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Gujarat polls: AAP’s arithmetic up in the air, but on the ground it banks on new chemistry

Makes some headway in rural areas with promise of guarantees and change, BJP and Cong both dismiss it as noise

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal with Gujarat AAP President Gopal Italia during a public meeting in Surat. (PTI)

FOR a few hours Saturday, in Surat’s Mahidarpura diamond market, traders have left their seats, Their lamps and magnifying loupes lie idle, they have gathered in the market square for a big-ticket Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) rally.

AAP’s state president and Katargam seat candidate Gopal Italia; Varachha candidate Alpesh Kathiriya; party general secretary and candidate from Karanj seat Manoj Sorathiya; and Surat north candidate Mokshak Sanghvi – all are on stage. The party’s Chief Ministerial candidate, Isudan Gadhvi, appears on a video call and talks to the crowd, from the Khambhalia seat in Saurashtra, where he is contesting.

Italia takes over. “We are young, give us your blessings”, he says as families queue up on their balconies to watch. AAP leaders tell the crowd how voting for BJP would mean “supporting those who were responsible for the deaths on the Morbi bridge and those who died in the Takshashila fire (the coaching class where 22 students died in a fire in Surat in 2019 ).”

Speech after speech follows and the meeting ends with shouts of Bharat Mata ki Jai and Jai Shri Ram, almost as a BJP rally would — with a smattering of Inquilab Zindabads.

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All the seats where AAP heavyweights are fighting, go to poll Thursday in the first phase, from Saurashtra, Surat and South Gujarat. The party says it senses some chemistry to this geography.

Surat, home of Kathiawadi migrants, and epicentre of the Patidar quota agitation of 2015, is where AAP got a toehold in the 2021 local body elections. It won 27 of the 120 seats in the corporation to replace Congress as the main opposition. It took this as a sign that Gujarat was making space for a third front. The victory in Punjab further expanded the party’s footprint and set off a flurry of visits to the state by Delhi Chief Minister and AAP supremo Arvind Kejriwal, later accompanied by his counterpart Bhagwant Mann.

Clearly, the AAP this time is more visible, has more wind in its political sail. But in a state where the BJP is overwhelmingly dominant, it is packaging itself as a better candidate to be a more vigilant opposition than a deflated Congress. How does this translate into the arithmetic on December 8 is anybody’s guess given the uncertain logic of a triangular fight.

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Both BJP and Congress are, ironically, united in saying that the AAP’s noise is disproportionate to its strength and that history isn’t on their side when it comes to a third front. They cite, as evidence, attempts by two former CMs: Shankersinh Vaghela who led Rashtriya Janata Party and Keshubhai Patel who led Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP). Even Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s refrain has been that the elections are a fight between BJP and Congress.

However, the visible presence of AAP flags and banners in tribal villages of South Gujarat tell a more complicated story. In Uchhamala village in Vyara taluka of Tapi district, farmer Surjibhai Gamit has heard of Kejriwal and found his guarantees “attractive.” These include 300 units of free electricity, free education, healthcare, unemployment allowance of Rs 3000 per month, and Rs 1000 per month to women, among others. Gamit says, “Sarkar toh badalvu padey (We have to change the government).”
Former sarpanch of Gadu Kampa village in Khedbrahma taluka of Sabarkantha district Ravindrabhai Patel underlines a popular theory: “The people who were giving votes to Congress will give votes to AAP.” But adds that Congress would remain “Number two”.

According to Patel, “Narendrabhai’s rallies in Gujarat will whitewash even the little influence that AAP might have had”.

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As 89 seats of Gujarat go to poll on Thursday for Phase 1, Kejriwal has done 25 rallies and roadshows since dates were declared on November 3. His campaign largely focused on pushing the Delhi school model, set of “guarantees,” and created a stir with his promise to take pilgrims to the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. The BJP called the AAP’s guarantees “revdis” that “overshoot” Gujarat’s annual budget.

Kejriwal recently put out a video urging “supporters of the Congress” not to “waste their votes on the Congress” and, instead, vote for AAP.

The party’s top leaders, who were once part of the Patidar quota agitation, Italia and Sorathiya, are now candidates contesting their first elections. The leaders are also from Saurashtra, a region which has seen an electoral churn since the quota agitation in 2015. The party contested on 29 seats in 2017 but got only 0.10 per cent of the votes.

According to Italia, a former police constable from Bhavnagar in Saurashtra, there were only two ways of entering electoral politics: “If you were dabangg (strong), and you made a lot of money by corrupt means, or you belong to a political dynasty.”

AAP, he says, gave a chance to young people to join politics. “They would all be of my age by default. At 50 years, a man gets tired because they don’t get space. So people like me who want to do something come in organically. We know milega kuchh nahin magar karna sab kuchh hai (We know we won’t get anything but we want to do everything) we know the road is long”, he says.

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Former Leader of Opposition in the Assembly and Congress candidate from Amreli in Saurashtra Paresh Dhanani says that after 20 years he is seeing an election “which will be a naturally fought election, where there is no polarisation. Polarisation kills issues”.

He dimisses AAP’s threat to Congress but Dhanani, a Patidar, acknowledges that because of AAP this Gujarat election will be fought on “mool mudde (basic issues)”.
In Saurashtra and Kutch, which have 54 seats in all, AAP leaders claim they are confident they will do well. Rajkot-based Ajit Lokhil, secretary of AAP’s Gujarat state unit, says the party’s campaign this time is “totally different” from the one in 2014 Lok Sabha and the 2017 Assembly elections.

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“Those were initial days when we were just trying to show to the people that there is a party called AAP. But now, we’ve grown…Look at how well we did in municipal corporation elections in Surat and Rajkot”. AAP got around 1 lakh of the around 4 lakh votes in Rajkot Municipal Corporation, he says, claiming his party is ahead in the race for three of the four urban seats in Rajkot.

Shivlal Barasiya, president of AAP’s trade wing in Gujarat and the party’s candidate for Rajkot South, claims support across the social board. “Price rise pinches all, beginning from Patidars to Baniyas and to Devipujaks. So they all will vote for us. Patidars will be very careful while casting their votes as they have still not come to terms with the deaths of 14 of their youths during the quota stir,” he says.

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The party made some smart moves in the tribal areas of South Gujarat where it gave tickets to leaders formerly with the Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) with which it had announced an alliance in May that was unilaterally called off by BTP leader Chhotu Vasava. His key aides are contesting on AAP tickets.
Raju Dhruv, spokesperson of the BJP, dismisses AAP’s optimism as big talk. Claiming a BJP sweep in Saurashtra and Kutch, he said: “AAP is just trying to make its presence felt in Gujarat so that in coming days, it can pretend to be a national party.”

Dhruv says Patidars will return to the BJP. “In 2017, Hardik Patel was misleading that community and we failed to take Narendra Modi’s message of development to the people. That scenario has changed. Narmada waters are now going to farmers’ fields and people’s homes…Farmers have got Rs 2 lakh crore under the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi. All this money has gone to villages. We will do well in rural areas as well,” he said.

This is echoed by a BJP minister who says that AAP will only take “urban votes” where the BJP is strong. “It has no influence in rural areas,” he says.

The Congress sees AAP’s entry as cutting into BJP’s votes. “Whatever votes that AAP candidates are going to get will be BJP voters. This bodes well for us and increases our chances of winning this election,” says Lalit Kagathara, working president of Gujarat Pradesh Congress Committee and Congress candidate for Tankara Assembly seat in Morbi.
Italia counters this. “The BJP has been winning on the strength of the Congress. If a newcomer like AAP creates so much of space in such short a time, what was the Congress doing all this time? Why didn’t it get overwhelming support”, he asks.

(with Kamaal Saiyed and Rashi Mishra).

First published on: 01-12-2022 at 07:55 IST
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