Thursday, June 16, 2016

Ajaz Ashraf: AAP derides the BJP for playing identity politics – but is doing the same in Punjab

The party invokes Sikh valour against the Mughals and touts its focus on Punjabi language.

Regardless of the inevitable spin and compulsions of electoral politics, the Aam Aadmi Party seems to have taken the first few baby steps on the path that leads to the politics of identity.
It is the path AAP had mostly shunned. AAP’s dominant political style had been to treat people as citizens without unduly emphasising their identity – whether rooted in religion or language or caste. Or it subsumed the politics of identity within its larger agenda of delivering services to people in a manner that was both efficient and corruption-free.

But AAP’s style of politics seems to be losing its original flavour as it prepares to fight the electoral battle in Punjab. An example of it is the AAP government’s recent decision to rename the Barapullah flyover – the lengthy corridor which reduces dramatically the time taken to travel from East Delhi to South Delhi – after Banda Singh Bahadur, the legendary 18th century Sikh warrior.

In addition, the AAP dispensation in Delhi has announced its intent to ensure that every government school in the city will have at least one teacher of the Punjabi language, as also to increase the salaries of such instructors. To publicise these two decisions – the renaming of the Barapullah flyover and its Punjabi language policy – the Delhi government has taken out full-page advertisements in some newspapers published in Delhi. This is not unusual – just about every government seeks to advertise what it believes are its achievements.

But what is unusual is that these advertisements have also been featured in newspapers published from Punjab, whose population AAP seeks to woo before the Assembly election there. Under the existing norms, a state government can’t publish advertisements in another state unless these have been also released to newspapers printed in the territory under its jurisdiction.

This suggests that AAP believes its advertisements could resonate with the people in Punjab. Underlying this belief is the AAP’s acute awareness that its policy to promote the Punjabi language and decision to rename the Barapullah flyover reflect the ideas that define the Sikh identity.

A secular veneer: This awareness is perhaps the reason why AAP has tried to provide a secular perspective to its baby steps on the path to identity politics. It doesn’t want to displease voters in Delhi or its supporters outside Punjab, yet woo the Sikhs. For instance, some of its leaders have claimed that the decision to rename Barapullah after Banda Bahadur is to highlight the conflict between a powerful Centre and its weaker peripheries, which is also the theme of the tussle between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and some chief ministers, including Arvind Kejriwal.

As is well known, Banda Bahadur, who was brought into the Sikh fold by Guru Gobind Singh, defied the Mughals to establish his own independent principality. However, in 1716, the Mughal army vanquished, imprisoned and brought him and his followers to Delhi, where they were brutally tortured and put to death.

This year, coincidentally marks the third centenary of Baba Banda Bahadur’s martyrdom – a fact AAP has cited to rechristen Barapullah as Baba Banda Singh Bahadur Bridge. As such, the Sikh religious identity draws considerably from their bloody conflict with the Mughals, who did not hesitate to put to death two of their Gurus. The latter were accused of defying the Mughal emperor or assisting rebellious princes. However, in treating the Sikh Gurus brutally, the Mughals did not make an exception. They rarely spared their own either – for instance, Aurangzeb killed his own brothers and imprisoned his own father to acquire the throne.

Ostensibly, it may seem commendable to superimpose modern ideas such as nation-state or federalism on a historical past largely framed as an era of religious conflicts, not least because of the motivated narratives of colonial historians who had tremendous influence on Hindutva ideologues. Since such attempts have little historical validity, these only stoke community pride and reinforce symbols which have contributed immensely in the formation of religious identity.

Extremely self-conscious religious identities in a political context invariably become obstacles to the evolution of common citizenship. It happened during the decades before Partition, and it certainly seems to be happening under the increasing dominance of the Hindutva ideology now.

Imitating the BJP: Indeed, the AAP’s decision to commemorate Banda Bahadur’s martyrdom echoes, in some ways, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s strategy of invoking icons from the distant past to endear itself to caste or religious groups. For instance, before Bihar went to polls last year, the BJP claimed that Emperor Ashok belonged to the Kushwaha caste. It has extolled Rana Pratap for opposing the Mughals and the party’s minister of state for external affairs, General VK Singh, wants Akbar Road to be renamed after Rana Pratap. The BJP President Amit Shah has also lavished praise on Suheldev, who belonged to the Passi subcaste of Dalits and purportedly vanquished a Ghaznavid general centuries ago.

It is ironical for AAP to deride the BJP and yet imitate it in turning history into a morality play, an unfolding battle between good versus bad. There is ample historical evidence to claim that Aurangzeb built far more temples than he destroyed, and provided land grants to support Hindu places of worship. It can also be said with certainty that Hindu kings whisked away, even destroyed, the idols of deities their vanquished rivals patronised. Such was the ethos of those times.

No one expects the BJP to view Aurangzeb’s reign from a prism other than religious. This is why it didn’t come as a surprise when it renamed Aurangzeb Road in Delhi after former President APJ Abdul Kalam. Aurangzeb and APJ Abdul Kalam have come to personify the BJP’s ideas of who is a good Muslim and who is a bad one. But what did surprise many was the AAP’s decision to support the BJP’s proposal to rename Aurangzeb Road. In the short period it has been around, AAP rarely displayed interest in history other than making references to ancient times in which sabhas or gatherings were organised to validate or invalidate the king’s decision. Arvind Kejriwal invoked this tradition in his book, Swaraj, to promote the idea of participatory democracy.

AAP leaders had then argued that renaming of roads in Lutyens Delhi is the preserve of New Delhi Municipal Council, to which Kejriwal, as Delhi chief minister, happens to be a special invitee. His opposition could neither have dissuaded nor prevented the BJP-dominated NDMC from renaming Aurangzeb Road. In a tactical move, therefore, Kejriwal wished to deny the BJP the chance of portraying him and his party as anti-Hindu and pro-Muslim.

The same argument will now be voiced to justify the renaming of Barapullah Road. It is linked to the AAP’s fear based on an assumption – that the Akali Dal will not only portray AAP as an outsider but also as a party primarily representing the Hindus, largely because it is dependent on Kejriwal to pull votes in Punjab.

On this count, AAP’s fear is not unfounded. After its astonishingly successful rally in Punjab in January, both the Akali Dal and the Congress leaders took to warning people about the consequences of voting a party dominated by “topiwallas”, a polite codeword for Hindus.

It is to preempt the possible strategy of their rivals that AAP has taken to demonstrate to the people of Punjab that its leader may be a Hindu from Haryana but is mindful of the religious identity of Sikhs, their language, and respectful of their icons. However, what the AAP forgets is that its deep inroads into Punjab didn’t come about because it resorted to the politics of identity. Punjab courted the AAP because its 2013 Assembly election campaign promised corruption-free, sensitive governance. In a state reeling under the menace of drug abuse, alcoholism, and agriculture distress, AAP became a beacon of hope for its hapless citizens.

Just as Congress playing soft Hindutva card can never trump the BJP, so too AAP can’t best the Akali Dal in the tricky game revolving around the Sikh identity politics. The AAP needs to turn to the uniqueness of its own message to counter the possible Sikh-isation of Punjab politics in the months before the state goes to the polls.