On Diwali night, I was visiting a lawyer friend’s home for a get-together. She introduced me to other guests as a member of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), much to the delight of a young couple. They were thrilled about Chief Minister (CM) Arvind Kejriwal’s live-streamed Laxmi puja earlier that evening. The woman, who runs a business, said that she had always wanted to do the puja at home, but didn’t know how to conduct it. The instructions from the live-stream helped them set it up. I have since heard several other accounts of people who found the Delhi government’s Diwali puja a useful guide.
The pandemic made it unviable for the AAP government to replicate its popular Dilli Ki Diwali festival at Connaught Place, so the CM’s call for a community puja led by his Cabinet was the next best thing. Add to the mix bhajans from Anup Jalota and some excellent dance performances, and it was a wholesome Diwali package.
But Kejriwal’s Diwali puja triggered sharp criticism from both the Left and the Right. It was amusing to see both unite in going after something as innocuous as a community prayer on one of India’s biggest festivals. Why is an elected head of a state patronising a religious festival and participating in prayers? The principle of separation of church and State was being violated, they said.
But the truth is separation of church and State in its puritanical sense has always been alien to the conceptualisation of a secular India. Historically, various governments have patronised and supported religious activities. The Delhi government, for instance, has been facilitating the Chhath puja at 1,200 public ghats, providing financial and logistical support to Valmiki Jayanti, Gurupurab and organising Iftar functions among other such events. Kejriwal has personally attended and participated in each of these.
What made this Diwali puja stand out was that, in addition to backing and participating, Kejriwal also performed the ceremony and streamed the puja. To be fair, Kejriwal has always led his family Laxmi puja each year and it was his special love for Diwali that led to the three-day Dilli Ki Diwali laser show festival in Connaught Place last year. This year, with no major public gatherings possible, he live-streamed the puja.
The disquiet about Kejriwal performing the puja comes from a misplaced understanding of what it means to be secular. Suhas Palshikar tweeted his scholarly articulation of this phenomenon recently: “Seculars have done enough harm by confusing secularism with an anti-religion intellectual position. The intellectual terrain of discussion then shifts away from core issues of coexistence and sublimation of religiosity.”
This tendency to conflate the religiosity of politicians with religious supremacy led a senior TV editor to compare Kejriwal with Modi. When I pointed out to her that peaceful expression of religious beliefs is not comparable with bigotry, it was not well received. This behaviour is odd for a country that is so overwhelmingly religious. The need to fight the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s politics of religious supremacy should not lead us to look askance at legitimate expressions of Hinduism itself. It is this kind of stance that alienates the ordinary religious Indian from the liberal elite.
The Right-wing’s attacks are coming from a place of insecurity. They have exercised monopolistic power over Hinduism so far. Every time a non-BJP political leader expresses their Hindu faith, the party’s machinery attacks it as disingenuous. Kejriwal’s Hindu identity is not a façade. He is from a deeply religious family. One especially revealing incident from a documentary about his life comes to mind. His parents were asked about the time they met Kejriwal’s batch-mate and wife Sunita for the first time. His father, Gobindram Kejriwal said, “All we asked Sunita was, beta, do you believe in God? She said she did, and that was all we needed to know.”
The Left and Right need to realise that Kejriwal’s politics is prefaced on his governance model, which won him the Delhi assembly election three times. That is his electoral trump card, not his Hindu identity. His religiosity is just a fact that they will have to accept and live with.
Akshay Marathe is a spokesperson of the Aam Aadmi Party and a public policy student, Harvard University
The views expressed are personal