Two meetings by Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) convenor Arvind Kejriwal in the past week in the Saurashtra region have set off a buzz among party leaders and workers. Kejriwal held a town hall meeting in Rajkot with businessmen, traders and industrialists, followed by a public meeting in Veraval, both well-attended.
Enough for even the BJP to take notice. Playing down the presence of the communities largely considered supporters of the BJP at the Kejriwal events, the BJP said it was the Congress that needed to be apprehensive as AAP would make any gains at its expense, in the Assembly elections due at the end of this year.
The town hall was held at a fully packed banquet hall on July 26. Among those in the audience were Paresh Vasani, president of the Rajkot Engineering Association, a chamber of MSMEs in the manufacturing sector; Dhansukh Vora, chairman of the Greater Rajkot Chamber of Commerce and Industry; as well as representatives from the ceramic industry in Morbi and brass parts manufacturing industry in Jamnagar.
AAP claimed more than 300 businessmen and industrialists attended the event.
The concerns raised by those in the audience included GST issues, pending VAT refunds, the high duty on electricity supplied to MSMEs, the state government not releasing subsidy for solar power projects, and monopoly of the State-owned Gujarat Gas Ltd in supplying piped natural gas to ceramic factories in Morbi and Surendranagar districts.
Responding to questions, Kejriwal made five promises to the businessmen — that if AAP wins Gujarat, its government would end “the atmosphere of fear” in the state, that AAP and its government would respect businessmen and industrialists and trust them, that VAT refunds would be cleared within six months, GST would be simplified, corruption would be weeded out by delivering government services at people’s doorsteps, and that the government would form a committee comprising businessmen and industry leaders to suggest solutions.
Greater Rajkot Chamber of Commerce and Industry Chairman Vora said his presence at the meeting should not be seen as a sign of opposition to anyone. “I was there not to criticise any political party or to praise any particular party, but to know AAP’s plans for the industry, if it wins power. AAP has already promised 300 units of free electricity to domestic consumers, and I wanted to know if it would do the same for the industry.”
Vasani said he had attended the event in his personal capacity and not as president of the Rajkot Engineering Association. “People may have attended the event with different objectives, but I attended it in my personal capacity, to know the ideas of Arvind Kejriwal, and I found him to be a good person,” Vasani said.
Others, however, admitted it was not an easy decision to be at an AAP event, and that the BJP tried dissuading many of them. “MSMEs in general have suffered a lot under the BJP regime despite it being an employment-heavy sector. This is largely due to the poor implementation of government schemes. However, local BJP leaders made phone calls to businessmen and industrialists not to attend the AAP event. So, people were under pressure. Those who could resist such pulls, attended,” said a businessman who was at the townhall.
While reiterating that the agenda of the meeting was not to discuss politics, Vora said: “In a democracy, people have the right to ask questions of those in power as well as those who aspire to win power. As representatives of commerce and industry, we ask questions and make representations whenever we get a platform, and the meeting was one such forum.”
He added: “In a democracy, people look for options when their problems are not solved. However, whether AAP is an option or not is the subject of debate for another day.”
On July 30, Kejriwal attended a public meeting in Veraval – his second in Saurashtra. With 48 Assembly seats, Saurashtra is largely a rural area.
AAP national joint secretary Indranil Rajyaguru said people came on their own to attend these two events. “People are dissatisfied with the BJP. They are basically tired of the party and are looking for a political option. What else can one do when one is surrounded by all types of issues?”
A former Congress MLA from Rajkot (East), Rajyaguru said the attendance at the two events showed that AAP was becoming popular not only in urban but rural areas also.
“We got so much support in rural areas when our raths were going to villages during the Gujarat Parivartan Yatra in May. The fact that we have organisational presence even at the village level is proof that we have penetrated rural areas as well,” Rajyaguru said.
Shivlal Barasiya, president of the trade wing of the Gujarat unit of AAP, who played a key role in organising the town hall, said that as a businessman, he has experienced first-hand the problems faced by trade and industry in the state, and the political pulls and pressures on them.
“Some industry chamber leaders from Rajkot who want to be in the good books of the BJP have facilitated nine meetings with BJP president C R Paatil. But what has been the outcome?” Barasiya said.
He had been in touch with the trade bodies for a while, he added. “Out of fear of rubbing politicians of the ruling party the wrong way, businessmen and industrialists would not come out in the open. But I personally contacted 127 trade and industry organisations and almost every sector and organisation was represented at the townhall in the form of one or the other office-bearer.”
Dismissing both events, BJP spokesperson Raju Dhruv said people trust only the BJP “to provide a strong and stable government”. “The wise people of Gujarat have never accepted a third front in politics. The likes of Chimanbhai Patel, Shankersinh Vaghela and others had to eventually merge their outfits with either the BJP or the Congress.”
On the good attendance at the events, he said: “Other political parties do such meetings occasionally, but they can’t be a measure of popular support. If at all, any AAP gain will be at the cost of the Congress.”
On Kejriwal’s promise of the ‘Delhi Model’ of governance for Gujarat, Dhruv said: “AAP is playing the politics of appeasing certain sections of society. And by the way, what is the Delhi Model? There is chaos in Delhi. The Delhi government brought in a new liquor policy but withdrew it soon after the BJP protested.”
Equating Kejriwal and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, the BJP spokesperson said both are “visiting leaders in Gujarat”. “People of Gujarat won’t support AAP.”