AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal. (ANI)
AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal. (ANI)

Opinion | The modernity of Arvind Kejriwal’s Hindu politics

He is a believer who stops short of annoying average Hindus by not labouring the point of ‘secularism’

This year, the Academy Awards ceremony may have reminded millions of Americans why they veer toward Donald Trump. Usually the dullest part of the ceremony is the gushing gratitude of the winners who have, in the past, thanked Harvey Weinstein more often than God, according to an analysis of Oscar speeches. This year, it was dull for the sheer amount of righteous posturing. Joaquin Phoenix lectured us about animals rights; Natalie Portman wore a cape that carried names of female directors who had never been honoured at the Oscars, even though Portman herself has worked with very few women directors. A documentary film-maker whose work was funded by the Obamas quoted The Communist Manifesto. And Jane Fonda said that to reduce waste, she would not buy new clothes anymore.

There is nothing wrong with anything they said. In fact, they said the right things. Even so, the way of the world is that the facile moral posturing of the rich and beautiful pushes ordinary folks to take a political stand that is the exact opposite. It makes good people take the side of down-to-earth evil.

But there are some public figures who have the ability to appear highly idealistic without putting off the masses. Barack Obama is one of them. And for very different reasons, Arvind Kejriwal.

There are a few reasons why Kejriwal’s righteousness does not annoy most voters, apart from the broad reason that he is male and the world has a mysterious intolerance of righteous women, as American presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren is beginning to find out.

There is a manner in which Kejriwal speaks that ensures what he says is never a lecture. He reminds me of one of the best insights into public speaking I have ever read, which was a piece of wisdom Bal Thackeray’s father gave him—that a politician should not preach, he should “gossip with the people".

Kejriwal gossips with voters. He says what is wrong, who is responsible, and he keeps it all simple. A few years ago, at the start of his career as an electoral politician, he seemed to figure out that there were many things journalists could not say in fear of libel, and other reasons, but they could say those things by quoting him. And for a brief period, he hosted dramatic press conferences to gossip. It was all very interesting.

Also, his austere clothing is not the fancy dress of Indian politics, where politicians are clad in a way Indians almost never are. How Kejriwal appears is very close to the average Indian male. His is more authentic than Gandhi’s attire in his time or even that of R.K. Laxman’s common man.

But more important than all this is the fact that he does not derive his values from the Western template of idealism. Liberal templates are useful for people who are inherently jerks, but wish to be good people or look good.

Kejriwal is a provincial man, a temple-goer, a man who believes in God. He calls for the death of rapist-murderers, glorifies patriotism, and believes that Kashmir belongs to India. He is not infected by the template of organized compassion.

Recently, when an interviewer asked him to recite the Hanuman Chalisa, he recited it. He was not foolish enough to deny his Hindu devotion just because he needed Muslim votes. And he is not afraid to call India “Bharat Mata", or chant Vande Mataram. He knows that every religious person, no matter of what faith, fully understands and respects the devotion of the other.

He has challenged Hindu nationalists to chant any of the sacred Hindu hymns. He claims they are fake Hindus. It would be comical if someone ambushes famous Hindu nationalists and challenges them to prove their devotion by reciting the Hanuman Chalisa or even Vande Mataram.

In this way, Kejriwal is a modern Hindu politician—a believer who is culturally rooted to faith and nation, but says all religions must coexist. He always stops short of annoying average Hindus by not labouring the point of “secularism".

His greatest quality though is the cunning to win elections in India without illicit money or inciting tension. Kejriwal is a reminder that the guardians of the poor and the weak have a moral obligation not to be political duds—those well-meaning men, who were genetically ordained to enter politics, activists who lament everything but can barely save themselves, righteous artists. For, in the care of duds, the poor always lose, even as the duds ensure more capable leaders do not emerge.

Kejriwal’s most important decision in his professional life was to take on the duds. That is how he pivoted from low-stakes sanctimonious activism, which involved intermittent fasting, to high-stakes politics. As an activist who created an anti-Congress movement, which was widely misunderstood as an anti-corruption movement, he was a part of a cabal that swore not to enter politics because politics was “dirty". The fight against corruption, they suggested, was best left to a group of Magsaysay winners. When he was a safe activist, India’s upper classes celebrated him, but when he entered electoral politics, they found reasons to despise him because he was now a potent threat. They called him “an anarchist".

The nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party is of pride. Kejriwal’s nationalism goes beyond, as it is built on shame. India has done foolish things in search of pride; the country has achieved much when it has been ashamed of itself.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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