NEW DELHI — The Aam Aadmi Party is in Ayodhya today, with top leaders like Sanjay Singh and Manish Sisodia visiting key religious sites in the temple town, in their opening salvo for the 2022 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election.
AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal has pursued expansion ever since his party, born out of the anti-corruption movement in 2011, won its first election in Delhi in 2013, and has never been defeated in the national capital. So far, it’s been a mixed bag of wins and losses in other states, but AAP has persisted with contesting all manner of elections, from the grassroots to Parliament. Earlier this year, they made inroads into Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh, winning polls at the city, village, and block level.
We spoke with Rajya Sabha lawmaker Sanjay Singh, who heads the AAP in UP, about how they plan to contest in a state where the elections are fought by exploiting caste and religious divides, the Opposition parties feel the need to establish their Hindu credentials in order to survive, and combating BJP’s winning streak.
“Where there is filth, that is where you need a broom,” he said, referring to the symbol of AAP. “The electoral battle has to be fought on agenda.”
Why is Uttar Pradesh important for the AAP?
UP is a country in itself. UP is important not just for us, but for every political party and every Indian for different reasons. We have decided to contest in UP because the governments in the past 75 years have not provided employment, education, and hospitals in the state. We are called the agricultural state — Krishi Pradhan Rajya — but the farmer there is ready to commit suicide, the farmer has been sitting on the road for the past nine months. There is corruption in thanas, tehsils, hospitals, and in getting jobs. We have raised the issue of corruption in the Jal Jeevan Mission scheme. If you talk about crime, there is an incident every day. Girls as young as six, eight and ten, are raped. The Aam Aadmi Party is a good model. Today, the price of electricity is sky high in UP, but in Delhi, we give free electricity. Free electricity, free healthcare, free education, and employment, we want to take this model to UP.
UP isn’t Delhi.
What we did in Delhi can be done in UP as well. We have done it in Delhi on a 60,000 crore budget. The budget for UP is 5.5 lakh crore rupees. When people say that UP is a big state, and how can the AAP do the same thing, we feel that we can. We have organizational strength, the ability to fight on the ground, and a good model for governance.
You are contesting all 403 seats. What is your strength in UP?
Our strength is our model, our work, and our determination to fight for different issues in UP. When the Bikru scandal happened, the Aam Aadmi Party came forward. When it was time to oppose the three black farms laws, I spoke in Parliament and was suspended. We raised corruption in the Ram Mandir. When the Hathras incident happened, there was an attack on us. They filed a case of sedition against me. They closed our office. The battle that the Aam Aadmi Party has fought against the Yogi Adityanath government on the ground, I don’t think anyone has fought that battle.
What is your organizational strength in UP?
When we were fighting the Delhi election, people used to say that we don’t have organizational strength. How does one build organizational strength? By taking up issues of the people and fighting for them, facing lathis and stones. The Aam Aadmi Party has done it in UP. Then, you need organization at the booth level, block level, Assembly level, towns, and districts. And you need frontal organizations. We have frontal organizations for farmers, youth, students, doctors, and women. We are still building strength at the booth level, but the membership we are doing is Assembly-wise, so we plan to segregate and give booth-wise responsibility. We are doing the Tiranga Yatra. We have seen tremendous energy. UP is a big state. The work is difficult, but not impossible.
How many new members do you have?
We did a membership drive for about a month and a half in 403 Assembly seats. Our target was one crore. Right now, the new members we have is 78 lakhs. We will meet the target. We will see who hails from which booth and give them responsibility in that booth.
What happened to the alliance between AAP and SP?
This was media speculation. I have said that the politics of alliance is truth in Uttar Pradesh. If we decide to go down that route, we will tell you.
What is your objective in UP?
I find this a bizarre question. We are a party that gives people free electricity, water, education, mohalla clinics, and CCTVs for security. The question is not why AAP is going to UP, but why isn’t AAP going everywhere in the country. Did anyone ask the BJP in the eighties, where are you going in the country and why? They had two seats in Lok Sabha. Did anyone ask Jan Sangh that question? A political party can go anywhere it wants to.
UP’s politics is based on dividing people on the grounds of caste and religion. Will AAP make those calculations and speak that language?
Where there is filth, that is where you need a broom. If people are stuck in the politics of caste and religion, then it is our political duty to get them out of it. We are giving our model. Let’s see how many people like us. We got 83 seats in the Zila Panchayat. 40 lakh people voted for us. People are liking the Aam Aadmi Party in UP.
Om Prakash Rajbhar and his alliance of small parties. Mayawati reaching out to Brahmins. BJP reaching out to OBCs. The SP plus RLD alliance in western UP. Can you ignore caste politics?
Yes. 100%. Did anyone think that we could make it in Delhi? People used to say that we will get 6% of the votes and we will resign from politics. What happened?
Delhi voters don’t give primacy to caste and religion while voting. At least, they did not use to. And free schemes seem to win the day.
Who lives in Delhi? People from UP, Bihar and Haryana. It is the same people who in their home states are embroiled in the caste questions. Was there not an attempt to polarise Delhi. They talked of the CAA, Shaheen Bagh. They were doing Shaheen Bagh, Shaheen Bagh, Shaheen Bagh. People said chal bhag, chal bhag, chal bhag. They even said things like there would be rapes in the homes of Hindus. But still, people did not vote for the BJP. What has been achieved by decades of caste and religion-based politics? Broken hospitals, schools, roads and unemployment. In four and a half years, UP has not increased the price of sugarcane.
And still farmers in a western UP vote on caste and religion (following the Muzaffarnagar riots).
Then, that means one has to get them to stop. It only means that the rot runs deep.
One criticism of AAP is that it has adapted itself to Hindu majoritarianism.
People have their own points of view. Sometimes, people say that we are the Congress Party’s B team. Sometimes, people say that we are BJP’s B team. We have A twice in our name. We are India’s A team.
When AAP was first founded, we did not hear Arvind Kejriwal evoking Hindu gods. The main stop in your Tiranga Yatra is Ayodhya . The religious symbolism of Ayodhya is undeniable.
But have you heard the slogans that we are raising: Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isai, aapas mein sab bhai bhai. Bhai chara zindabad. Hamari ekta Zindabad. Yuva shakti zindabad. Chatra shakti zindabad. Kisan shakti zindabad. Mahila shakti zindabad. We went from Lucknow, Agra, Noida and then Ayodhya. But everyone can see only Ayodhya. Isn’t Ayodhya a part of UP? Yes, Ayodhya has significance, but is going there a crime? Everyone has the right to pray how they want to in this country. But going to a temple does not mean that you are not secular.
Of course not. But this isn’t about personal choices. The political language of our times is geared towards the majority.
Aam Aadmi Party is talking about 130 crore Indians.
Why did Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal not condemn the slogans raised at Jantar Mantar? It seems like five years ago, he would have been the first person to do it.
There is no cure if you see things selectively. I have condemned what happened at Jantar Mantar in Parliament. Now, you can’t say why someone did not say something on each subject. There was an incident in Delhi, and as a Member of Parliament in Rajya Sabha, I condemned it wholeheartedly.
Nationalism cannot be Hindu nationalism, Muslim nationalism, Christian nationalism, Sikh nationalism. Our nationalism is for 130 crore people living in the country. BJP’s nationalism is based on hate, poor education, and unemployment. Our nationalism is about keeping women safe, giving employment, good roads, and mohalla clinics.
After everything that has happened, from demonetization to the carnage in the second wave of Covid-19, defeating the BJP remains a challenge.
Who defeated the BJP in 2017 in Punjab? Who has defeated the BJP thrice in Delhi? We fought in Chhattisgarh, BJP lost. We fought in Madhya Pradesh, BJP lost. Where AAP fights, BJP loses.
What do you think of a united opposition to counter the BJP?
Those who have strength should fight where they have strength. Like Mamata ji is strong in Bengal, YSR in Andhra Pradesh, Stalin in Tamil Nadu, Chandrashekhar in Telangana, and Kejriwal in Delhi. In the case of a united opposition, BJP takes advantage of it. They say that they are innocent and good, and everyone is ganging up on them.
How do you assess your competition in SP and BSP?
There have been political parties that have been elected to power. So, one cannot argue that their influence has been completely diminished.
Why has the BJP been so successful?
They have spread hate. They use divide and rule, the same approach as the British.
They have won huge victories in 2014, 2017, and 2019 in UP. Do you think all these victories are based only on hate?
Yes. What work have they done? Have they reduced unemployment, brought back the black money, and fought inflation? Can people still talk about welfare schemes after a gas cylinder is 950 rupees? Today, petrol and diesel have crossed Rs 100. No one would believe it.
If you are saying that they win on the basis of hate, then what does that say about us as voters.
This was the same country in 2011 when people joined the Anna Hazare movement and took to the streets with candles to fight corruption. That was not communal. But in the India that evolved after Modi came to power, they were successful in planting seeds of hatred. ‘Hindu-Muslim’ became the dominant narrative. UP voters should be careful. If they have managed to fool the electorate, it doesn’t mean that we should not fight to counter it. One should try and get people out of it. Not everyone is stuck in it. Modi’s popularity has gone down. It will keep going down. People will wake up slowly.
Yes, but their victories have been significant, and even if Modi’s image may have been dented a little, it is Adityanath who is likely to be the face of the UP election.
Neither Modi nor the BJP or the RSS are institutions of one day. They have worked on their ideology for 94 years. And then, they have been successful in establishing it. So, we have to accept that it has happened and challenge it. We have to tell people that this way of thinking is not okay for the nation. We have to attempt to get people out of it. As a political party and as an individual, if you believe that this is wrong, you have to challenge it.
Almost every week now, people force a Muslim to say Jai Shri Ram, attack their means of livelihood, or beat them up. Meanwhile, the Opposition is forced to play soft Hindutva, or say nothing because it only benefits the BJP if they do. Even if political parties changed, who will take a stand to reverse engineer the radicalization?
In 1947 (Partition), lakhs of people were killed. There were thousands of riots. Spreading hate is not a new thing. It has been going on for a long time. You may not remember what the atmosphere in the country was before 6 December 1992. I lived close to Ayodhya in Sultanpur. I have seen such days of radicalization, you cannot imagine.I can’t even repeat the slogans that were raised. There were riots in Muzaffarnagar (in 2013). They will keep doing this. But this country did not end and nor did its belief in the core values of the Constitution. People will come out of it. India is resilient. One cannot give up on having faith. People will respond to them and give them an answer. One should be confident. But yes, an effort needs to be made to weed out the communal elements. If the BJP is dividing people over religion, then one has to fight it. One has to change the conversation to the state of the nation. One has to make the conversation about roti, kapda, makaan and employment.
Rioting is different from radicalization. Five years ago, a party like AAP, and a leader like Kejriwal, would not have felt the need to pointedly evoke God.
In 2011, we put a photo of Bharat Mata during the anti-corruption movement. (It was replaced by the national flag). People have made mistakes that have allowed the BJP to get ahead. Those mistakes should not be repeated. We need to tell people how much the nation has suffered. The electoral battle has to be fought on the agenda, not ideology and symbols.
But people have tried talking about the agenda, raising issues of corruption, demonization, the state of the economy, and unemployment.
So, sometimes, they are successful. Sometimes, it takes time. It took them 94 years to explain their ideology. To remove them is taking some time.