Nationalism and Politics – An Open Letter to Arvind Kejriwal

I write this open letter to you as a well wisher, and someone who has been seriously supportive of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) through all the ups and downs in the years since its formation.  Perhaps like many others, I too have high expectations of the experiment that AAP is and the new ground it has tried to break in terms of providing a government that has steadfastly kept the interests of the common person in mind while taking decisions.

But I also write this letter because I, like many others, have been perturbed by some developments which do not augur well for the future either of your party or of the country. The latter in any case, is set on a disastrous course, thanks to the current dispensation at the Centre. Let me also make it clear right away that I am not one of those who criticize AAP for ‘lacking a clear ideology’ and I in fact value the fact that on many critical issues, AAP has been able to resist the pressure to step into well trodden, familiar responses to specific situations and issues – especially well trodden among Leftists. But I do think that AAP needs to think a bit more seriously  about politics – which is not the same thing as ideology.

Yes, the immediate trigger for my reaction comes from the extraordinary situation that has been created in this country with the unilateral, stealthy and therefore cowardly abrogation of article 370 and the locking down of the state of Kashmir, stationing anything between 50, 000 to 1 lakh troops in the state, arresting reportedly almost 4000 leaders and activists belonging to different political parties and completely shutting down the media. The very thought of the extent of brutal violence involved, is horrifying beyond belief.

I understand that unlike me, you are a nationalist and see the Kashmir situation differently but still your stance on the abrogation of article 370 was intriguing.  You not only supported the government’s stance on this issue, you took great pains to explain why Delhi and Kashmir are different and why the same logic of federalism and statehood that applies in Delhi cannot apply to Kashmir. Fair enough. I do not expect you to talk like a ‘loony Leftist’ – though many people like my respected senior colleague, Ashis Nandy too would make a very sharp distinction between patriotism and nationalism. Nandy, I should underline, bases his critique of nationalism on Tagore and Gandhi, two figures whom, to the best of my knowledge (especially Gandhi), you too hold in very high respect. In fact, Gandhi is your lodestar, by your own account. What would he have done in the face of total lockdown of the state, using the armed might of the state, abrogating all civil liberties, putting thousands of people behind bars? Would he have welcomed this move? And let us say, your nationalism is different from Gandhi’s (who in my reading was a patriot not a nationalist) and that you felt compelled to support the government, did you not feel the need, at the same time to at least say a few words at the unprecedented violence and immense cowardice of this murder of democracy? I am sure you know why I call this move cowardly. According to the ethics of warfare in Hindu tradition as in many other traditions, you never attack an unarmed adversary. We all have heard statements in our everyday lives that go something like – निहत्थे पर कभी वार नहीं किया जाता है. रात के अँधेरे में चोरों की तरह तो किसी क़ीमत पर नहीं. Of course,  the logic of nation-states is different and that is why both Gandhi and Tagore shunned it.

It is really interesting that you have launched this three month programme on the ‘Constitution at 70’, where through a range of activities you want to teach constitutional values and constitutional morality to students in Delhi schools. This is to be followed up later with a Deshbhakti curriculum – which too I find interesting because your emphasis is once again on defining deshbhakti in terms of making India poverty-free, corruption free, and more hospitable to foreigners. Which makes your stance all the more puzzling – after all, it is these very constitutional values that give us strength to stand against their complete violation.

I was in fact quite taken aback that you did not feel the need to qualify your support to the government in any way. This when even someone like Raj Thackeray, whose politics we all hate, could see the game behind this so-called nationalist move. (His forthright statement of course, now has brought the ED to his door!) One is relieved that there is now a voice building up among political parties and that DMK has taken the initiative to organize a demonstration to demand the minimum – the release of all the leaders and activists arrested.

So one is left then with just one possible question: Is it because the Delhi elections are round the corner that you choose to keep silent even on this minimum? If that is so, that would be a very sad situation. Because this is the thin edge of the wedge. This is where the slide can begin – to save your government, compromise on one thing today on another tomorrow; there will never be any end to it really. I recall the last meeting prime minister VP Singh called in which he addressed intellectuals and artists to tell them: for the sake of the temple of mother India, what does the fate of one government matter; I should be ready to sacrifice as many governments as necessary. The context was the arrest of Advani during his Rath Yatra in Bihar by Lalu Yadav, and the consequent decision by the BJP to withdraw support from the National Front government. That was 1989.

Sometimes, just sometimes it is really necessary to stand by principle and ethics and say, even if we have to stand alone for some time, so be it. In any case, the people of Delhi, if they are really a herd of sheep who will follow the demagogue rather than vote for the great work that the AAP government is doing, do not deserve it frankly. They do not deserve good schools, cheap and functioning mohalla clinics, cheap electricity and water. They can fill their stomachs up with nationalist cowdung for all one cares. Through this letter I also want to underline that ‘the people’ have often made the mistake of voting in fascists – this is not the first time. In order to woo that ‘people’, abandoning your principled struggle is not really worth it. I have heard from friends in one part  of the East Delhi constituency, where I did some little work for the AAP candidate, that some of the poorer people too said after the election that ‘Kejriwal has done very good things in schools and for health but Modiji saved us from the enemy!’ What do you say to that?

This brings me to my last point – and that is about politics. It is high time you realize that politics is not only about pani, bijli, shiksha, svasthya (water, electricity, education and health). These are all issues on which you have done great work. And after a long long while, at least in one small corner of this godforsaken land, some positive direction is visible that gives us hope.
Unfortunately, politics is not just about these issues. You have yourself seen how complete gasbags and utterly vile elements of the BJP managed to pull the carpet from under your feet in these last parliament elections. Voters who said Kejriwal did good work – as indicated above – too voted for Modi.
That is because, unfortunately you don’t seem to get the importance of politics. You seem to think just because you are doing good work, you will get votes. Good work is one thing but what if a baazigar comes along and sells you the logic that the East Delhi women so effortlessly expressed?

Politics is about expanding the circle of friends and identifying the enemy; it is about being aware that the field you function in, is already populated by vested interests and even doing a simple thing like providing good and cheap education is a veritable battle. You rally your forces and isolate the enemy. On this unfortunately, Modi and Shah have succeeded where the entire Opposition has failed. So has AAP. In your case, this faith that your work will speak is likely to be self-defeating, for because of it you make no effort to politically train your volunteers (simply talking about honesty and good work is not enough).  Reaching out to the larger public politically has to be the next step. You and AAP need to realize for instance, that the BJP has a clear ideological stance and every one who joins them and the RSS in particular is potentially a Muslim hater, who has totally swallowed their position hook line and sinker. Many of the people who join AAP, on the other hand, might instinctively understand that Muslim hatred or hatred of other religions is bad but do not have much of a sense of the political challenge that it presents before them and us; that peace too has to be fought for. They generally come in search of a clean, corruption-free government, with their hearts in the right place but surely that is not enough to take on the enemy that faces them? 

There are traders of fear and hate prowling all around and creating an impression that unless people rally behind the Great Demagogue, their very existence is threatened.
Politics has over the years been evacuated of content of the kind that you want to bring back in but you need to have a larger vision and strategy that goes beyond simply being honest. By vision I mean an idea of what your India is, what you want it to be and which are the forces that can be your friends in that mission. For this they do need to have a deeper sense of the history of the different forces that occupy the field. Without that, AAP will always be vulnerable – maybe still less so than many other parties but simply being incorruptible is necessary but not sufficient.
Recently, I read a statement of yours of the kind you have made earlier as well, where you say that if the BJP makes electricity free, then you will campaign for it. I understand this is a rhetorical statement but seriously, do you think if BJP did exactly what you are doing with these key issues, but continued its bloody and deceitful, treacherous politics, that would be okay? I am sure you don’t think so but the impression you convey is that all you are interested in are these basics of life.

Similarly regarding the communal question, even if you rightly want to avoid entering the BJP’s turf, you will still need to stand on principle at some point. Today we have reached a stage when no political party is prepared to stick its neck out for its idea of an inclusive and democratic India. Every one of them is calculating votes and playing one or the other version of the saffron card. I am sure you realize that the feeling has gained ground among the minorities in this country that they do not matter to anyone – not to political parties at any rate, except when it comes to voting. 

We need really to return to the drawing board once more and I think AAP too needs to think hard about some of these questions. I am NOT saying that therefore AAP should become a Leftist party but I am sure even among the larger public that supports AAP, the other viewpoint about an inclusive and democratic India has not gone in with the force and regularity with which it should have. They have been served only one version of things in the last five or six years via the mainstream media. That is again where politics comes in. The game has to be played at many levels, even organizationally. We need to learn from the RSS in this respect. They have a range of organizations and platforms for organizing and approaching different sections who are then aggregated at the political level. Everything cannot be accomplished through AAP – the  political party that is. How you conduct politics has to be linked to a different organizational imagination as well. 

10 thoughts on “Nationalism and Politics – An Open Letter to Arvind Kejriwal”

  1. This is so well put, Aditya. Kerjiwal’s support of the abrogation of 370 and on a “Deshbhakti” curriculum (given the dominant spin in Deshbhakti these days) is terribly disappointing and worrying. And yes, saying we are not ideological… NOT this and NOT that will only take the AAP so far. The party needs to step beyond its apparently non-ideological pragmatics, its politics of NOT. It needs to articulate a clear and inclusive political stance that remains attentive to and goes beyond “service delivery.”


    1. While I entirely agree with you on the rest of it, I think we should not get put off by the mere name ‘deshbhakti’ syllabus, because the way they have spelt out in the Constitution at 70 event is fundamentally premised on the Constitutional vision and national pride as linked to well being and happiness of the people, eradication of poverty etc


  2. I agree with your views on Kejriwal supporting removal of 370. For everything there is a time and procedure. Neither it was a right time nor right procedure in which article 370 was abolished.


  3. The precise reason AAP has supported the abrogation of 370 is because it lacks an ideology . Opposition to 370 can only come through an Ideology which stands for the principle that a group of individuals with a distinct identity – ethnic , religion , race , caste, language etc. have to have a say on issues affecting the group.. Most individuals I have talked to keep repeating ad nauseum that a popularly elected Government with popular approval had the right to do whatever they did. But that is not enough. The people of Kashmir needed to ratify it – similar to hypothetical situation of Hindi being forced on Tamil Nadu with popular approval from the rest of the country. There would have been no objections if the people of Kashmir had voted for it through a Referendum.
    What TMC , AAP, Congress , BSP et al lack is precisely this and hence the confusing statements from their leaders.
    Your de-linking Ideology from Politics was as intriguing as Kejriwal’s statement..


    1. I don’t even know where to begin responding to your comment but just to set the record state, let me state that Article 370 did not come into force because of any ideology. It was a negotiated settlement. And anyonne with a minimum fidelity to India’s commitment to the Kashmiri people will oppose this move. It has nothing to do with right of nations to self determination – which from Stalin’s Russia to the Tibetan and current Uighur crisis in China have been ridden roughshod over. So much for ideology (you put it in capital I,for reasons best known to yourself – perhaps you mean there is ONE and only one ideology). Self-determination is an important principle to me but it is a principle, not ‘Ideology’. I will leave the theoretical discussion on the difference between politics and ideology out for the moment but simply point out the Ideological party of Bengal and Kerala has been deeply mired in neoliberalism and what is worse, ushering in Modi’s BJP in West Bengal. Ideology did not prevent that for sure.


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