As he wrapped up his two-day tour of Ahmedabad, on Tuesday (September 13), Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced that his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will field candidates for all 182 constituencies of Gujarat in the assembly polls due later this year.
With his uncanny ability to pivot himself to the centre of electoral discourse through theatrics and hyperbole, Arvind Kejriwal declared that the “Congress is finished” while the BJP will now be routed by the AAP.
If Kejriwal’s critics in the BJP and the Congress dismiss his prophecy of an assured AAP victory in the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, it is partly because historically no third party has been able to turn Gujarat’s bipolar elections into a multi-cornered contest.
Chimanbhai Patel, Shankarsinh Vaghela and Keshubhai Patel, all former chief ministers of the state with seemingly captive vote banks and a deep understanding of Gujarat’s socio-political milieu, launched their own outfits during periods since the 1990s but none sustained beyond the initial euphoria to emerge as a regional alternative to the BJP or the Congress. Though Chimanbhai’s Janata Dal (Gujarat) did make an impressive debut with a nearly 70-seat victory in 1990, it eventually merged with the Congress party that had bagged just 34 seats in that election but helped the JD-G founder return as the state’s CM.
Victory within grasp
Yet Kejriwal, a rank outsider to Gujarat with a party populated in the western state by political greenhorns, appears convinced that an AAP victory mirroring the scale of the unprecedented mandate it got in Punjab earlier this year, is within grasp. Within weeks of the AAP’s Punjab victory, Kejriwal had deputed Rajya Sabha MP Sandeep Pathak, the former IIT-Delhi professor who worked behind the scenes on the AAP’s Punjab campaign, to Gujarat to chalk out a winning strategy.
AAP sources told The Federal that over the past few months Pathak has identified some 125 assembly constituencies in the state – including the 77 that were won by the Congress in 2017 – and also issues that voters in these seats want addressed by their MLAs.
Periodic surveys to gauge public sentiment, massive door-to-door publicity of welfare schemes rolled out by AAP in Delhi and Punjab, outreach to economically backward sections who can be lured by promises of free electricity, health care and education along with setting up of booth-wise teams of party workers to ensure frequent interactions between the public and AAP leaders are part of Pathak’s strategy to secure a victory, or at the very least to displace the Congress as the principal Opposition party, said sources.
Also read: Congress is finished, AAP to contest all seats in Gujarat: Kejriwal
Discrediting the Congress is a major component of the AAP strategy and the entire AAP brass, Kejriwal downwards, is leaving no stone unturned to achieve this. This is evident in the campaign rhetoric of AAP leaders in Gujarat. An AAP leader from Delhi who is part of the party’s Gujarat campaign team told The Federal, “Gujarat is the home state of Modi and though voters want more from their government our experience, so far, has been that they do not take kindly to harsh criticism of the Prime Minister because there is a very strong bond they feel towards Modi even now. So, while we criticise the BJP on governance in the state and highlight the achievements of AAP in Delhi, we try not to be too harsh towards Modi,” the AAP leader added.
Voter fatigue, voter anger
Journalist-turned-politician Isudan Gadhvi, who along with Gopal Italia is AAP’s most prominent leader in Gujarat, said that 27 years of BJP rule had built up a voter fatigue against the saffron party but it still pales in comparison to the anger Gujaratis feel against the Congress today.
“The Congress is a completely failed opposition to the BJP. In the six assembly elections since 1995, the Congress vote share has been between 35 and 41 percent. While the Congress could not defeat the BJP, it also ensured that no other party could emerge as an alternative. Gujaratis now realise that there is a deal between the two parties; the Congress wins seats which the BJP can’t and then after some time Congress MLAs defect to the BJP. People of Gujarat are now asking ‘why should we elect a Congress MLA when we know he will eventually join the BJP’,” says AAP’s Gujarat leader Isudan Gadhvi.
AAP sees the defection of eight Congress MLAs in Goa to the BJP on Wednesday (September 14) as a “god-sent opportunity” as the development bolsters Kejriwal’s charge of Congress MLAs being easily purchasable. For added effect, Kejriwal has been regularly accusing the BJP of trying to buy AAP MLAs in Delhi and Punjab with offers of money or intimidation through central investigative agencies only to then assert that “not one AAP MLA could be bought”.
With barely two months left before Gujarat goes to polls, the palpable absence of any electoral combativeness in the Grand Old Party against the BJP makes the AAP’s anti-Congress blitz seem justified. The Congress’s best electoral outing in Gujarat since 1995 was in 2017 when the party won 77 seats riding on massive unrest among the state’s Dalits, tribals, backward communities and the formidable Patidars against the BJP.
With Rahul Gandhi leading an aggressive campaign, party veteran Ashok Gehlot chalking out an impressive backroom strategy and the troika of young firebrand leaders Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mewani and Alpesh Thakor mobilising crucial caste groups – Patidars, Dalits and backward castes, respectively – against the BJP, the Congress had in 2017, for the first time in over two decades, brought the BJP’s seat-tally a notch below 100. However, in the five years since, the Congress practically snoozed through the BJP’s steady decimation of these gains. Rahul, who in his 2017 campaign speeches had promised to visit Gujarat every few months, too was blissful in his ignorance of his party’s electoral gains slipping away.
With the BJP happily poaching Congress MLAs, the Congress’s legislative strength whittled down from 77 to 65. Among the defectors was also Alpesh Thakor, who had in the run up to the 2017 assembly polls, run a mass movement against drug and alcohol abuse in the prohibition state famous for its bootleggers and liquor home delivery service. At the organisational level too, Hardik Patel, leader of the Patidar Andolan that had crippled the BJP and forced the exit of Anandiben Patel as CM in August 2016, defected to the BJP earlier this year after launching an acerbic attack at Rahul and Gujarat Congress leaders.
Also read: Kejriwal promises ‘corruption-free, fear-free’ govt in Gujarat if AAP comes to power
Mewani, who had won his debut assembly election in 2017 as a Congress-backed independent candidate and is now working president of the Gujarat Congress, conceded that his party “needs to be a lot more aggressive in regaining people’s trust if it wants to win Gujarat this time but to do this, we have to first confront harsh truths about the weaknesses in our organisation and in our political narrative”.
Congress leaders in Gujarat admit that the party’s 2022 poll campaign, at the moment, is “non-existent”. They also rue the fact that, unlike 2017, when Rahul had taken a personal interest in the party’s Gujarat campaign, he has “largely left us to fend ourselves this time and gone off on his Bharat Jodo Yatra”.
A senior Gujarat Congress MLA told The Federal that there was considerable unease within the party’s state unit on the exclusion of Gujarat from the ongoing 3,570 km Kanyakumari to Srinagar Bharat Jodo Yatra.
“This is the biggest mass mobilisation that the Congress has done in over three decades. The yatra will still be on when Gujarat goes to polls but it won’t even touch our state. The BJP and AAP are having a field day telling voters that the exclusion of Gujarat from the Bharat Jodo Yatra route is tantamount to the Congress conceding defeat even before the elections are announced. Many of us pleaded with senior leaders to include at least two or three cities of Gujarat in the route but they gave us logistical excuses for not doing so,” the MLA said.
Gujarat Congress chief Jagdish Thakor refuted the charge of Rahul abandoning the party in the state. “Rahul addressed a massive rally in Gujarat in May and then on September 5, two days before the launch of the yatra, he came to Ahmedabad again to address a convention that was attended by over 50,000 party workers. Rahul has also unveiled the Congress’s eight guarantees to the voters (loan waivers and freebies similar to those announced by AAP). Even during the yatra, he has promised he will take time out to campaign in Gujarat. By next month, you will see our aggressive campaign. Right now, we are focussing on grassroots mobilisation at the booth, ward, block and district levels,” Thakor told The Federal.
Back in 2017, a bulk of the Congress’s seats had come from rural, semi-urban and tribal dominated areas of the state. Mevani believes this was largely the result of massive mobilisation among the oppressed communities in favour of the Congress.
“The Dalits, adivasis, backward communities like the Kolis and Thakors and the religious minorities of Gujarat have always stood by the Congress but, for whatever reasons, we had not been proactive in reaching out to them in recent years. From November 1, we will start campaigns focussed at each of these groups; sammelans, rallies and marches are being planned in regions where these communities are concentrated and we have gathered a lot of information on how funds meant for them were being misused by the BJP for other purposes,” Mevani said.
Also read: Ahead of Gujarat polls, Rahul Gandhi promises free electricity to farmers, 10 lakh jobs, LPG cylinder at Rs 500
The AAP too wants to focus on this very base but through a different strategy. “Gujarat has been the land of various caste-based electoral experiments. Madhavsinh Solanki consolidated the KHAM (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) alliance. Chimanbhai had his Kokam (Koli, Kanbi, Muslim) alliance. The BJP consolidated Patidars and the broader Hindutva coalition. We want to focus on giving a model that will automatically appeal to a seemingly amorphous grouping but one which automatically appeals to the oppressed communities who form the bulk of the electorate,” said a Gujarat AAP leader.
He added, “When we promise free electricity or free health care or cash transfers for women and better education, obviously the biggest beneficiaries will be Dalits, tribals, Muslims and backward communities but what we are offering to them is a governance model that is based on deliverables not caste equations. Politics today has changed and caste-centric rhetoric gives diminishing returns while the prospect of actual improvement in living standards has a wider appeal among all castes and its electoral returns increase over time. We have seen this in Delhi too.”
Meanwhile, the BJP, which changed its chief minister and the entire state cabinet last September in a pre-emptive attempt to beat anti-incumbency, isn’t taking the AAP’s challenge lightly either. Both Modi and Shah have been frequently visiting the state while announcements of a slew of big projects by the Centre and Gujarat government are reportedly in the pipeline. Sources say Modi also has a key member of the Prime Minister’s Office directly supervising governmental projects in Gujarat. Shah, on the other hand, has been tasked with ensuring that the party’s formidable electoral machinery in Gujarat doesn’t grow complacent.
Interestingly, some in Gujarat BJP believe the party’s focussed attacks at Kejriwal on the freebies issue and the graft investigations against his aides such as Delhi’s deputy CM Manish Sisodia are also meant to keep the AAP bubble floating ahead of the elections to split anti-BJP votes between the AAP and the Congress, thereby giving the BJP an obvious advantage. Kejriwal clearly isn’t rattled by the free publicity it’s generating for his party. He, in fact, is having a blast using it to project the AAP as the BJP’s main rival in Gujarat – and beyond.