How high can AAP ride the broom in Gujarat?

AAP’s campaign on schools and electricity has struck a chord with the electorate. Photo: PTI
AAP’s campaign on schools and electricity has struck a chord with the electorate. Photo: PTI


  • AAP is making inroads in the western state but, in the short run, it could split the opposition vote-share.

AHMEDABAD : For more than 13 years, Kailash Gadhvi, 52, was associated with the Congress party in Gujarat. An other backward class (OBC) leader and a chartered accountant by profession, Gadhvi was the state president of All India Professionals’ Congress (AIPC) and also the spokesperson of the party.

But the position he cherished most was the chairman of Congress’s chartered accountant cell. “No political party had thought of having a separate cell of chartered accountants in their structure," he says, sitting in his office in Ahmedabad. “It was exciting to set it up."

Cut to April 2022. Gadhvi joined the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) at its state office in Ahmedabad in the presence of his supporters—chartered accountants, small businessmen, and bankers, among others. Along with him, he says, at least 400 Congress workers switched to AAP.

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“The Congress party promoted me and treated me with respect," Gadhvi says, gearing up for the assembly elections in the state expected by end-November or early December of 2022—the Election Commission is yet to announce the dates. “But it doesn’t have the fire in the belly that is required to form the government. A political party should strive for power. With Congress, it seems their leaders are happy to simply sit in the opposition," Gadhvi adds.

Gadhvi quit the Congress party in October 2020 after being denied a ticket for the by-election in Abdasa, a constituency in his native region of Kutch. While his analysis might stem from a personal grudge, his perception is shared by many ordinary voters, especially the anti-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) constituency longing for an effective opposition in Gujarat. The fact that AAP lost deposits in all of the 29 seats it contested in 2017 seems like distant history this time around.

Radhaben Parmar, 40, a farmer in the village of Totana in Patan district, says the lack of opposition has allowed the BJP a free run in the state. She believes the ‘Gujarat model’ only works for the rich. At the same time, Radhaben is fed up with the Congress for having failed at effectively exposing the BJP.

“I will vote for AAP this time," she says. “How many more chances do the Congress want? If they couldn’t do anything for over 20 years, why should this election be any different?"

The rural window

The BJP first came to power on its own in Gujarat in 1995. Back then, PV Narasimha Rao was the prime minister. Virat Kohli was seven years old. And Narendra Modi was a name unheard of in India.

Rao passed away 17 years back; Kohli has been an international cricketer for 13 years; Modi is into his ninth year as the prime minister of India. But the BJP is yet to lose a state election in Gujarat since it first came to power—27 years on, its grip over the state remains strong.

However, because of the BJP’s aura of invincibility in the state, it is possible to underestimate the presence of a pro-Congress or an anti-BJP voter. In 2017–the closest election ever seen in Gujarat in the 21st century–the BJP was reduced to 99 out of the 182 assembly seats. The Congress, at 77 seats, had put up a respectable performance.

The BJP owed its success to the voters in urban areas. According to the Trivedi Centre for Political Data, the BJP won 85% of the urban seats and 67% of the semi-urban seats. Congress, on the other hand, riding on the back of a raging Patidar agitation (a pro-reservation agitation), won 58% of the rural seats. Several farmers and labourers struggling with water shortage, agrarian crisis and unemployment in rural areas voted for change–most of them from Saurashtra region, where Congress nearly doubled its tally from 16 seats in 2012 to 30 in 2017.

That is exactly where the AAP is making inroads.

Guarantee card campaigns

Jeevanbhai Parmar, 50, a small farmer in Ramdevpur village of Saurashtra’s Surendranagar district, has grown despondent with the Congress. After the spirited show of 2017, he expected the party to consolidate on the results. Instead, 22 of the Congress MLAs defected to the BJP soon after the elections–four of them from Surendranagar.

“It makes you feel hopeless," says Parmar. “You feel like your vote doesn’t matter at all. It makes you wonder if the Congress is even committed to defeating the BJP. With Arvind Kejriwal, at least you feel like he is sincerely trying his best. He deserves a chance." Kejriwal is the national convenor of AAP and the chief minister of Delhi.

Besides the despondency within the Congress ranks, AAP’s campaign on schools and electricity has struck a chord with the electorate. Party workers have been distributing ‘guarantee cards’, with multiple promises of jobs, women’s safety and better schools, among others.

Among those in favour of voting for the AAP is Shankar Makwana, 44, a Dalit. A truck driver based in Ahmedabad, he earns 30,000 a month and has three children. The eldest is married, while the other two children have just stepped out of college. “I sent them to private schools because the government schools here aren’t that great," he says. “But the private schools keep asking for money. As a truck driver, I have had to borrow money and get my kids educated. I wouldn’t have had to do it if the government schools in Gujarat were decent."

Makwana has heard about the public schools in Delhi and is impressed with Kejriwal’s work. “He is the only leader discussing education," he says. “He talks about giving free electricity to the poor. He is focused on issues that affect our daily lives. He looks like a better option than the Congress right now."

‘BJP’s B team’

The Congress is aware of the dangers AAP poses to its existence in Gujarat.

Manish Doshi, a Congress spokesperson based in Ahmedabad, says that AAP is the BJP’s B-team. “But we are confident," he says. “The Congress’s seats have increased with each election since 2002. Our manifesto is based on people’s issues. We have worked on our booth management."

The 22 MLAs who defected from Congress to the BJP were “blackmailed and/or tempted with powerful positions", says Doshi. “We took out rallies in those constituencies to reassure our voters so that they don’t shift to AAP. The party has been brought to Gujarat to divide the votes. They have no ideological commitment."

AAP’s conspicuous reluctance to speak up on communal tensions has often drawn flak from commentators and activists. Imtiyaz Qureshi, a resident of Ahmedabad, says AAP might have done good work in Delhi but it doesn’t stand up against discrimination. “Their politics is like that of a trader," he says. “Get involved only if there are profits. It sounds good as long as it works. But you can’t trust them."

Gadhvi says Muslims feature in AAP’s plan just like every other community does. “We campaign on issues," he says. “We don’t want to give the BJP any opportunity to make the situation communally tense. We set our own agenda."

Except that Arvind Kejriwal and AAP have demanded pictures of Hindu deities on Indian currency. They are not just speaking about electricity and schools.

The right of the centre strategy is aimed at eating into the BJP’s vote-share. AAP believes it can’t win an election by alienating the majority Hindus.

The Modi factor

So far, though, the BJP’s constituency seems largely intact–especially in urban areas.

Bharat Pandya, a BJP leader based in Ahmedabad, says it will be an easier election than the one in 2017. “There is no people’s movement (patidar agitation) this time around," he says. “We are aiming to go beyond a two-thirds majority. Gujarat has always been a two-party state. The Congress has disintegrated. So the entry of a third party will ensure the opposition vote gets divided."

Pandya is not off the mark.

Upon being asked about the outcome of the elections, Kartik Shukla, 40, a cab driver from Ahmedabad, says, “Aayega toh Modi hi."

The current chief minister of Gujarat, Bhupendrabhai Patel, who took charge in 2021 replacing Vijay Rupani, is not the most popular man in the state. But several people this writer spoke to said their vote would go to the BJP because of Modi.

“Modi has awakened the Hindus," Shukla says. “Until he became prominent in India, Muslims would marry Hindu women and convert them. That has stopped now. I believe in equality but it should work both ways. Our society and even Bollywood has glorified Muslims. I don’t agree with that."

Shukla’s only gripe with the BJP is that the schools in Gujarat are in bad shape. But that isn’t enough for him to switch his loyalties. He believes that Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi are secretly devout Muslims. His belief, he claims, stems from a WhatsApp message that he received sometime ago. And, Kejriwal, he says, is an outsider.

A curiosity, still

To shed the image of an “outsider", AAP is banking on two leaders, Gopal Italia and Isudan Gadhvi.

Italia is a former constable, who joined the Patidar andolan in 2017 and quickly became an important leader of the movement. In 2017, he became famous after he hurled a shoe at minister of state for home, Pradipsinh Jadeja. Through him, the party hopes to reach out to the Patidar community, which forms 15% of the population. Earlier this month, Gujarat police arrested him for “derogatory remarks" against Prime Minister Modi. Commentators believe it is a sign of AAP making the BJP a bit nervous.

Isudan, on the other hand, had a popular show with VTV News, where he was known to have conducted combative anti-establishment debates. Belonging to the influential Gadhvi community among the OBCs, Isudan’s shows on the agrarian distress and the Patidar agitation had been particularly followed in rural areas.

Isudan says people used to come to him with their problems because of his popularity. “I did what I could but there is only so much you can do when you have a job in TV," he adds. “But after covid-19, I thought I should quit my safe job and work for the people. I am a religious man. My ideology aligns with AAP because they also focus on issues. We are here with a different brand of politics."

AAP’s focus in Gujarat is not on huge rallies but door-to-door campaigns. The party understands the might of BJP’s cadre and the importance of having a personal connect with the voter. “We have our teams of party workers ready in at least 16,000 of the 18,000 villages," says Isudan.

Many of those earlier worked for the Congress.

Jigar Thakore, 28, from the village of Dudka in Patan district, toils as a labourer during the day, earning 200-250. In the evening, he gets people to register with AAP. “I used to work for the Congress earlier but it didn’t seem worth it," he says. “I don’t mind working hard if the leaders at the top also do it. I followed AAP on social media. I researched the party for a year. And then I decided to join."

Thakore sits at the Patan bus stop for two-three hours and reaches out to travelers. “It is the best place to add more people to the fold," he says. “On an average, I register 300 people every day. I have a similar network in nine villages around mine."

However, the atmosphere around AAP is strongest in Saurashtra, sporadic in north and south Gujarat and weakest in central.

Nattubhai Makwana, former sarpanch of Bamangaon village in Anand district, says he hasn’t seen an AAP worker in the village yet. “The votes here are divided into two parties," he says. “Congress is still the preferred choice of those who don’t want the BJP. Rahul Gandhi seems like a man with his heart in the right place. But it is true that AAP’s entry has made people curious."

The curiosity and traction around AAP should worry both the Congress and the BJP. In the short run, it could split the opposition vote-share and, in the process, make things easier for the BJP. But in the long run, AAP has the potential to emerge as its credible challenger.

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