A day with AAP volunteers who reflect the party’s convoluted social-justice politics

Often exposing their own prejudices against marginalised communities, AAP volunteers tried to reason that Kejriwal’s policies on health and education and his efforts against corruption nullify the need for social-justice policies altogether.  Anindito Mukherjee / Bloomberg / Getty Images
07 February, 2020

With a portrait of the Aam Aadmi Party supremo Arvind Kejriwal hanging on the wall behind him, Pravin Lotankar, a Maratha in his late twenties, was working at the front desk at the party’s headquarters in Delhi’s ITO area on 4 February. That day marked a week since Lotankar, a Mumbai-based businessman, first sat on the front desk with a laptop, noting names and addresses of new volunteers. His job comprised connecting outstation volunteers to the assembly constituencies where their services would be required as booth agents or for other purposes. Lotankar had taken a one-month long sabbatical from his job to volunteer for the party during the 2020 assembly elections.

Of all the volunteers I met at the headquarters that day, over a dozen, Lotankar was the only one from a backward class. I asked his opinion on the representation of backward classes in the AAP’s highest decision-making body—the political affairs committee—which has three Rajputs, two Brahmins, one Brahmin Bhumihar, one Baniya and one Dalit member. “It should happen,” Lotankar said, referring to a need for a greater representation of backward classes. But, he added, “It’s early for this party to adopt that kind of thing and I feel we should give them time.” Lotankar told me that “these things” are more of a political decision. I asked him about the AAP’s ideology—it is evident that the party does not having a fixed ideology, which would also shape its outlook on social justice. But for Lotankar, as well as others, the representation AAP gave to marginalised groups or its broader ideology did not seem to matter as long as the party promised good governance.

A majority of the volunteers I met were rich and working professionals who had not suffered any socio-political discrimination themselves. Most of them opposed affirmative action for communities that have been systemically marginalised and persecuted—Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims. Many of the volunteers claimed that reservations for specific communities should not exist as it is unfair to those belonging to unreserved categories. They said Kejriwal was right in not taking any stand in favour of the protesters in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh area, who have been holding a sit-in against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act for over a month, because that would further a Hindu-Muslim discourse. Often exposing their own prejudices against marginalised communities in their answers, they tried to reason that Kejriwal’s policies on health and education and his efforts against corruption nullify the need for social-justice policies altogether. 

I spoke to Lotankar about a range of subjects. Like many other volunteers, he told me he began to idolise Kejriwal after seeing his role in the 2011 movement to appoint a national anti-corruption ombudsman called the Jan Lokpal. After Kejriwal came to power in Delhi, the capital’s assembly passed a similar Jan Lokpal bill. However, the bill has still not come into effect—the AAP and the BJP have engaged in a blame game about the non-implementation of the bill. In his five years as the chief minister, Kejriwal has also not rallied against corruption with the same force as he did in 2011. Yet, this has not deterred Lotankar’s belief, and that of other volunteers, in Kejriwal’s righteousness and the party’s philosophy of keeping the “aam aadmi”—the common man—at the center of its politics.

I reminded Lotankar that back in 2012, the AAP had voiced its opposition to reservations in promotions for those in government jobs and Kejriwal had asked his followers on Facebook if such reservations should exist at all. Lotankar replied, “There was a pre-government image and now there is a post-government image of him. He was very vocal then.” He felt that Kejriwal has been strategic in not clearly supporting the protesters in Shaheen Bagh as it would give an opportunity to the BJP to polarise the electorate. 

At the AAP headquarters, I also met George Gomes, a senior citizen, who was moving a carton full of party documents to an autorickshaw. The documents had to be delivered to different constituencies. Gomes had worked in the health sector for decades in the middle east and is now retired. He hails from Kolkata and said that if the party won in Delhi again, it would open new district committees in West Bengal. Gomes, too, told me that he liked Kejriwal for his politics against corruption. He said he did not think Dalits and backward communities should be given reservation in jobs and education. “I think only Adivasis need some reservation,” Gomes said. “We should rather create a level playing field.”

I also spoke to Mukesh Jaiswal, a 65-year-old from the Baniya community, while he was waiting in line to register as a volunteer. Jaiswal is a Baniya and has a business of clothes in Uttar Pradesh’s Prayagraj district. He told me he had also started to support Kejriwal because of his role in the anti-corruption movement of 2011. According to Jaiswal, India had only two great leaders before Kejriwal emerged as one—Jawaharlal Nehru and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the former prime ministers from the Congress and the BJP. He saw traits of both of them in Kejriwal. 

Jaiswal said Kejriwal was “honest” and he respected the elderly as under the Mukhyamantri Tirth Yatra Yojana, a scheme under which 1,100 senior citizens from each assembly constituency in the capital can go on a pilgrimage sponsored by the Delhi government. The scheme appears to have just one destination for elderly people from the Muslim community, the Ajmer Sharif shrine in Rajasthan, whereas a majority of the other destinations are for Hindus. Jaiswal told me the scheme molded Kejriwal’s image as Shravan Kumar in his eyes—a mythical character in the Ramayana who ferried his blind parents to pilgrimage. The AAP, too, has used a similar remark for Kejriwal. 

Such references to Hindu epics like Ramayana give religious legitimacy to Kejriwal’s image—one that the AAP has crafted—as a savior, an ideal man. In a recent promotional video, he can be seen highlighting a scheme which gives up to 200 units of free electricity. In it, Kejriwal calls himself “bada beta,” the elder son, of a family in Delhi because he takes care of their electricity expenses. 

When I asked Jaiswal how he would convince a Muslim to vote for AAP, he replied that he would just ask them to vote for the party because it gave priority to the “common man.” He added, with evident contempt, that he would never himself go to Muslim voters and try to mingle with them. “Ye nahi karenge ki ‘ya Allah, ya Khuda ... Mumtaz Begum mujhe vote do.’ Bus kahenge vote do.”—We won’t say ‘Allah, god … Mumtaz Begum, give me your vote.’ We will just say cast your vote—he said. Jaiswal told me that Kejriwal was right in “not favouring Muslims” and only speaking when anyone, including Muslims, faced any civic problem. 

Chandan Singh, a software engineer from the Jat Sikh community, who was assisting Lotankar, told me he volunteered for the party because he felt the government was strengthening public institutions like hospitals and schools. When I asked about what he thought about the party’s ideology, or the lack thereof, Singh asked if I meant the party’s “religious inclination.” Singh told me it did not matter if the party had any ideology as long as it provided good governance. Singh said he was not sure of his career as a software engineer and might take up politics full time if given a position in the party. 

On the day I visited the AAP headquarters, at least fourteen lawyers of the Delhi Bar Association had joined the party. Several people were present at the premises to support these lawyers. Among them was Akshay Singh, a lawyer from the Jat community, an intermediary caste, who practiced at Delhi’s Tis Hazari Court complex. Singh told me that he liked Kejriwal because on 2 November 2019, when a dispute had ensued between police and lawyers over a parking space in the Tis Hazari Court complex, AAP had sided with the lawyers at a protest. But Singh also said Kejriwal should not be taking any stand on the Shaheen Bagh matter because it was not his job as the chief minister. He said as long as the party spoke of the welfare of the “common man,” no community should say that they feel alienated. 

I met several students who were packing the party’s pamphlets in cartons. They told me they came to help the party because the chief minister had started a new coaching institute in their neighborhood in Bawana, an area in north west Delhi. One of the students said that the coaching institute is “for everyone—SC, ST, general students—which is great.” Many of the volunteers emphasised that Kejriwal is for everyone and that his schemes are equal for everyone. I asked them what they felt about Kejriwal’s silence on caste atrocities or his public stance on caste. Most of them suggested that if Kejriwal spoke about safeguarding the constitutional rights of Dalits or minorities, they would think he was biased.  

Lotankar told me that it was about time that people accepted what he called “an ideology of governance.” He elaborated, “One of my leftist friends also keeps asking me that my party has no ideology. And I would tell him that his party”—the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—“had an ideology, and yet, it has been written off from national politics. So, I think we should not have an ideology in terms of any religious belief.”