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.”