Around 6 a.m. on October 5, on the occasion of Ashoka Vijayadashami, a steady stream of people started trickling into Ambedkar Bhawan in central Delhi’s Karol Bagh. By 11 a.m., the venue’s main ground was packed to capacity as giant screens beamed live the proceedings of the public meeting held to commemorate Buddhist Conversion Day. The event was jointly organised by the Buddhist Society of India and Mission Jai Bhim, which was founded by Rajendra Pal Gautam — an advocate, Dalit leader, two-time Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) MLA from Seemapuri in north-east Delhi, and Minister for Social Welfare, SC and ST, and Registrar of Cooperative Societies and Gurdwara Elections in the Delhi government.
However, Mr. Gautam had no inkling of the political storm headed his way when he stepped on to the stage to embrace Buddhism, along with thousands of members from the Dalit community, by taking the 22 vows framed and recited by the Father of the Constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, when he had accepted the religion at Deekshabhoomi in Nagpur on October 14, 1956.
“Around 2 p.m., over 10,000 people took the vows. It was a grand event,” said Budha Charya Khajan Singh Gautam, 48, who works at a bookstall run by the Buddhist Society of India at Ambedkar Bhawan. He added that conversions to Buddhism are held at the venue every week.
Two days later, a video of the event went viral that showed Mr. Gautam taking a pledge to renounce Hindu deities: “I shall have no faith in Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh, nor shall I worship them.” The Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) expressed its outrage over the video, accused AAP of hurting the sentiments of Hindus and demanded Mr. Gautam’s resignation.
AAP chose to remain silent in the face of the attacks as AAP national convener and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was heading on a two-day tour of poll-bound Gujarat, where it is trying to pit itself as the primary challenger to the BJP. On October 9, Mr. Gautam resigned from the Cabinet, a day after the BJP in Gujarat used the issue to accuse Mr. Kejriwal of being “anti-Hindu”.
The controversy revealed that AAP, a party that once put very little premium on ideology and sought votes on its development plank, is walking an ideological tightrope as it is finding it difficult to balance its Hindutva and Ambedkar politics. Though the party’s top leadership feels Mr. Gautam’s resignation won’t affect its Dalit vote base, the handling of the issue has irked several AAP leaders and Ambedkarite workers.
A few Dalit scholars and political analysts say the party’s efforts to stake claim to the legacy of Ambedkar and pursue the Hindutva label has largely worked because of the history of Dalit political mobilisation in north India, while others say AAP’s silence over Mr. Gautam’s resignation has “exposed its anti-Dalit” position.
The resignation has come at a crucial juncture when AAP is trying to consolidate its vote base among Hindus and Dalits by embracing two ideologies that stand in stark contrast to each other. Though the party had earlier employed Hindu symbols and icons, a marked change was noticed in its politics in the run-up to the 2020 Delhi Assembly election. A week ahead of the poll, Mr. Kejriwal was seen reciting the Hanuman chalisa, a hymn in praise of the Hindu deity Hanuman, during a TV interview. “I said now that I have sung it, I’ll make all the BJP people sing it too,” the AAP chief said later at a press conference.
Following AAP’s election victory, Mr. Kejriwal in his victory speech at the party headquarters in Delhi spoke about how the voters had given birth to a new kind of politics — the politics of work. He made a reference to Hanuman too. “Today is Tuesday, it is Hanuman ji’s day. Hanumanj i has showered his blessings on Delhi. Many thanks to Hanuman ji,” the Delhi Chief Minister said. However, there was no mention of Ambedkar then.
When AAP returned to power, ‘Dilli Ki Diwali’, a light and sound show that the government launched in 2019 as an alternative to bursting firecrackers, turned into a grand event at Akshardham Temple, with Mr. Kejriwal performing puja in the presence of top party leaders. In 2021, a similar puja was held at a 30-foot-high replica of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya that was built by the government at the Thyagaraj Stadium Complex.
Even as AAP’s assertion of its association with Hindu icons grew, it started making attempts to forge a link with Ambedkar and his ideals. In the 2021 budget, the Delhi government allocated ₹10 crore to conduct programmes in honour of Ambedkar. Lord Ram also found a mention in Mr. Kejriwal’s speech during the budget session. He said AAP had been striving to build a “Ram Rajya” in Delhi for the last six years. “Lord Ram was the emperor of Ayodhya. During his rule, people were content as they had access to all basic facilities. This was called ‘Ram Rajya’,” he had said.
AAP’s re-election renewed the party’s hopes of spreading its wings beyond Delhi, but the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic stalled its progress. In 2022, the push to turn Ambedkar into the party’s icon reached its crescendo ahead of the Assembly election in Punjab, where Dalits account for 31.94% of the population, the highest percentage in the country. In January, Mr. Kejriwal announced that the pictures of Ambedkar and freedom fighter Bhagat Singh would be installed in all government offices in Delhi. In early February, the Delhi government funded the production of an over two-hour-long “grand musical” based on Ambedkar’s life. He also said the initiatives would be implemented in Punjab if the party came to power in the State.
After posting a comprehensive win in the Punjab election in March, the pictures of the two icons figured prominently when Mr. Kejriwal gave his victory speech. “We are the agents who will fulfil the dreams of Babasaheb [Ambedkar] and Bhagat Singh,” he said in a speech peppered with multiple references to both national icons along with a dash of Hindu imagery.
Having established its presence in Delhi and Punjab, AAP had set its sights on taking on the BJP, which also uses symbols and icons of Hinduism and has a record of co-opting the legacy of Ambedkar and his ideals. Earlier this year, former President Ram Nath Kovind had released a book, Ambedkar & Modi: Reformer’s Ideas, Performer’s Implementation, which argued that the Narendra Modi government’s policies had truly implemented the ideas espoused by Ambedkar.
At the launch, Mr. Kovind recalled how Mr. Modi, during his tenure as the Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2010, had organised a Gaurav Yatra to honour the Constitution and Ambedkar. Mr. Kovind said “there was no better example” of the reverence and respect that can be bestowed on Ambedkar and the Constitution.
A churn in the party
However, after Mr. Gautam’s resignation, some voters in Delhi are unsure how strongly the party believes in upholding Ambedkar’s legacy. They said this apprehension has more to do with the party’s handling of the Minister’s exit than the apparent conflict in its strategy of using Ram and Ambedkar as its symbols. When the controversy broke out, Mr. Kejriwal and Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia did not tweet defending Mr. Gautam’s action. Despite multiple attempts, the party did not officially react to the BJP’s allegations. Reporters just received the same text message from “party sources”: “Delhi CM and AAP national convenor Arvind Kejriwal is extremely displeased with Minister Rajendra Pal Gautam”.
On October 11, when Delhi Police questioned Mr. Gautam for over three hours over the incident, AAP continued its silence — a marked deviation from its reactions when party MLA from Rajinder Nagar Durgesh Pathak and Mr. Sisodia faced the heat of probe agencies over the alleged irregularities in the now-withdrawn Delhi Excise Policy 2021-22. “When the party can react for [AAP spokesperson] Saurabh Bharadwaj and [Minister] Satyendar Jain, then why not for a Dalit leader? There are others like me who are disgruntled by this stand. AAP should have supported him more as it considers Ambedkar an icon. These were Ambedkar’s 22 vows that he had taken,” a party worker close to Mr. Gautam said.
In Seemapuri, Mr. Gautam’s constituency, many voters are upset over his exit. In Valmiki Basti, near Loni border, where portraits of Ambedkar adorn most homes, Rajkumar Paliwal, a resident, said, “His religion is his personal choice. I do not see why he had to face such repercussions. We want the party to bring him back as a Minister.”
A few Dalit workers of the party have expressed their disappointment at AAP’s strategy of wearing an Ambedkar badge alongside a Hindutva label. “Hinduism and Ambedkarism can never go hand in hand. These are conflicting ideologies. The people of our community and I have been trying to raise this conflict in the party’s strategy with the top leadership, but to no avail,” said Vinay Gautam, a party worker and Buddhist.
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Asked why he continued to support the party despite this ideological conflict, he said, “When there is a problem, the first instinct should be to talk about it and resolve it, not to run away.” He said the Dalit community intends to meet Mr. Gautam and “discuss whether he continues to see a future in the party… based on that we will decide if we should continue to support AAP”.
Despite party insiders and leaders admitting to the difficulty in pursuing its twin ideologies, they have indicated the party’s intention to persist with the strategy. “In our country’s freedom movement, four figures are important. We chose two of them who did not get as much prominence as the others — Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh. It has worked for us politically too. We are a party in the making. Like a child, we are also learning from our experiences,” a senior party leader said. He added that there are bound to be contradictions between any two ideas. “But these are concerns for intellectuals, it won’t affect the general public,” he said. Another leader said, “Even two brothers aren’t the same, then how can you expect our icons to not have contradictions? This is something that we will have to deal with.”
On the silence over Mr. Gautam’s resignation, a senior leader said, “The more we talk about it, the bigger the issue will become. That is what the BJP wants us to do. If you look at the Congress, its leaders respond to the BJP’s allegations and end up playing into its hands, we do not want that.”
Waiting out the storm
Even as AAP waits out the storm, political analysts and Dalit scholars largely agree that there is a chance the party might pull off walking the ideological tightrope. Political analyst Praveen Rai, who works with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said the controversy has to be viewed in the context of the upcoming election in Gujarat. “If they had not taken any action against the Minister, the chances of the controversy snowballing into a major election issue and hurting AAP’s poll prospects were extremely high. They had to choose between a bigger vote share and smaller vote share. They opted for the bigger one,” he said, adding that the decision could lead to the party losing out on Dalit votes. “In the long run, they will do some firefighting to rectify this decision,” Mr. Rai said.
The reception Mr. Kejriwal received in Gujarat when he arrived for the party’s Tiranga Yatra is also likely to have played a role in Mr. Gautam getting the marching orders. Large banners and posters that showed Mr. Kejriwal wearing a skullcap surfaced in several cities in the State in an alleged bid by BJP workers to brand him as “anti-Hindu”. In Vadodara, BJP workers waved black flags at the AAP chief in various localities.
BJP leaders tweeted similar posters with #HinduVirodhiKejriwal. The hashtag was also used to describe the AAP chief after Mr. Gautam’s video went viral. Having lost polls twice to AAP in Delhi, the BJP has been trying to paint Mr. Kejriwal as “anti-Hindu”. The Opposition party’s workers had attacked Mr. Kejriwal’s house in March after he had termed The Kashmir Files a “lie” in a veiled reference to the movie in the Assembly.
To blunt the “anti-Hindu” barb, Mr. Kejriwal at a rally in Dahod in Gujarat promised the State’s voters a fully paid pilgrimage to Ayodhya. He said the Delhi government had launched a similar scheme for devotees of Lord Ram to visit the holy city in a special train. “Lord Shri Ram’s temple in Ayodhya will get ready next year. Who all want to visit the temple? All of you want to do so. If we form the government in Gujarat, we will take you for a free darshan of Ayodhya ji,” he said.
According to Mr. Rai, a majority of the voters do not care about the contradictions in AAP’s politics of Ram and Ambedkar. “In north India, about 40% of the voters are poor, have low literacy and are religious. For them, these contradictions are not going to be an issue.”
Harish Wankhede, Assistant Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for Political Studies, said there was a historical reason why AAP’s strategy of balancing Hinduism and Ambedkar’s ideology has worked. “Ambedkar’s acceptance of Buddhism in 1956 led to Dalit mobilisation in Maharasthra, leading to mass conversions in the Mahar community. But this movement did not go beyond the State. The Dalit movement was soon dominated by neo-Buddhists like the Mahars.”
Mr. Wankhede added that when Dalit mobilisation started taking shape in north India under the leadership of Kanshi Ram, founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party, there was a conscious decision to create a “block with a political umbrella identity”, which would be “open-ended”, allowing diverse caste groups to band together. “These efforts were made specifically to avoid having a dominant caste group take over the movement,” Mr. Wankhede said. This strategy might continue yielding electoral results for AAP “as it has for the BJP, which is focusing on representation and the celebration of that representation” to win votes.
Identity devoid of caste
Another explanation for the Dalit political movement in north India being divorced from Ambedkar’s Buddhism, according to Subhajit Naskar, Assistant Professor of Politics at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, is that it already had a religious identity that was “anti-caste”.
“They had saints like Kabir, Ravidas and Valmiki, worshipping whom did not have caste restrictions. In Valmiki mandirs, everyone gathers and sits together. This movement was already anti-caste,” he said, adding that “Mr. Gautam’s resignation and the party’s reaction to it has exposed AAP’s strategy of paying lip service to Ambedkar’s ideals and its anti-Dalit stand”.
However, according to Mr. Rai, “We will have to wait for the Gujarat election results to see whether this strategy of taking Ram and Ambedkar together will bring the party votes or not because in Delhi and Punjab, AAP won mainly owing to different reasons.”