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Why Aam Aadmi Party May Be More Than A Vote Divider In Gujarat Polls

It is Arvind Kejriwal who has set the agenda for the Gujarat Assembly elections 2022 when the BJP seeks a seventh term in PM Modi’s home state.

Why Aam Aadmi Party May Be More Than A Vote Divider In Gujarat Polls
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When Narendra Modi became the chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, riding on a strident Hindutva wave, he famously taunted the opposition Congress party and the media alike: “Mein jahan-jahan jaunga, aap mere pichhe-pichhe aayenge (Wherever I go, you all will follow me)”. The simple meaning of this is that Modi will set the agenda of discourse.

Exactly 20 years later, this has worked as planned and a successful Congress-mukt Bharat campaign is in place. It is Arvind Kejriwal who has set the agenda when the BJP seeks a seventh term in Modi’s darling state. The applecarts of the BJP and the Congress being content in the government and the opposition respectively have been overturned by the AAP upstart.

There can be no reason otherwise for Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to spend 17 hours in Surat from Sunday (Nov 27) afternoon through the night, after holding a 25 km roadshow with hundreds waving at him and addressing a massive public meeting in the Patel-dominated Varachha area – also called mini-Saurashtra. With folded hands, he urged the gathering in Gujarati to convey his namaste to everyone at home and tell them that Modi came to Varachha.

Surat city, also known as the diamond and textile capital of the country, has always chosen the BJP in its 12 assembly seats, since 2002. It was just once in 2002 when a Congress candidate won from the Surat (East) constituency. Surat city is also the fiefdom of Gujarat BJP president, CR Patil, who won the 2019 Lok Sabha election from neighbouring Navsari, with a record margin of nearly 7 lakh. Surat is also the home constituency of the young Gujarat home minister, Harsh Sanghvi.

So why is the BJP so exercised about Surat?

Surat is the place where Aam Aadmi Party supremo Arvind Kejriwal spotted his first Gujarat opportunity in 2021. Winning 27 seats in the elections to the cash-rich Surat Municipal Corporation, the AAP nudged the Congress out of the civic body and became the principal opposition party. Congress scored a zero. Not only this, the AAP picked up 47 other local body seats across the state.

The key reason behind AAP’s Surat performance was the anger among the Patidars. This had continued since Hardik Patel’s quota agitation, and subsequently against Patel for not getting any Congress tickets for the senior members of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) in the SMC elections and in other civic bodies in the Saurashtra region. The angry youngsters joined hands with the AAP and its leaders, like Manoj Sorathiya, State general secretary from Surat, who were part of the original Anna Hazare team.

As a result, the AAP is giving the BJP a run for its money in six of the 12 seats in Surat city with a majority Patidar population. Key Gujarat AAP leaders are in the fray here, including State president Gopal Italiya, PAAS leaders Alpesh Kathiria and Dharmik Malaviya and Ram Dhaduk, a key player who made the party what it is today in Surat.

The Larger Picture

It is not only about Surat city per se. The impact of the Patidars’ voting pattern in the diamond city often reflects in the Saurashtra and Kutch regions comprising 48 and 6 seats respectively. Though the BJP has engineered Hardik Patel’s entry into the party and fielded him from Viramgam in Ahmedabad district, he no longer enjoys the Patidar leader status that he did and has been dismissed as an opportunist who hops parties for political ambition. Simultaneously, the BJP doesn’t expect the Patidar vote, which comprises around 12%, to go en bloc with it and also expect it to be split between the AAP and the Congress.

The BJP celebrated when the AAP began its campaign from the rural regions and expects it to dent the Congress’ vote banks. It hoped that the 66 urban and peri-urban seats which the saffron party has never lost would remain intact. Surat provides a strong example of why it may no longer remain a cakewalk for the BJP. With his promises like free electricity supply up to 300 units, Rs 1,000 allowance to all women above 18 years of age, and free modern schools and mohalla clinics, Kejriwal has systematically targeted the economically weaker sections (EWS) in urban areas. The AAP has also promised to fulfil the demand of lakhs of government staff for the revival of an old pension scheme ‘by January 31, 2023, when our government comes to power.’

If the BJP, Congress and the pollsters still remain in denial mode about the AAP, a whistlestop visit to even a few pockets in Saurashtra and North Gujarat on the last day of the campaign was enough to indicate that Kejriwal’s party is not a mere vote-breaker. “Isudan Gadhvi is there, he is from among us. I used to watch his ‘Mahamanthan’ programme (on VTV before he became a politician). He raised our issues, of the farmers, of the villages,” Shailesh Rajgor, a farmer in Sarwa village that falls under the Botad assembly constituency in Saurashtra, tells Outlook.

The AAP has also promised to fulfil the demand of lakhs of government staff for the revival of an old pension scheme by January 31, 2023, when our government comes to power

Packing a consignment of small mineral water bottles which he was taking to a BJP rally that was about to begin, just an hour before campaigning came to a close in the region on Tuesday, November 29, Vashram Aniyalya, a villager and ex-teacher, says, “The AAP is winning this seat (Botad) hands down. One, they have given the ticket to a Koli Patel (largest OBC community in the State) candidate, Umesh Makwana, who belongs here. Second, there are two Patels fighting each other from the BJP and the Congress.”

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Everyone standing and sitting at that dhaba sipping tea from saucers and smoking beedis agreed in unison. Aniyalya continues, “But wait, these are local reasons. The most important is that our children will get good schools and there will be proper government hospitals and clinics where the doctors would be available all the time.”

One of the men there says, “My uncle met with an accident on his bike on this highway. We brought him to the local health centre but there was no doctor. Eventually, we rushed him to a private hospital in Botad town, 25 km from here.

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Rajgor adds that “the primary health centre in the village is the only one between 15 villages, while in Delhi, we are told, there are, and we saw videos of, many mohalla clinics there.”

When asked how he could be so sure about these promises when the AAP is a new entrant, Aniyalya said, “Isudan Gadhvi.” One of the seven-eight people who had gathered there said, “See, we don’t know who Arvind Kejriwal is, we have seen him from a distance. But we all know Isudan Gadhvi (former veteran journalist and AAP’s chief ministerial candidate.)” Surprisingly, people across several regions also remember AAP general secretary, Sagar Rabari, a farmer leader from the civil society before he joined politics, who is contesting from North Gujarat’s Becharaji constituency. Former general secretary of the Gujarat Khedut Samaj, Rabari has a reputation across the state and is an expert on farmer issues. In the same vein, Rabari is not an alien face among the farmers of North Gujarat. Last but not the least, a policeman, who was quietly watching this conversation between this correspondent and the villagers, later disclosed, pleading anonymity, that, “A huge of majority of postal ballots from the government staff have gone to the Aam Aadmi Party because Kejriwal has promised to resolve their pending issues and implement old pension scheme at the earliest.”

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Meanwhile, as a strategy, the Congress party’s campaign remained away from the sound and fury of a high-voltage election and quietly focused more on its traditional bases of Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims, OBCs, cattle-rearers and farmers. Well aware that every candidate will have to fight his or her own battle with the central leadership almost ignoring Gujarat, the state party leadership, overseen by national observer Ashok Gehlot and his deputy Raghu Sharma, picked the right candidates except a handful.

This is the reason that the Congress, quite unusually, didn’t see many protests after the candidates were announced. This is in sharp contrast to the BJP, which unusually, faces as many as 19 Independents from as many as 40 dropped legislators. Even if a few among them win, it is a loss of an otherwise sitting MLA for the party – and the others would cut into the saffron votes. Several Congress candidates, including Manhar Patel, contesting from Botad, had conveyed that they would handle their own campaigns and avoid sending any central leaders. “One reason is that our campaign this time is door-to-door and we lack the resources to organise huge rallies. Secondly, the BJP has a tendency of deliberately misinterpreting what they say and converting it into useless, unsavoury social media controversies,” says Manhar Patel, confident of winning the Botad seat.

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He is not alone in saying this. Paresh Dhanani, former leader of the opposition and sitting Congress MLA, seeking re-election from Amreli constituency in Saurashtra, says, “Every Congress MLA is a soldier who is a one-man army and fights his own battles. We are forming the government, you will see.”

The Surveys and The Reality

In sharp contrast to the ground reality, all surveys predict a landslide victory for the BJP going right up to 139 seats out of the total 182 in the State Assembly.

If the BJP performed its worst since 1995 with 99 seats in 2017 elections, the Congress did its best with 77 seats, plus four independents

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The basic premise of the pre-poll surveys is that anti-incumbency votes against the BJP will be split between the Congress and the AAP. They predict a BJP victory bigger than Narendra Modi’s best performance of 127 out of 182 seats in 2002. A November 4 survey by C-Voter predicted anywhere from 131 to 139 seats for the BJP, 31 to 39 Congress and 7 to 15 AAP. Some other subsequent surveys gave the BJP 115 to 125 seats.

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The great finisher The BJP roadshow in Ahmedabad Photo: AP

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Like in Surat, the ground reality across the state is that the AAP is indeed cutting into the BJP and the Congress votes. The BJP will still win with Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, himself taking over the reins, having already held as many as 23 rallies after the polls were notified on November 3, 2022, and will do so until the last minute of campaigning for both the December 1 and December 5 phases of polling. The BJP is now fighting the Gujarat elections completely on the shoulders of Modi. The party has always known that ‘Modi hain to mumkin hain’ (It is possible if there’s Modi) but this time the situation is: ‘Modi hai to hi mumkin hain’ (It’s possible only if Modi is there).”

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Political analyst and economist, Hemant Shah, asserts that, “There is nothing beyond the face of Modi and the farce of an effective development model that the BJP has to show. There is simply nothing to take home about the performance of the state government.”

This is also the reason that the BJP has returned to its strident Hindu nationalism, he says, referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, besides other leaders, accusing the Congress of harbouring terrorists while the BJP had waged a war against them. However, a strong Modi supporter, Chandresh Parmar, who works as a development officer in the LIC, says, “Modi and Shah are speaking of weeding out terrorism, where is Hindutva? There can’t be development amid continuous communal riots and terror attacks.”

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The Bhupendra Patel government has been facing agitations from as many as 32 sections of government employees over a host of issues, while the government was forced to scrap the Par-Tapi-Narmada river linking project, following huge protests by the Adivasis, led by the Congress party. It also withdrew another legislation relating to stray cows after an uproar by cattle-rearers. This is for the first time ever since the BJP came to power in 1995 that its government was forced to withdraw two major projects in the face of protests. If the BJP performed its worst since 1995 with 99 seats in 2017 elections, the Congress did its best with 77 seats, plus four independents. Sure, the saffron party poached as many as 20 Congress MLAs in five years but this has almost been squared up with 19 sitting BJP MLAs contesting as independent candidates after being denied party tickets.

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More than the Congress, the BJP appears more worried about the AAP’s overtures towards the economically lower strata of society in the urban areas like autorickshaw drivers, class 3 and class 4 staff of the government, roadside vendors, small traders and small-scale industrial units. Its litany of promises of free power supply up to 300 units and setting up modern schools and medical facilities on the lines of Delhi scare the BJP. The promise of pensions is the icing on the cake.

Psephologists and political pundits disagree that it is a three-corner contest. Even if it is so, it may not work as a third front has never succeeded in Gujarat. The only problem with this otherwise valid argument is that all previous third fronts in Gujarat were carved out of disgruntled splinter groups of the BJP and the Congress and were considered opportunists by voters. None emerged as a deliberate experiment. The AAP, on the other hand, has come to Gujarat after capturing two states and is trying to get into the space conceded by the Congress party.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "The AAP Challenge")

(Views expressed are personal)

Darshan Desai is a veteran journalist and founder-editor of development news network, Gujarat

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