Neelamben Raval, a thirty-something homemaker in Radhanpur of Patan district on Gujarat’s Pakistan border, is excited. She has just described the problems in her neighbourhood before a swarm of microphones outside the Gayatri Shaktipeeth gates, and her neighbours tell her they saw her on television. “Is that so?” she says, urging others to go to the man surrounded by the microphones.
It is a slightly built man in a crumpled, full-sleeved shirt, pleated dark trousers and oiled hair, before whom she has complained about how garbage is not picked up regularly, how water supply is short, and how the sarkar has done nothing for them. He had stepped out of an Innova, followed by people in caps with the slogan “Main aam aadmi hoon, mujhe swaraj chahiye”.
Ask her to recount what she told Arvind Kejriwal and she asks back, “Kejriwal who?” On a cue from a neighbour, she says, “Oh, you mean that man in the middle of those cameras?”
Without his signature scarf and cap, Kejriwal is hardly known in Gujarat. But by Saturday, the fourth day of his Gujarat tour, he was talking to a cheering crowd in AAP caps at Vijay Chowk in Ahmedabad, a BJP bastion.
For someone in a party identified by black and white caps and brown brooms, Kejriwal has brought new colour to Gujarat, which is used to political meetings being preceded by SPG or NSG sanitising procedures and ending with speeches. Kejriwal and his team came around like everyday people, chatted up people, accepted notes on issues to be raised, and even took videos of the crowd with their smart phones.
As he takes off his dusty floaters and sits cross-legged on the trailer of a detached tractor, whose sides have been opened up and which is parked under a tree, Kejriwal, who is largely know as “mufflerwala CM” in Gujarat, takes villagers of Echchwada by surprise. Pen and paper in hand, a neta who would take notes and make no speeches was the last thing they expected. “Talk to us, talk to us,” the crowd choruses. “Main bhi aam aadmi hoon, main aapko sunne aaya hoon,” Kejriwal tells them.
This is after former BJP MLA and now AAP member Dr Kanu Kalsariya has given an introduction, in Gujarati, to the waiting crowd near the temple.
“So tell me, Narendra Modi said in UP that Gujarat’s villages get 24×7 electricity. Do you?” “No,” the crowd choruses.
“Nobody gets it?”
“Yes, we do, but only for some hours in the night,” a villager says.
“Only in the night?” Kejriwal asks.
He then asked about roads.
“There is only one road here and that was not built for us, it was for the Maruti plant,” says Jayaben. The village borders Surendranagar, 15 km from the plant.
“So if you have not been happy, why have you been voting for Modi?”
“Because they (Congress) never put up a local candidate”, says a villager.
“When we went to the local MLA (Poonam Makwana) against acquisition of land (for a special investment region) he said, ‘Modi won’t listen to me’,” says Jayaben. When a leader prompts her to speak in Hindi, Kejriwal interrupts, “Oh, let her speak in Gujarati.”
In Ahmedabad, a group of protesters shout slogans against Kejriwal and pelt stones at his public meeting. “Come here, talk to me, let’s debate on Gujarat’s development,” he beckons them. Over the tour, this is the tenth protest or so.
Gopal Rai toured Saurashtra, Manish Sisodia north Gujarat, and Kejriwal, accompanied by Sanjay Singh, covered Kutch, Ahmedabad and Surendranagar. The Ahmedabad meeting recaps Jayaben’s story from Echchwada, that of farmer Alapotra Mubarak Suleiman from Darab village near Mundra, of Nandiben from Mehsana.
There isn’t a mention of the 2002 riots. It is all about “corrupt Modi” and “darling-of-corporates Modi”.
The local team
The AAP office in Ahmedabad is sparsely furnished, with mats on the floor for sitting. Running out of the bungalow of Kishore Desai, retired principal of Bhavan’s Institute, the party has not even cared to take his family pictures off the showcase.
The informal demeanour apart, Kejriwal’s itinerary was largely a secret. Even the local Gujarat offices claimed not to know till he actually arrived at point A, what his point B would be. Only the road show in Ahmedabad was publicised, also because the Election Commission wanted to know. It included neighbourhoods in Modi’s Maninagar constituency, where Kejriwal got a confetti-and-garland welcome.
In Bhuj, Dr Nehal Vaidya, a pediatrician and AAP volunteer whose hospital-cum-residence Kejriwal stayed at, says, “Two persons from Delhi came with local AAP leaders and told me Arvind will stay the night with us… He had bajri rotla, brinjal curry and khichdi for dinner. I was struck by his simplicity.”
In Kutch, district AAP co-ordinator Duttesh Bhavsar, a local news channel reporter, pitched into the planning of his tour. And in Ahmedabad, Kejriwal put up with Ghanshyam Vyas, a retired secretary who worked in the office of chief ministers Shankersinh Vaghela and Suresh Mehta, in his bungalow for one night, and at a hotel near Sabarmati Ashram for another.
The anonymity does not bother his team. An AAP functionary says, “In Patan, we asked villagers if they knew Aam Aadmi Party, or Kejriwal. They knew neither, but said they would vote for the jhaadu.”
Sukhdev Patel, an educational activist who fights for child rights, is convener for the AAP in Gujarat. He says the party’s membership has touched four lakh, in the past few months. Since January, after Kejriwal became Delhi CM, the party stopped taking the token membership fee of Rs 10 and made it free.
Several employees with the state government and municipal corporations are discreetly supporting the AAP. At the Ahmedabad office, located under a busy flyover, is a municipal corporation employee getting banners ready for Kejriwal’s first public meeting in Ahmedabad Saturday.
When he sees journalists, he quietly takes off the AAP cap. “Er, I am only helping them… I forgot to take off the cap,” he says, embarrassed.
Being an aam aadmi in Gujarat is not going to be easy.