A day after the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) held a press conference announcing the launch of its Assembly election campaign in Gujarat, on August 30, Manoj Sorathiya, general secretary of the party’s State unit, was beaten up allegedly by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members. Sorathiya was hospitalised with head injuries caused by iron rods. It is not the first time the AAP has been attacked in the State, and it is unlikely to be the last. Members of both parties have been at odds ever since the AAP entered the State. It contested the 2017 Assembly election in Gujarat and the 2021 local body elections. AAP and BJP leaders have recently been taking nasty swipes at each other on several public forums.
Do these face-offs indicate the BJP is rattled by the AAP? After almost three decades in power in the State, will the BJP be facing a tough opponent, given the AAP’s early, aggressive and focussed campaign? Does the AAP have what it takes to slay a Goliath?
Kejriwal’s visits to Gujarat
The BJP’s cause for concern is from AAP convener and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s multiple visits to Gujarat ever since he announced the party’s decision to contest the 2022 State election. The AAP has assembled a team of leaders and a network of workers at the grass-roots level. Its slogan of putting up a fight on the basis of issues rather than emotions appears to be appealing to the electorate.
The fact that the AAP has delivered on promises in both Delhi and Punjab, where it is in power, validates the assurances. Its promises of a slew of freebies and a methodical social media campaign have created a lot of buzz about the party. For the BJP, winning Gujarat, the home State of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, is a matter of prestige.
Anticipating stiff competition, the AAP has given itself a head start by releasing two lists of candidates almost two months ahead of the election slated for December this year. The BJP and the Congress are yet to announce their candidates.
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Frontline followed Sagar Rabari, a well-known farmers’ leader who the AAP has fielded from Becharji near Mehsana, on his campaign trail. There is certainly a strong anti-incumbency sentiment that one can perceive and the AAP has been talking about it. However, whether the electorate is prepared to support an unknown party over one they have voted for close to 30 years will be known only when the election is over. Moreover, the question is whether the AAP’s politics of freebies will be able to beat Modi’s development model that Gujaratis are so proud of.
Buoyed by its successes in Delhi and Punjab, along with adopting a strategy to fill the void left by a beleaguered Congress, the AAP seems determined to take on the BJP in Gujarat. “They are ambitious and aspire for a national impact. A victory in Gujarat will set them on the path to 2024,” says Achyut Yagnik, a veteran political writer in Gujarat.
AAP’s foray into Gujarat
The AAP made its foray into Gujarat during the 2017 Assembly election. It suffered a humiliating defeat, losing all 29 seats it contested. However, the issues that the AAP took on, such as the protests against the exam paper leak in the Gujarat public service exams, the revision of grade pay of the police and transport workers, poor electricity connections, and tribal matters, seemed to demonstrate its commitment to the State. It held demonstrations and rallies, and gained support in Surat, Saurashtra, northern Gujarat and the tribal belt.
The hard work and strategy paid off in 2021. AAP established itself in Gujarat by winning 27 seats in the Surat Municipal Election and one seat in the Gandhinagar Municipal body. In addition, it won 31 taluka panchayat and two district panchayat seats.
“We definitely have a good chance in the Assembly election,” says Gopal Italia, AAP’s State president. “We will contest all seats. The AAP should win in Surat, Saurashtra and northern Gujarat. In fact, we could even pull off the unbelievable, which is a majority!”
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Italia, who is known for leading the Patidar (Patel) agitation in 2018, seeking Other Backward Classes status for the community, told Frontline: “Arvind Kejriwal does what he says. People across India have seen the AAP’s good work in Delhi and Punjab. Education and electricity have improved greatly. This is what draws me to the party.”
According to Italia, the AAP has spent two years building its presence in Gujarat keeping the election in sight. “Our ammunition to combat the caste and community beast, which rears its ugly head during elections, is to fight on issues such as education, employment and electricity that affect the common man. We are getting encouraging responses from rural areas,” he says.
A BJP party insider, however, says they are not worried. “Our voters have seen our work, especially in infrastructure. It is too early to judge whether the AAP is an alternative to the Congress.”
On September 1, following the passing of a confidence motion tabled in the Delhi Assembly, Chief Minister Kejriwal took a swipe at the BJP, saying attempts to malign the party, such as raiding Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia’s residence, smacked of its fear.
A two-party State
Gujarat has witnessed two-party elections for decades, with the Congress and the BJP competing against each other. The entry of the AAP will see, for the first time in decades, a triangular fight, as the Congress is down but certainly not out. Currently, in the 182-member House, the BJP has 111 members, the Congress 63, the Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) two, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) one, and there is one independent.
Yagnik says: “The Congress gave the BJP a jolt in 2017. If they get their act together, they stand a good chance of winning a substantial number of seats. Their vote share was an impressive 42 per cent last election. Unfortunately, the secular and minority votes will then get split between the Congress and the AAP this time, and that will allow the BJP to romp home.”
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According to him, there is space in the State for not just another party but even for regional parties which have a negligible presence. “The strategy to enter the Congress space may have paid off for the AAP in Delhi and Punjab, but in Gujarat it will need to be astute in candidate selection as so much of the decision is based on caste and community.”
Yagnik, who has a deep understanding of Gujarat’s caste and community structure, adds: “Hindutva is very deep-rooted here. The BJP strongholds, primarily in cities, will never shift alliance. However, a key factor to watch for is that Gopal Italia is a Patel leader and this community can decide the fate of parties.”
In a shrewd move, the AAP has tied up with tribal leader Chhotu Vasava, the founder of the BTP and a seven-time MLA. Gujarat has a sizable tribal population (14.75 per cent according to Census 2011). Observers say Vasava has a firm grip on the tribal belt. If he can swing the vote in the AAP’s favour, it will definitely win several of the 27 reserved seats for the Scheduled Tribes. If the AAP is able to do the same with the Muslims, who constitute 9.67 per cent, it could be a serious contender to the BJP.
Promises and freebies
On his most recent visit to Gujarat, Kejriwal said if voted to power, the AAP would bring quality and free education. He promised one teacher for every 25-30 students. This would ensure better learning as well as generate employment, he said. At a public meeting earlier this year, Kejriwal said the AAP will generate 10 lakh jobs in the State.
He promised the tribal population that his party would implement the Constitution’s Fifth Schedule (prohibiting transfer of land in tribal and Scheduled areas) and the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act. He also assured the community of schools and special “mohalla” health clinics.
Similar to the promises made in Goa early this year, he said women above the age of 18 would be given a monthly allowance of Rs.1,000 and unemployed youth Rs.3,000 until they found work. Addressing unemployment, AAP leader Yuvrajsinh Jadeja announced a “Rozgaar Guarantee Yatra” that would start the process of registering unemployed people in Patan, Sabarkantha and Banaskantha in north Gujarat.
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Reacting to the promises, Prime Minister Modi accused the AAP of perpetuating a “revadi culture” (freebie culture). The Prime Minister said freebies could damage the economy and send a wrong message to India’s youth. Nevertheless, days after Kejriwal announced at a town hall in Ahmedabad that if the AAP came to power in Gujarat, it would give the best pay package to the police in the State, the Bhupendra Patel government announced an increase in their emoluments.
AAP’s Italia says the guarantees are not free. “It’s the government giving people back their money.”
The BJP’s plank that development is the way forward has worked in Gujarat. Those whom Frontline interviewed seemed to want the education, employment, health and electricity benefits but were sceptical of it being free. Gujaratis are largely business-minded and are willing to pay for quality and service. Election results will reveal whether the freebie tactic worked.
Electricity, education, employment, health
Following interviews with people in Ahmedabad and Mehsana across communities and various income levels, Frontline found that unemployment and civic amenities were a major concern in both urban and rural areas. Health care, education, electricity and water were of high concern in rural areas. “The AAP has been saying it will provide welfare. This is our promise,” says Rabari, who spends almost 15 hours a day travelling in the district spreading information about the AAP. The party has a sizeable grass-roots cadre working on increasing the awareness about the AAP.
Wearing bright yellow and blue AAP scarves, Rabari and a group of party workers walk through Aloda village, which is part of the Becharji constituency. Residents appear curious about the AAP. They listen to party workers and nod in agreement to the several issues the AAP is prepared to address. Yet, when prodded about whether they see the newcomers as an alternative to the BJP, the villagers are unwilling to comment.
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“Our biggest need is electricity. We are supposed to get eight hours of power, we hardly get two. I heard the AAP will make sure we get power at lower costs as well as free units of electricity. They did it in Delhi, so maybe they will do it here too,” says Mahendra Patel, a farmer in Aloda, Mehsana.
‘Time for change’
Labobhai Rabari, a cattle farmer in Aloda, says the time has come for change. “We have not seen any change in 30 years. Expenses have gone up. Schools are non-existent and if we want work, we have to go to big cities. AAP says they will remove corruption. I do not mind giving a new comer a chance.”
Chandresh Patel, a farmer from Ganeshpura in Mehsana, says: “We are located just off the highway, but we have neither proper roads nor sanitation in our village. They build grand roads to show the world how much progress there is in Gujarat. In reality, if you drive two minutes off the highway, you will see poverty, no water, no electricity, no schools and no primary health centre.”
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Two hours away in Ahmedabad, the responses are quite different. “Gujarat has a huge small to mid-trader class. They are suspicious of freebies. They will wonder what’s the catch. This population is willing to pay to get good quality service. Therefore, the AAP’s handouts may backfire,” says Deepak Gami, an auto parts trader in Vadodara.
Usman Patel, a cloth trader, who lives in the old city of Ahmedabad, which has become a Muslim ghetto over time, says they are hopeful the AAP will encourage Muslims to contest the election. “If they do they will be supported in huge numbers as we have a large population in Gujarat. Muslims have no political representation. I hope the AAP changes that.”