Dear Express Reader,
I travelled to Gujarat last week to report on the assembly election — tomorrow is the second and final phase of voting and the results will be out on December 8. If elections are not just about the immediate outcomes, if they are also about long term political stirrings and shifts on the ground, then this election in Gujarat is primarily about the Aam Aadmi Party.
At the beginning of this year, in the election held in February, the party that was born in Delhi won Punjab. Now as the year ends, whatever the final numbers say, it has announced its presence in Gujarat. In conversations with voters across the three regions I travelled to — South Gujarat, Saurashtra and North Gujarat — the AAP was visible in its all-out electioneering in town and village.
Its trajectory so far has defied the odds in a polity where the threshold of electoral viability is high for a new force. In Delhi and Punjab, it was helped by people’s movements — it was part of it in the former, and in the latter, a beneficiary.
In Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal’s party was born in the Anna Hazare-led movement against corruption that targeted a by-then discredited UPA2. If the Anna mobilisation laid the ground for the AAP in Delhi, the over a year long farmers’ movement against the Centre’s three farm laws paved its way to Punjab.
Going to Punjab was a gamble for a party that had built its base in the city by offering a kind of civic solutionism. Punjab is a state of complex and congealed crises, from an agriculture in dire need of diversification after the plateauing of the gains of the Green Revolution, to the lag in the coming of industry and services, and the unstemmed flight of the young from the state. These problems require patient and sustained political labour to untangle and resolve, and the AAP’s politics, despite its successes in the health and education sectors that now make its “Delhi Model” that it also projected in Gujarat, still relies overly on spectacle.
And yet, scepticism of the AAP was pushed back by the wider and deeper resentments that rose to the surface because of the farmers’ agitation in Punjab. Having entered the contest in the 2017 assembly election, the AAP swept to power in Punjab in 2022, therefore, on the back of the boiling over of a voter discontent that swept away all disbeliefs in its way, against the backdrop of an unprecedented agitation that had ripened the soil for a third force to take hold.
But the conditions that made Delhi and Punjab fertile grounds for the AAP do not obtain in Gujarat.
In Gujarat, there was no pre-election build-up, unlike in Delhi and Punjab, of a people’s movement — the Patidar quota agitation and the farmers’ movement that fuelled the Congress’s good showing in the 2017 assembly election have all but died down five years later. There is no spilling over of anti-incumbency sentiment either, as in Punjab.
While voter grievances ring loud and clear on price rise, unemployment and privatisation of education, they are blunted by two factors in Gujarat — the distinction that many make between the state government and the still-popular Modi, and in-the-last-instance calculations by voters of the Hinduvadi credentials of parties in the fray.
And yet, the AAP saw and seized its opportunity in this BJP bastion — a fallout of the apparent retreat by the BJP’s main opponent.
In this election, the Congress campaign seemed splintered into its constituent parts — it was as good or as bad as its individual candidate. Rahul Gandhi only broke away from his Bharat Jodo Yatra to campaign in Gujarat once. The state unit that has suffered the fallout of the leadership vacuum at the central level since 2019, has, in the last five years, seen many of its leaders cross over to the BJP.
In its bid to move into the space that the Congress is doing its best to vacate, Arvind Kejriwal’s party threw everything it had into its Gujarat election campaign.
Across the state, its Punjab MLAs fanned out with teams they brought with them from their own constituencies, to lend a shoulder to their party’s campaign.
In Mehsana, a BJP stronghold, I came across Gurpreet Bassi “Gogi”, AAP MLA from Ludhiana West. He had camped, along with a team of 25, in this north Gujarat constituency from November 11 to December 3. A four-time Congress councillor in Ludhiana Municipal Corporation and former district president of Ludhiana Congress urban, Gogi (“call me Gogi”, he said, “even my children don’t know me as Gurpreet”), quit the Congress after 22 years to join the AAP ahead of this year’s election in Punjab.
In Mehsana, he picked up Gujarati “thodi bahut”, a little, and was “in charge” of 44 villages, 11 wards, 2,75,000 votes. There was door-to-door campaigning and daily nukkad meetings, with evening video shows that showcased AAP governments in Delhi and Punjab.
“We tell them how we won in Punjab… how will Hindustan progress if all our children go abroad?”, said Gogi.
That last question was a giveaway — for Gogi, from Ludhiana to Mehsana, much was probably lost in translation. The problem of its young leaving in droves for Canada and Australia is an overriding issue in Punjab — not so in Gujarat.
But for all the communication glitches or gaps, the presence of its Punjab teams in Mehsana and other constituencies conveyed an important AAP message to voters in Gujarat — that a new party can win, that it has won in the past.
Long after this election is over, and irrespective of how it performs on December 8, the AAP’s lively and full-throated push into the den of Modi — even as it maintained a silence on all “Muslim” issues, including on the Bilkis Bano case, but that’s a story for another time — will be the phenomenon to track.
Till next week,
Must Read Opinions of the week:
Urvashi Butalia, “A story too familiar”, November 29
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, “A diminished Xi”, November 30
Parinitha Shetty, “Manipal video lessons”, December 1
Dharmakirti Joshi, “Making a soft landing”, December 2
Meeran Chadha Borwankar, “Speaking for Bilkis”, December 3