AAP’s cynical stance on the CAA goes only as far as its electoral posturing allows

Arvind Kejriwal’s incongruous comments on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act during his interviews ahead of the Delhi elections have been typical of the Aam Aadmi Party’s ambiguous position on the CAA and the protests against it across the national capital. Sanchit Khanna / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
06 February, 2020

At a News18 event on 3 February, Arvind Kejriwal claimed that the central government was “not opening the road near Shaheen Bagh” because the Bharatiya Janata Party wanted to “indulge in politics over it.” Delhi goes to polls on 8 February. Since mid-December 2019, a long stretch of road in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh area has been the site of a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, spearheaded by Muslim women from the area. The chief minister said that the protesters “have the right to protest” while also maintaining that students and ambulances get stuck on that road, and so it “should be reopened for sure.” The next day Kejriwal told NDTV that if he had power over the Delhi Police, he would have cleared “the Shaheen Bagh area in two hours.” The incongruous comments were typical of the Aam Aadmi Party’s ambiguous position on the CAA and the protests against it across the national capital.

While the AAP has expressed its opposition to the CAA, in several interviews the party members have deflected questions about the controversial law with answers on development issues in Delhi. The party has treaded a cautious line, in an apparent attempt to appease those in favour of the CAA and opposed to the protests. Most notably, the party has been conspicuously vague about the religious fault lines of the law and its support for the protesters. It has largely refrained from addressing, or even acknowledging, the exclusion of Muslims under the CAA.

In doing so, the party has distanced itself from one of the most controversial decisions of the BJP-led central government that prompted tens of thousands of Indian citizens to come out onto the streets in protest, in the national capital and across the country. The chief minister, whose rise to fame and political power was built on the back of a similar nationwide movement, was nowhere to be seen when the country rose again. During the course of the protests, Delhi has been witness to partial internet shutdowns, illegal detentions, police brutality and open calls to violence against the anti-CAA protesters by the BJP’s leaders, and yet, its residents have poured out in numbers that have only increased. Meanwhile, the AAP, which academics often refer to as a “post ideological” party, has turned a blind eye to the Hindu-nationalist ideological underpinnings of the BJP’s actions.

“If you look at the AAP, they have never vocalised their movements towards the oppressed,” Tanweer Fazal, a professor at the University of Hyderabad, told us. “There has been a constant failure, and even when there was mass mobilisation during 2016 or even now,” Fazal added, referring to the countrywide movement demanding an investigation into the death of the PhD scholar Rohith Vemula. “It has always been a party of the elite.” The AAP has, in fact, admitted that it is keeping a calculated distance from the anti-CAA movement. In January, Sanjay Singh, the AAP’s election incharge and a Rajya Sabha member of parliament, told the Hindustan Times, “If Kejriwal had joined the protests even by mistake, the BJP would have incited big riots and then put all the blame on him.”

Yet, Kejriwal has spoken out against the protests, albeit in vague and non-committal terms. On 15 December 2019, amid the anti-CAA protests in Jamia Millia Islamia, a state-owned bus was set ablaze around the Okhla area. In response, Kejriwal tweeted, “No one shud indulge in violence. Any kind of violence is unacceptable. Protests shud remain peaceful.” He also spoke to the lieutenant governor of Delhi, Anil Baijal, and “urged him to take necessary steps to restore normalcy and peace.” Later, when a video surfaced showing police personnel pouring from a jerrycan into a bus, several people speculated whether the police had set the bus ablaze, though the police claimed they were pouring water to extinguish the fire. Kejriwal chose to stay silent. Four days later, he noted, “It’s not possible that students set the bus on fire.”

On that same day, the Delhi Police had entered the Jamia campus, indiscriminately used teargas and attacked students in the library. Kejriwal, once again, chose not to speak in support of the university students. We spoke to a student of Jamia and a member of the AAP’s student wing, the Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Samiti, who asked us not to disclose his identity. He told us that the AAP failed to express its support for the protest despite a CYSS member, Qasim Usmani, being among those attacked by the police. The student told us that two Delhi police personnel beat Usmani with lathis, and that he had to be administered oxygen for several hours because a tear-gas shell exploded near his face.

The Delhi Police registered a first information report against seven people for the violence at Jamia, and Usmani was one of them. Yet, the AAP steered clear of mentioning this in any of its electoral statements. The CYSS member told us the party had offered support to Usmani, but just not publicly. He added that the CYSS members who protested in Jamia did so in an independent capacity and had no directions from the AAP leadership.

“If the party gets on the ground on this issue, their real work on education et cetera will not be seen. I am with the party on this,” the student said. But he added that the party’s response to the police brutality at Jamia was disappointing. “You keep talking about education, you keep implementing education policies. But such a huge incident happens in an institution which is internationally famous, which has left so many students injured and no one from the party goes to see those injured students,” he said. The student further noted the CYSS’s high command in Jamia had also become insecure because of the AAP’s refusal to take a public stance in Usmani’s defence.

“Even if you don’t want to talk about CAA-NRC publicly, then don’t,” he said. “But they should have still come out to meet the students who are the victims.” Amanatullah Khan, the AAP’s member of legislative assembly from the Okhla constituency—which includes two focal points of the anti-CAA movement, Jamia and Shaheen Bagh—was the only AAP leader who visited and supported the students. “Amanatullah’s scene is completely different. He is the chairman of the Delhi Waqf Board, he is doing everything in that capacity, not as an AAP member,” the student said.

A founding member of CYSS, who also wished to remain anonymous, said that even though he had not resigned from the student wing, he was no longer an active member. “AAP is better than BJP and Congress, but it is not like what it was before,” the founding member said. “Arvind Kejriwal has still spoken up about the CAA, but he is moving smartly—he could have come and been more vocal on the Jamia protests, but he didn’t because he knew it would cause loses to him. Perhaps, post the election he will be more active.” He believed that the AAP was trying to avoid being labelled as a “Muslim party.”

The founding member’s assessment seems accurate—while the AAP has refrained from focusing on how the CAA threatens the citizenship of Indian Muslims, it has been vocal about how it could affect Purvanchalis, who are settlers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The Purvanchalis account for more than twenty-five percent of Delhi’s voting population, according to some media estimates. “It’s a conspiracy against the Purvanchalis,” Sanjay Singh said at a press conference shortly before the passage of the act in December. In a similar vein to the founding member’s analysis, Kejriwal has told the press that the poor would be most affected by the CAA.

The party continued to maintain its silence, even after the violence during anti-CAA protests in Delhi’s Seemapuri and Daryaganj areas in late December. Kejriwal had effectively washed his hands off from the situation, terming it as the central government’s incapability to maintain “law and order.” In the run-up to the election, the AAP seemed to maintain one consistent strategy—to focus on other issues. For instance, when ABP News asked the deputy chief minister, Manish Sisodia, about the CAA in January, he responded, “My only request to the other parties is that Delhi’s election issues should be on Delhi’s education, Delhi’s healthcare, Delhi’s water and Delhi’s transport. Let’s talk about the work concerning Delhi.” Later that month, Sisodia expressed his solidarity with the Shaheen Bagh protesters to the media, while maintaining that the party’s focus was on development-centric issues.

That month, a video report by The Quint tried to answer a few questions on Kejriwal’s posturing. Relying on reports from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies-Lokniti, a social-science research institute, and CVoter, a polling agency, the journalist Aditya Menon noted in the video, “As of this week, 67 percent people in Delhi want Arvind Kejriwal as the chief minister and 69 percent want Narendra Modi as the prime minister. The Modi voter, who also likes Kejriwal in Delhi, is key to Aam Aadmi Party’s fortunes in the Delhi assembly elections.” Menon argued that it was probable that the AAP could lose a significant section of this overlapping vote-bank if they sided with the protesters openly.

Fazal, the academic, also said that the AAP’s politics is similar to that of the right wing. He said that the Lokpal movement of 2012 was “an assertion of the elite” and it “created two different modes of assertion for the right wing.” He explained, “One was the ideological extreme, which you can see with the BJP, and the other was with a municipal mode of governance, that you can see with the Aam Aadmi Party.” Fazal noted that even though the municipal model of governance addressed important issues, it came “at the expense of ignoring the identity of others.” He added that by ignoring what the BJP has done, the AAP was “complicit in ignoring the demands of a persecuted section of society. There is a reason they are not able to do very well outside of urban centres or even across the country, it is because they fail to provide answers to a lot of questions.”

Despite several attempts, we were unable to speak to any of the senior AAP members we reached out to, including Atishi, Sisodia and Singh. Atishi’s team asked us to message our questions to them, but we had received no response by the time this story was published. The story will be updated if and when we receive a response.

Two weeks before the elections, the Times Now anchor Rahul Shivshankar interviewed Kejriwal at a town hall. Shivshankar’s line of questioning on the CAA was aggressive, but the audience seemed to be on Kejriwal’s side—they cheered him constantly. “We report sir, we’ve reported, we have not distanced ourselves from Shaheen Bagh, the Aam Aadmi Party has not even sent one leader to Shaheen Bagh,” Shivshankar said. Kejriwal tactfully diverted the conversation. “We have not distanced ourselves, we have run schools, hospital, we have made roads, we have installed CCTVs. They have wreaked havoc in the country … because they can’t handle unemployment.”

At one point during the town hall, after Kejriwal delivered a rousing speech, Shivshankar asked, “You are talking about division, you believe that the legislations are anti-Muslim, you believe this?” Kejriwal looked confused. “When did I say that?” he asked. “I think CAA and NRC is irrelevant, I think what the people want is for the government to stop the CAA and stop the NRC and pay attention to governance.”

Following the town hall, many people had applauded Kejriwal on social media for taking a stance on the CAA, and for standing up to Shivshankar. However, it was evident that Kejriwal avoided declaring a clear and direct position on the CAA and the NRC, or one in support of the protesters. He did not speak of how the law threatened to persecute millions of Muslims and render them stateless. Instead, all his responses were grounded in economic considerations.

Shivshankar had also brought up the “inconvenience caused to hundreds of students across Delhi,” because of the Shaheen Bagh protests. Kejriwal responded, “Everyone has the right to peacefully protest in the country, Article 19 of the Constitution guarantees that. But the protest should be such that no one feels inconvenienced. So, whatever inconvenience is there, no one should be inconvenienced. I don’t know the details properly because I have never been there, but no one should be inconvenienced.” The response was symptomatic of the precariously balanced ideological gymnastics of the party—the chief minister communicated his support for the protesters, his support for those aggrieved by the protesters and his lack of knowledge about the protest site, all in the same answer.  

A common refrain that Kejriwal adopted during his interactions with the press has been to argue that the home minister Amit Shah has sought to divide the elections along Hindu-Muslim lines, unlike the AAP, which is focusing on governance. He made the argument during the town hall and again during a recent interview with the Indian Express. “This time, the question is whether the voting would be on work or Hindu-Muslim,” Kejriwal said. “I believe the people of Delhi are smart and they will reward work.” The chief minister argued that Shah had tried to shift focus from governance onto Shaheen Bagh. However, Kejriwal also reiterated that the Shaheen Bagh road should be cleared if it causes any inconvenience. “If you will block a road and cause pain to so many people, it will not be acceptable in any democracy, any society,” he said. When it was pointed out that people only pay attention to protests when it becomes an inconvenience, he responded, “Isn’t that violence?”

In late January, Sharjeel Imam, an activist, caused a stir with his speech on the CAA by noting that with the strength of their numbers, the protesters should cut Assam off from the rest of the country. Following his speech, the police of at least six states reportedly booked Imam for sedition. During an election rally in Delhi, Shah posed a question to Kejriwal, “Are you in favour of Sharjeel Imam or not?” Kejriwal promptly responded on Twitter: “Sharjeel spoke of separating Assam from the country. It is very serious. You are the home minister of the country. This statement of yours is bad politics. Your duty is that you arrest him immediately. It has been two days since he said this. Why are you not arresting him? What is your helplessness? Or do you want to do more dirty politics now?” Imam was arrested the next day.

According to Fazal, “When it comes to matters of nationalism, you can say that the BJP and the Aam Aadmi Party have identical stances on most issues, be it Kashmir or be it CAA-NRC. They are in a constant battle to prove themselves as more aggressive.” He said that the AAP will never directly oppose the BJP, it will “only position themselves in the same tangent, with a different level of conviction.”