March has been a busy month for Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Delhi government. While the BJP and Trinamool Congress (TMC) clashed over chanting Jai Shri Ram and the “Chandi mantra” in West Bengal, and home minister Amit Shah thundered that voting for the Congress-AIUDF in Assam was akin to inviting infiltrators, the Capital was abuzz with AAP’s “desh-bhakti” budget and the promise to bring “Ram Rajya” to the people.
Delhi’s deputy chief minister and finance minister Manish Sisodia, presenting the 2021-2022 budget on March 9, explained that the “desh-bhakti” (patriotism) theme has been chosen to mark 75 years of India’s Independence.
Treading the thin line between pragmatism and populism, while he earmarked one/fourth of the Rs 69,000-crore budget for education, he allocated Rs 45 crore to install 500 flags across the Capital “to instil the spirit of patriotism in very mind”. He announced Rs 10 crore each to celebrate the contribution of Bhagat Singh and B.R. Ambedkar.
Chief Minister Kejriwal followed it up with the announcement of facilitating free pilgrimage for Delhi's senior citizens to the Ram temple in Ayodhya, asserting that his government follows principles inspired by the concept of “Ram Rajya” to serve the people. And even the announcement of Delhi’s own Board of Education came with one of the avowed aims being making students “kattar deshbhakt” (staunch patriots).
The government had already been working on a “deshbhakti” syllabus since 2019, which is likely to be introduced from the coming academic session.
Neither Kejriwal’s old associates nor his critics are surprised at his well-thought out strategy. A political analyst, who has seen Kejriwal’s working from close quarters, terms it as the “Hindutva Lite” strategy that the shrewd politician has been honing for quite some time. “Reciting the Hanuman Chalisa before the Assembly elections, not taking a stand on anti-CAA Shaheen Bagh protest, remaining non-committal on the northeast Delhi riots – they are all pieces in his larger game plan of positioning himself as the most acceptable leader of the Opposition parties in a post-Modi scenario,” the analyst explains.
Senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan, one of the founder members of AAP, believes that Kejriwal is ideology-agnostic and he tends to veer towards whatever appeals to people at that time. “He is trying to counter-position himself as more Hindu than the BJP. He is trying to outdo the BJP in muscular nationalism. He is being foolish,” Bhushan tells Outlook.
The BJP claims that Kejriwal is trying to appropriate the nationalism plank only for political gains. After questioning the BJP government’s Uri terror strike, questioning the Batla House encounter and sitting on prosecution sanction in the JNU tukde-tukde gang, the AAP leader has no moral ground to talk about patriotism and nationalism, BJP leaders say.
Sisodia responded to the criticism in a fiery speech in the Assembly, comparing AAP’s “Rambhakti” to that of BJP. “Bhagwan Ram ke thekedar se kehna chahta hun ki is bari jo party bhagwan Ram ki baat kar rahi hai, woh aisi nahi hai jo muh mein Ram aur bagal mein chhuri rakh kar chalti ho. Iss party ke muh pe Ram hai, dil mein bhi Ram hai aur bagal mein samwidhaan hai (I want to tell those who think they have proprietorship over Lord Ram that the party which is now talking about Lord Ram does not chant his name and keep a knife hidden. This party not only chants his name but also has Ram in its heart, and works as per the Constitution),” said the deputy CM, almost admitting to competitive Hindutva nationalism.
Vice-chairperson of Dialogue and Development Commission (DDC) of Delhi Jasmine Shah elaborates on deshbhakti. “AAP has given an alternate definition to deshbhakti than what has been given by the ruling BJP. Our idea of patriotism is investing in education, investing in healthcare, and respecting every person who stands under the Indian flag. It is the inclusive version of patriotism as against the narrow hate-driven version followed by the BJP,” says Shah.
Moreover, he explains, Delhi already has an existing Mukhya Mantri Teerth Yatra Yojana with defined circuits for all religions, and senior citizens have been availing the scheme for quite some time. “Ayodhya has only been added to the circuits that include Ajmer dargah, Golden Temple, Nanded and Rameshwar temple,” he adds.