Losing the plot – How AAP failed its Muslim citizens in the Delhi riots

Arvind kejriwal

There is a popular – and cliched – declaration that is often made in grandiose fashion when faced with trying circumstances: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

Unfortunately, in the violent crisis that Delhi faced recently, the only “toughs” that seemed to get going were street-toughs who wreaked havoc on common citizens of Delhi.

The AAP, at a moment that required it to display character and courage, failed to do just that –  only about 2 weeks after a thumping mandate in the 2020 Delhi Assembly elections. A political formation that has defined itself narrowly and specifically with a city and even presumed a relationship on behalf of Delhi’s citizens, one of loving admiration for its leader (“I love Kejriwal”), was unable to reciprocate the trust reposed in it. It failed its people at their moment of gravest need.  

But that should not have been totally unexpected. It was becoming increasingly clear in the runup to the Delhi elections that there was on the part of AAP a deliberate aloofness, a disconnect, almost akin to a turning away from the ongoing struggles of the people. AAP sought to disengage itself from several critical incidents in the city, such as the violence in the universities, the brutal police action at Jamia, and then the anti-CAA protests symbolized by Shaheen Bagh. 

Delhi was making history in terms of its examples of people’s resistance, and the AAP, the Common People’s Party, which advertised itself as the messiah of the common people, was distancing itself from their struggles. . 

It is true that both at JNU and at Jamia, the police were to blame – in one case for inaction, in the other for excessively violent action. AAP’s administrative options were limited. 

But, a political party has various modes of its engagements with its citizens – administrative interventions are just one amongst them, and one is not pointing a finger at the administrative limitations AAP works within. For a supposedly “hands-on” party like the AAP, personal connections, responses and outreach are crucial areas of their engagement with the people. 

In the case northeast Delhi, as a situation of deadly violence developed moment-to-moment, the AAP leadership and cadre needed to be on the ground to help in any manner possible, to the extent they could: by organizing relief; by oversight of affected areas; by at least being around ranking police officers to keep tabs on actions being taken (would the police have turned down the Chief Minister of Delhi from accompanying them or being present in affected areas?); by assuring people to the extent they could of the remedial actions being taken, of the availability of medical resources etc. Such was their apathy and indifference that Ajay Maken of the Congress had to suggest what concrete steps they could take, such as delegating AAP ministers to specific tasks and forming peace committees. 

None of that happened. Several of the AAP legislators, otherwise reputed for their work in areas like education, when approached by civil society activists for some kind of intervention, responded with a stunning “not my constituency,” answer, which was another way of saying, “it is none of my business.” 

In moments of crisis, political leaders have to display the ability to think beyond their limited constituencies and spring into action regardless of narrowly defined areas of commitment.  Desperate, the civil society activists even protested outside Arvind Kejriwal’s house around midnight on Feb 26 trying to elicit a much-needed response. They were met with police water-cannons.

Suddenly the AAP looked like a deer caught in the headlights. They also seemed lacking the will and desire to bring about a quick and decisive end to the madness being played out in north-east Delhi. There was a strange paralysis; AAP just seemed to hide in the background somewhere, away from sight. They were happy to play a cowering second-fiddle to a center, which was obviously badly blundering and dithering, possibly deliberately. 

 It is a remarkable climbdown for AAP to have lost the plot of the political game, even if temporarily, something analysts were instead praising it for having gradually mastered after an impetuous beginning. 

Here was a party whose leaders and members made it their trademark by taking to streets and agitating vigorously and publicly against other elected officials for perceived injustices and broken promises. 

It was also a party that overturned a seemingly invincible Sheila Dikshit, who had initiated several marquee infrastructural projects for Delhi like the Metro, simply on the basis of its supposed connection with people’s issues. 

Reflecting most recently on AAP’s distancing from Delhi’s protests like Shaheen Bagh and Jamia, the commentator Ashutosh had observed regarding Kejriwal’s on the NDTV site:

AAP is not scared of losing Muslim votes in Delhi. In its opinion, the Congress in Delhi is not in a position to split Muslim votes as Muslims have sensed that AAP is the only force which can defeat the BJP and it does not matter if AAP avoids Shaheen Bagh.

 Considering the Muslims as politically expendable surely played a part in AAP’s ambiguity in engaging with the sentiments at Shaheen Bagh and Jamia. We are told that both at Jamia and later at Shaheen Bagh, AAP was also advised by its partner, I-PAC, to focus on its governance messaging and avoid displaying confrontational stances.

Kejriwal’s politics – like that of most successful politicians – has been based on his instinct to oppose what he considers as unfair and his insight into the dystopian state of public services in Delhi. But it seems he  set aside his own experience, instincts and insights in preference of “professional advice” from political consultants who can at best only offer general, managerial or operational views on efficient strategies – not an understanding of local, ground level political complexities.

This is not just about pointing fingers at a relatively new outfit like the AAP. But it does wish to highlight the  dangers of ceding political control and imagination to consultants, even if they are the most well-meaning and organized. Nothing can substitute the connections and relationships at the ground level between the citizen and the political representative.

By removing himself from the political upsurge in his own city, Kejriwal suddenly did not have his finger on the pulse of the people or on the dynamics underlying the struggle over CAA in Delhi. Neither it seems did he have the fire in his belly and the political sharpness any longer to seize the moment and intervene decisively in the madness in northeast Delhi. 

As a Telegraph article put it, he and his party were bystanders as riots broke out in the city that he is the CM of. As part of a response, his imagination could not extend beyond the charade of offering prayers to Gandhi. How ironic, when Gandhi himself never shied away from the actual theater of communal violence, plunging right in the middle of the worst disturbances, like in Kolkata and Noakhali. 

The Muslims gave him the benefit of the doubt and voted for him, trusting in him to bring about equitable improvement in their lives, and also to be a bulwark against the openly hostile policies and stances of the BJP. Instead, what they saw was a party without the will and urgency to help them in their moment of crisis. 

Aviral Anand is a socially-concerned citizen of the world, currently based in Delhi. He believes in all kinds of solidarities with global struggles, such as the working class, indigenous and other marginalized peoples’ struggles around the world.



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