva” agenda as it attempts to expand its footprint across the country. The Aam Aadmi Party’s identity has been tagged to the the politics of its founding member Arvind Kejriwal, who successfully made the transformation from an activist to a seasoned politician. In recent times, sections of voters have been compelled to rethink their decisions owing to his silence on Muslim-related issues. Muslims may not matter electorally to the AAP at the national level, but they make up a significant portion of the anti-BJP vote, which will be crucial in order to compete against the BJP.
Given that the AAP has used Delhi’s administration as a staging area for prospective triumphs in other States, this arena is still essential to the party’s national politics. The Punjab experiment is one successful example of its expansion.
What does MCD results tell?
The results of the recent elections to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) revealed that despite winning a majority of the seats, the AAP lost several seats to the Congress, particularly in areas where Muslims are in a majority.
The AAP’s silence on the events in Shaheen Bagh (anti-CAA agitation) and the north-east Delhi riots in February 2020 appears to have cost it the Muslim vote. The party’s stated position was that in the absence of control over the Delhi Police it could not control the violence in north-east Delhi. Abul Fazal Enclave and Zakir Nagar in Okhla, where the Shaheen Bagh protests were held, and the Muslim-dominated Mustafabad, Brijpuri, and Shastri Park voted Congress candidates to the MCD. All of them are situated close to the sites of the anti-CAA protests.
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At least seven of the nine councillors elected on the Congress ticket were from Muslim-dominated areas. Ariba Khan (from Abul Fazal Enclave), one of the Congress councillors, claimed in her victory speech that Muslims had “seen through the development facade of the Kejriwal government”. However, it must be said that AAP candidates also won from Muslim-dominated seats such as Ballimaran, Chandni Mahal, and Jama Masjid in Old Delhi. Even so, the community might drift away from the party if it does not stop sliding to the right.
But for the AAP, in order to win the support of the majority, it is important to jump on the Hindutva bandwagon. ”The BJP has irrevocably changed everything,” said Husain Naqvi, a 28-year-old junior resident doctor in Okhla,. In the MCD elections, he voted for NOTA (“None of the above”). He explained, “I don’t see anyone capable of working or speaking for the Muslim community in an objective manner and not denigrate us with their orthodox views.”
About the AAP, he said, “It has evolved into an ‘RSS B-team’. I say so because of individuals like Atishi Marlena, who I once held in high regard. Since the Delhi riots of 2020, her viewpoint has changed to that of someone who is pro-Hindu. Freebies are used to win over the lower classes, and the party’s moderate Hindutva appeals to the majority of middle-class people.”
Amanatullah Khan, an AAP MLA, was detained while staging a demonstration against the MCD’s anti-encroachment drives Shaheen Bagh, Jahangirpuri, and other areas, but it is said that the AAP leadership did not even land up to show support.
Silence on Muslim issues
Despite an AAP wave in Delhi, 22-year-old Maroof Khan joined the AIMIM Delhi State unit in 2021. His reason: he believes that the AAP is working on the same agenda as the RSS. “They were silent on CAA/NRC, Delhi riots, Tablighi Jamaat, Ram temple, lynchings, Bilkis Bano, Hijab controversy, and the brutal attack on Jamia [Jamia Millia University] students,” he said, and added that areas such as Okhla are often left out when it comes to cleanliness, schools, and hospitals.
Afzal Alam (28), who works in a private real estate company, has been associated with the Congress for eight years. He said that the AAP has emerged as a “vote-cutter” of secular parties. He also believes that the RSS and the BJP support the AAP in order to disturb the Congress vote bank.
“AAP is like the BJP in the era of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani; they follow the ‘soft Hindutva’ model. Not a single tweet from Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on the Bilkis Bano rape case. Kejriwal’s dual face was seen at the time of the anti-CAA movement. They even supported the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir and the Uniform Civil Code,” he said.
However, what really caused major disillusionment among many Muslims, according to Alam, was Kejriwal ordering an FIR against Maulana Saad, the Tablighi Jamaat leader, who was leading a congregation in West Nizamuddin during the pandemic.
However, many Muslims still continue to support the AAP. Haji Naseem (58), a social worker based in Delhi’s Sunder Nagri ward, said he voted for the AAP candidate because she was the only one who could defeat the BJP candidate. “The statements given by the Chief Minister over the Tablighi Jamaat issue were wrong.... I am sure that he will get the message from these elections; that Muslims are unhappy with the party,” he said.
Kaleem Siddiqui (40), a social activist based in Ahmedabad, voted for the AAP in the Gujarat Assembly election. He said: “The AAP contests elections on citizens’ issues and is not as harmful as the BJP. In an AAP-ruled State, there is a possibility of communication and bargaining with the government, which is not the case with the BJP.”
But he too agreed that Kejriwal’s silence on Shaheen Bagh and the FIR against Maulana Saad disillusioned a section of Muslims. It was speculated that the AAP would get a major chunk of the Muslim votes in Gujarat, but observers said it lost that chance due to its stand on the UCC and silence over the Bilkis Bano case.
In the larger scheme of things, however, Siddiqui believes it is important for the party to garner votes from traditional BJP voters and use “soft Hindutva” to cut into BJP votes. He explained, “In the current socio-political environment, no party can survive without majority appeasement. ‘Soft Hindutva’ is nothing but a tool to garner majority community votes.”
Zafarul Islam Khan, former chairperson of the Delhi Minorities Commission (DMC), author and journalist, told Frontline that the DMC had published several reports during his tenure, but the AAP government took no notice of them. There were reports on the socio-economic and educational status of the survivors of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the socio-economic and educational status of Muslim women in north-east Delhi, and the problems and status of Muslim graveyards and Christian cemeteries.
Khan said, “My experience with the Kejriwal government, as Chairman of the DMC during 2017-20, was not good, to put it mildly. They did not support any schemes and they did not hinder them either. It was a case of benign disinterest.... The Kejriwal government neither placed any of our three annual reports in the Assembly nor accepted or rejected any of our recommendations.”
According to him, repeated requests to fill the vacant posts for Urdu teachers went unheard. “Our request to pass a Muslim marriage law, on the lines of the Sharda Act [relating to child marriage] passed by the Kejriwal government for the Sikh community, was not even acknowledged.”
“Kejriwal’s schemes for Hindus to visit religious places, indifference during the CAA/NRC protests as well as during the Delhi riots of 2020, call to print Hindu deities’ photos on Indian currency notes, and now the party’s role as a vote-cutter for the benefit of the BJP has increased the belief of Muslims that AAP is not the alternative to BJP they thought it was,” Khan told Frontline.
According to him, Muslim voters will not have a united approach. “Muslim voters have learnt to vote for the best non-BJP candidate,” he said.
Hilal Ahmed, associate professor at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi, who writes regularly on the nature of Muslim political discourse, said that the electoral success of the BJP has forced other parties to recognise Hindutva as the most acceptable narrative of politics. “Since the AAP officially recognises itself as a ‘party without an ideology’, it is easy for it to adjust to the available templates of politics. This helps the party get involved in Hindu appeasement without giving up its Muslim support,” he told Frontline.
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“I don’t think the term ‘soft Hindutva’ is appropriate to describe the nature of politics of the non-BJP parties. Every political party is now taking Hindutva as a political reference to define its position on crucial issues. So, it’s not about ‘soft’ or ‘hard Hindutva’. AAP is doing it well because unlike other parties, it doesn’t have the baggage of the secularism-communalism binary. As a political party it was born exactly at the time when secularism was being replaced by Hindutva as the dominant narrative,” he said.
Ahmed added that the AAP, since its inception, has been keen to replace the Congress, but it would like to achieve this in a very strategic manner. “The party knows that the BJP is not interested in recognising Muslims as one of the key constituents for a winning configuration. Hence, Muslims as a community of voters can be mobilised in a secure manner.”
- The results of the recent elections to the MCD revealed that despite winning a majority of the seats, the AAP lost several seats to the Congress, particularly in areas where Muslims are in a majority.
- Given that the AAP has used Delhi’s administration as a staging area for prospective triumphs in other States, this arena is still essential to the party’s national politics.
- The AAP’s silence on the events in Shaheen Bagh (during the anti-CAA agitation) and the north-east Delhi riots in February 2020 appears to have cost it the Muslim vote.
- It was speculated that the AAP would get a major chunk of the Muslim votes in Gujarat, but observers said it lost that chance due to its stand on the UCC and silence over the Bilkis Bano case.
- Observers say the electoral success of the BJP has forced other parties to recognise Hindutva as the most acceptable narrative of politics.