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Act East: Why Kiren Rijiju is Moving From Right to Righter

Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju. (Network18 creatives)

Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju. (Network18 creatives)

Tradition mixes freely with modernity at the office of Kiren Rijiju, the Minister of State (Home), in Raisina Hills’ North Block.

News18 Sunday Feature Tradition mixes freely with modernity at the office of Kiren Rijiju, the Minister of State (Home), in Raisina Hills’ North Block.

The white-domed roof has murals painted by the students of JJ Valaya School of Arts. A centerpiece chandelier illuminates the Raja Ravi Varma-like murals, and in the corner stands a 70-inch screen with Google Earth showing contours of the world.

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Rijiju, a graduate in Geography from Delhi University's Hansraj College, takes a lot of pleasure in using this screen to explain the hilly terrain of the remotest areas of his home state, Arunachal Pradesh. He also takes a lot of pride in his office, which, some say, is grander than that of Home Minister Rajnath Singh. This effort to mix modernity and tradition is perhaps what defines Rijiju.

He is one of the most well-educated (a law graduate from Delhi University), flamboyant and physically fit ministers in the Narendra Modi government. A second-time MP from Arunachal Pradesh, his portfolio has not just given him a place of pride in Arunachal, but also made him a voice for the entire northeast India. But how does the diversity of the Northeast fit into the India-is-one politics that Rijiju espouses?

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His recent tweets on the JNU and Delhi University politics have been one of the sharpest from the right-wingers. At the peak of the Kanhaiya Kumar sedition row in JNU, when journalists and Kanhaiya were thrashed in Patiala House Court, Rijiju had questioned the hue and cry and famously asked CNN-News18, "Was there a murder?"

When Lady Shri Ram College student Gurmehar Kaur tweeted against the ABVP after the February 22 Ramjas College violence, Rijiju questioned on Twitter, "Who is polluting the mind of this young girl?"

The tweet generated so much heat that Rijiju's wife, Joram Rina Rijiju, an LSR graduate herself, asked him, "Why are you tweeting against a student?"

Rijiju confirmed this to News18 and said, "I told her that I am not commenting about the young girl, but about the Leftists who are misleading her."

Joram Rijiju and the couple’s three sons are hardly seen in public, their presence at this year's Republic Day parade being a rare exception. But journalists in Arunachal Pradesh say Rijiju owes his job as MoS Home to Joram and her father.

Kiren Rijiju's father-in-law, Joram Begi, a renowned educationalist from the state has always been close to the RSS. He was appointed the State Information Commissioner of Arunachal Pradesh after the BJP-supported government was formed in 2016.

Some top leaders of the state told News18 on condition of anonymity that it was his close links with the RSS joint general secretary Krishna Gopal that got his son-in-law the coveted job.

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Some in the BJP believe Rijiju is being used to whip up nationalistic passions ahead of important electoral battles. "Who better than an MP from remote Arunachal to show that India, from west to east, is one and undivided," a national BJP leader told News18.

But in his overenthusiasm, the minister often slips up. Rijiju was in Manipur when the Gurmehar Kaur’s video and Facebook post went viral. In an interview, Rijiju confessed that he was busy travelling in Manipur and had not seen the full video and tweeted only based on second-hand information.

But is Rijiju only doing his party's bidding? Many in Arunachal say the aim is the rolling throne of the state. While he has refused to acknowledge that he ever wants to return to state politics, many senior leaders, from both the BJP and the Congress, hint that most of his recent moves were propelled by his wish to be the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh. (Soon after this report was published, Rijiju issued a clarification, saying: My seniors encouraged me to be CM face but I prefer as "Voice of Arunachal" at Centre. People's love for me is for MP not CM.”)

This explains his sudden shift to the Right school of thought, something which has made him controversy’s favourite child. Rijiju has not been in the good books of the Sangh parivar. Many in the RSS did not forgive him for deserting the party in 2009 after his electoral defeat to Takam Sanjay by a margin of mere 1,314 votes.

Senior members of the Sangh told News18 on condition of anonymity that his decision to leave the party when the BJP was out of power at both the Centre and the state reeked of opportunism. He did return to the party in 2013 and got a ticket for Lok Sabha elections from Arunachal West constituency.

Congress's Ninong Erring, the only other MP from Arunachal Pradesh, says, "Rijiju is a good man, but to rise in the BJP you have to say all this."

The recent political musical chairs in Arunachal Pradesh also lends credence to this assessment.

People in the know told News18 that when the great power-shift drama was happening in Itanagar, Rijiju wanted to become the face of the BJP government in the state. Many in the state say he sabotaged the merger of the BJP with Kalikho Pul's PPA, a move which would have probably saved the party from the embarrassment brought by the Supreme Court decision to hand over the reins to Nabam Tuki's Congress government.

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Later, when Ram Madhav and the North East Democratic Alliance convener Himanta Biswasarma got Chief Minister Pema Khandu and his entire lot of MLAs to merge with the BJP, he was kept out of the loop. Isolated in the state, where all the political heavyweights are now with the BJP, Rijiju needs the RSS backing more than ever.

That his 'nationalist' stand is being seen favourably by the Sangh is also evident. The RSS has more than once praised him for the hardline stands taken by him.

If the aim is to rise in the party through rightwing commentary, Rijiju is emerging as a competitor to the likes of Sakshi Maharaj and Yogi Adityanath.

But the minister objects to the comparison. "Am I talking about religion? I am a born nationalist and I am talking about nationalism," he says. Rijiju says his politics is shaped by his land of birth.

His home village of Nakhu was occupied by Chinese forces after the 1962 war. That was the trigger for him and his neighbours to stand up for India. "People here won't understand. But for us India is a very touchy issue. We do not tolerate anything against India," Rijiju says.

Rijiju's claims of always being on the nationalistic side of the divide is supported by some who went to college with him. Gaurang Kant, a standing counsel for the government of India, remembers Rijiju from their Law Faculty days as someone who "was always active and a nationalist."

Rijiju was an active member of the ABVP between 1986 when he joined Hansraj College till 1994 when he finally graduated with his law degree. Unlike his seniors from DU (Arun Jaitley is one of them), Rijiju was never an office-bearer for the ABVP, but campaigned aggressively to defeat the then NSUI candidate and now Congress MP, Sushmita Deb.

It is ironic that Rijiju, a Buddhist by birth and by faith, has become the spokesperson of the ideology propagated by a Hindu rightwing political party. The dichotomy was evident when comments like 'if you eat beef, go to Pakistan’ were made by his Cabinet colleagues.

Rijiju first said anyone was free to eat what they want, but then had to clarify saying, "I or my family don't eat beef."Was he forced to clarify because of the party he belongs to? "I did not clarify anything. I just gave a statement of fact that my family and I don't eat beef. The media created a controversy," Rijiju says.

His nationalism, however, does not come in the way of him courting a Pakistani-turned-Indian. Singer Adnan Sami got his Indian citizenship after personal intervention of the minister who is in-charge of the Foreigners Division in the Union Home Ministry. For Pakistanis, the clearance for visa and citizenship comes from this division. After getting his Indian passport, the Lift Kara De star is often flown to Arunachal Pradesh to participate in festivals where Rijiju is the guest of honour.

The flamboyant Rijiju is also on speed dial with sportspersons and Bollywood personalities. Tennis player Leander Peas and music composer Anu Malik are his close friends and it helps that Colonel (retired) Rajyavardhan Rathore and Babul Supriyo are his friends in the Union Council of Ministers. A fitness freak, Rijiju often tweets pictures of his gym buddy Rathore.

Unlike members of the Sangh, Rijiju is as unapologetic about his flamboyance as he is about his nationalistic stand.
Rijiju may have left a lot of his liberal fans aghast with his recent tweets and comments, but the minister claims his current persona is a much calmer one.

"When I was in the ABVP or in my village, if someone said anything anti-India, we would thrash that person. Now, I only debate," Rijiju signs off.

(More Sunday features)
first published:March 05, 2017, 11:37 IST