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Congress, rendered largely ineffectual in Delhi, has been replaced by another left leaning party.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.