The Rise of India's Religious Left

Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 2020, the Indian National Congress, the political party most responsible for India’s

independence, took a battering in Delhi’s local elections winning a total of zero seats. Just 7

years ago, however, things were different. The Congress reigned in Delhi and former Chief Minister, Sheila Dixit, had taken the party to three consecutive wins.

Congress, rendered largely ineffectual in Delhi, has been replaced by another left leaning party. Arvind Kejriwal, current Chief Minister, is the leader of the Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party that was best able to take advantage of the Congress’ collapse. Kejriwal’s party won 63 of the 70 seats in Delhi and is set to become a more serious contender elsewhere in India - they plan to compete in Goa’s next elections.

Kejriwal was able to beat not just Congress- he was also able to trounce the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who won a total of 7 seats. This is despite a number of BJP hard hitters visiting Delhi to campaign including Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, and the Prime Minister himself, Narendra Modi. Delhi, at the federal level, was more than hospitable to Modi’s BJP - they won 7 of 7 seats in the Lok Sabha, or lower house of the federal legislative body. However, this couldn’t save them at the state level and this has to do with the kind of campaign that Kejriwal and the AAP ran. In 2020, he ran left but he did so in a fundamentally different way than the Congress has been willing to.

Congress’ main claim to fame has been reliant on two legacies. First, the Nehru/Gandhi legacy

and second, the legacy of secularism. However, the latter part of this formulation is starting to

crack because of problems with the former. Rahul Gandhi, son of former Prime Minister Rajiv

Gandhi, grandson of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and great grandson of former Prime

Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is the current scion of the family. Unlike many of his forefathers (and

mothers), he has been unable to mount a successful national campaign and has seen Congress’

power wane on the state level as well. As the fortunes of the Gandhi clan dimmed, the power of

secularism was diminished along with them because that was one of the main things they stood

for. This has meant that Hindu India has been searching for a new champion -- a more explicitly

religious party, and they largely found it in the BJP and its allies.

However, Kejriwal and the AAP may have an answer to this, on the local level now but possibly

at the national level in the future. Kejriwal’s campaign wasn’t an explicitly Hindu campaign in

the way the BJP’s was. It also wasn’t a purely secular campaign - on February 3rd, Kejriwal sang

Hanuman Chalisa (a religious hymn) at the Hanuman temple in Connaught Place. The AAP’s

campaign was also based on local issues - roads and fighting corruption. Though they were

careful to not let themselves be outflanked on religion, the campaign was also about more than


Kejriwal’s campaign was more Hindu than Hindutva. Some may call for a rejection o

f both of these and a return of secular politics but this is for now, unlikely. Secular politics have seen their fortunes rise and fall with the fortunes of the Congress and the Gandhis. Today, those fortunes

are low but this does not mean that politics can be, or should be, ceded to the BJP.

The Congress, and the Indian Left more broadly, has undergone transformations before from

five year plans under Jawaharlal Nehru to the end of the license raj under PV Rao. Going

forward, the Congress, and the Indian left, have a choice to make. They must decide if they’d

prefer secular defeat or a more religious victory. Both paths are available and one led to 0 out of

60 seats. Thus, the way back to the Chief Ministership, and political power in India more

broadly, is going to have to be the other one.

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