The Aam Aadmi Party contested its first election in Gujarat in 2014, to the lok sabha, and lost badly. It got less than two percent of the votes polled .
Although the BJP has been dismissing AAP’s announcement that it will fight all 182 seats in the 2017 assembly elections, on the ground that Gujarat has never let a third force rise, there have been two developments since May 2014.
First, the Congress had failed to elect a single MP from Gujarat in the Lok Sabha. And at a critical juncture when the party should have been strategising for 2017, it is struggling to cope with its internal politics and power equations –recently it lost Gujarat in-charge, Gurudas Kamat, who quit the party suddenly.
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The bigger event however, was the emergence of the 22-year old Hardik Patel. This self-proclaimed leader of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) — an entity unacknowledged till last year– has led a stir of Patidars, demanding quota in higher education and government jobs.
An ostensibly non-political rally in Ahmedabad on August 25, 2015 by the Patidars who are a loyal constituency of the BJP, which attacked the incumbent BJP government in the state, would have been unthinkable in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat. The movement which had built quietly on social media to culminate in the rally (followed by the worst caste violence since the communal riots of 2002) was compared to the Jan Lokpal movement by Anna Hazare at Jantar Mantar which gave birth to AAP, and a non-BJP, non-Congress chief minister for Delhi– Arvind Kejriwal.
Seeing an opportunity in the Patidar frustration with the BJP, the Congress jumped in to back the community and made inroads in the local body elections held in December last year, especially in the taluka panchayats.
Now with Kejriwal openly backing the Patidars and seeking the release of Hardik Patel who is in jail facing sedition charges, AAP’s strategy is to tap a key BJP constituency: the farmers, a majority of whom are Patidars, and the youth.
As part of its plan, the AAP Delhi government gave full page advertisements on completion of one year in dailies in Gujarat and its leaders from Delhi flew in to talk about high power bills in Gujarat promising better governance. Urban electricity supply though uninterrupted, has been on the higher side in Gujarat. AAP’s Gujarat in-charge Gulab Singh Yadav, who is a Delhi legislator, also toured the state and claimed that its membership in Gujarat has touched one lakh with a quarter of those supporting it on its promise to cut the power bills by half. These issues are more likely to strike a chord with Gujaratis than the communal — a reason why AAP has so far, not touched on the 2002 riots. Even as the Congress tries hard to re-invent itself and shrug the “pro-minority” tag, it has so far failed to give out a concrete plan of action for 2017.
The AAP is now taking up cases of land acquisition and environment hazards by industrialisation, the recent being backing villagers protesting a cement plant in Bhavnagar.
A section of Patidars might distance themselves from AAP’s Kejriwal’s video clip attacking the Anandi Patel government for arresting Hardik under sedition in order not to upset the community, but one of its prominent leaders, Vandana Patel, who is now in jail, has been an AAP candidate from Mehsana in the 2014 general elections.
For the BJP which has been ruling Gujarat for nearly two decades, the local body elections last December, were a wake up call. Like Delhi which brought in Kejriwal after three terms of Sheila Dikshit, the Patidar show of strength flagged a need in Gujarat’s prosperous community, for a government that would redress its everyday issues.
While Modi’s leadership made Gujarat part of the world narrative, a state which returned him to power more on emotional campaigns of “Gujarati pride”, rather than real issues of human development, this time the BJP has a fight on its hands to stay in power. And the fight might not necessarily be against the Congress, a party which many BJP leaders refer to as “saathi paksh” (partners) but against an opposition like AAP, which is engaging Modi on basic issues like his university degree. Even if AAP has no impact on the Gujarati voter, it might end up embarrassing the BJP.