Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has come under fire for suggesting images of Hindu deities be added to Indian banknotes for the country’s “economic prosperity”.
Mr Kejriwal, 54, the three-term chief minister of the Indian capital, sparked controversy on Wednesday after he asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to incorporate images of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and elephant god Ganesh on banknotes.
“Our economy is not improving. We need to make multi-pronged efforts to develop our country … our efforts will bear fruit only when we have the blessings of god upon us,” Mr Kejriwal told a press conference.
He cited the image of Ganesh used on an Indonesian currency note to argue it had been allowed in a Muslim-majority country.
But his remarks were met with widespread disdain, with people questioning his intentions and saying it went against the secular nature of the country.
India, with a population of 1.3 billion, is officially secular although an overwhelming majority of people are practicing Hindus.
Many on social media criticised Mr Kejriwal, calling it a stunt to grab votes ahead of assembly elections later this year, where he is battling Mr Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
“#ArvindKejriwal is now going overboard in a desperate bid to out-Hindu the Hindutva wadi,” journalist Madhavan Narayanan said on Twitter.
“Stunts like wanting Ganesha and Lakshmi images on currency notes are vain & counterproductive. We don't want crumpled Lakshmis & twisted Ganeshas in stained chai (tea) shops.”
Many agreed the idea of gods on currency would be an insult. “Notes are stashed, torn and crumpled,” social media user Venkat said.
A Delhi High Court in 2014 came out against issuing coins with pictures of deities to commemorate religious events, saying it was against the constitution.
“By issuing a coin, you are celebrating a particular religion,” a bench of then-Chief Justice G Rohini and Justice Rajiv Sahai Endlaw said.
Mr Kejriwal, a former revenue officer, entered politics a decade ago with a vision of inclusiveness and a developmental agenda. He fought elections on issues like anti-communalism and corruption.
But since sweeping polls and forming a government in 2015 in Delhi, Mr Kerjiwal and his Aam Aadmi Party has been accused of increasingly indulging in Hindu majoritarian politics.
His party often targeted Mr Modi’s BJP for being “communal”, but on many occasions has tried to prove Hindu antecedents.
During the 2020 election campaign, he sang Hindu songs during television interviews and after winning organised a visit to a Hindu temple to seek blessings.
His party built a replica of Ram Mandir, the temple being constructed on land where the demolished Babri Masjid mosque once stood, at a Delhi stadium for Diwali in 2020.
His government is sponsoring a free Hindu pilgrimage for Delhi residents across India.
Many opposition parties have accused him of using the tactics to appease Hindu voters in view of the upcoming assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat states later this year.
AAP harbours ambitions to be a national political party. It won elections in northern Punjab state earlier this year.
“There is a limit to the way religion can be used as an instrument,” said Brinda Karat of the Communist Party of India.
She accused Mr Kejriwal of misusing religion for narrow political purposes, having previously talked “about health, education and development”.
The BJP, which banks on Hindu voters, also called Mr Kejriwal’s remarks a political gimmick.
“Their minister, Gujarat chief and leaders abused Hindu gods … and yet they are in the party,” said Manoj Tiwari, a BJP parliamentarian.
“They're bringing new tactics to save face in polls. Those who objected to Ram Mandir have come with a new mask.”