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Election Watch: To revv up its Gujarat campaign, AAP back to auto mode

The townhall meeting with autorickshaw drivers, the dinner invite, are a playbook that has worked for Kejriwal since start

Arvind Kejriwal in AhmedabadDelhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal arrives to have dinner at the residence of auto rickshaw driver Vikram Dantani, in Ahmedabad, Sept. 12, 2022. (PTI)

ON REGULAR rounds of Gujarat ahead of the Assembly elections, it was fitting that Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) convenor Arvind Kejriwal made the most noise over a ride on an autorickshaw.

The three-wheeler has been a vital cog in AAP election machinery, helping it ride to power in Delhi and blaze to national attention.

In 2013, when the party started its campaign for the Delhi Assembly elections, autorickshaw drivers were its first campaign “partners”. Autos across the city put up AAP posters on their vehicles, free of cost, to help the fledgling party. Some even set up loudspeakers and played the AAP campaign song and messages all day long.

In its first election manifesto, AAP promised to look into their issues such as fares, authorised parking spaces and harassment by cops.

In Gujarat, Kejriwal has promised that if elected to power, his government would make licence and registration processes with the RTOs easier for autorickshaw drivers and ensure that Section 188 of the IPC (disobedience to order duly promulgated by a public servant) was not misused against them.

The BJP, which is believed to command the support of most of the auto drivers in Ahmedabad, too has taken note. After autos with posters of AAP on the hood crowded the parking of the venue where Kejriwal held a town hall for autorickshaw drivers in Ahmedabad during his most recent visit, the BJP roped in autos to carry its posters, with a phone number for enrolment as member. The drive was launched in Khadia, a BJP bastion in the old city of Ahmedabad, with 100 autorickshaw drivers given such posters.

Ashok Punjabi, who says he is affiliated with the Congress and is the chief convenor of the Gujarat Auto Rickshaw Action Committee, said Ahmedabad has around 2.2 lakh auto drivers, though only 2,200 odd are affiliated to unions. The city has some nine auto unions, including the Rickshaw Chalak Ekta Union, of which Vikram Dantani, at whose house Kejriwal dined, is a member.

In Punjab too, late last year, when the party was in the middle of a hectic election campaign, Kejriwal had accepted a dinner invitation from an auto driver in Ludhiana. Just like Dantani did, Dilip Tiwari had invited Kejriwal to his home during a public event, and just like he did in Ahmedabad, the AAP leader had taken a ride with Tiwari in his auto.

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A senior AAP leader admitted the backing of the auto drivers as a block was a big factor. “As a party, we have always seen them as a key part of the public transportation system. The same thing has happened in other states as well. During Covid, we were the first government to provide monetary relief to auto and cab drivers for the hardship they faced during the lockdown. The common man will always be at the core of our politics and policies, and people like Dilip Tiwari and Vikram Dantani are representatives of the common man,” the leader said.

Even the few unpleasant encounters Kejriwal has had with auto drivers, the party has turned them around to its benefit. Ahead of the Lok Sabha polls in 2014, for example, an auto driver had first garlanded the Delhi Chief Minister during a road show and then slapped him. A day later, Kejriwal went to meet the driver at his house and, after a conversation with him, said he forgave him. The driver, in turn, said he was upset with Kejriwal, but only because he had resigned from the government within 49 days.

More recently, ahead of the 2020 Delhi Assembly polls, ‘I love Kejriwal’ stickers had appeared on many autos. An auto driver was even issued a challan of Rs 10,000 for displaying the political advertisement and “violating the Model Code of Conduct”. Following this, many drivers had painted over the pro-AAP messages on their vehicles.

AAP Gujarat spokesperson Karan Barot said the party valued the affection and love it has got from auto drivers since Kejriwal started AAP. “In Gujarat as well, autorickshaw drivers love Kejriwal and AAP, and have themselves purchased and put our party posters on their autos.”

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Barot added that the support is a proof of the fact that AAP works for the welfare of the middle class, and to provide them basic amenities like education, health, electricity. “Autorickshaw chaalaks are also middle class.”

According to top AAP leaders in Gujarat, dinner with Dantani was also part of the party’s emphasis on one-on-one interactions in its election campaign – distinct from the BJP’s high-voltage events around Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Kejriwal ensured this was the message that went across when he was briefly stopped by police on the way to Dantani’s home in Ahmedabad. Arguing with a police officer, the AAP leader said, “Your leaders, BJP leaders don’t go among the people. This is the problem. I am a public representative, I will be among the people.”

An AAP leader said: “In all elections, our leaders make sure they meet as many people as they can. This has to continue after coming to power as well. When we go to a new state, we are going there to change its politics. So while our focus is on health and education, it is also on the common man and his problems.”

The BJP accused Kejriwal of staging a “tamasha” in Ahmedabad to gain publicity. AAP-turned-BJP leader of Delhi Kapil Mishra claimed the Gujarat unit of AAP had itself written to police to provide adequate security to Kejriwal. “AAP wrote to police and asked for security, saying Kejriwal could be attacked. In Delhi, Kejriwal has 32 government vehicles (in his motorcade). This drama after asking for security is shameful,” Mishra tweeted.

A BJP leader in Delhi claimed that Kejriwal’s support base among auto drivers in the Capital was not as strong as it was earlier. “Many people are disillusioned. Their promise of regular fare hikes, which was the most important for auto drivers, has not been followed through,” the leader said.

In Ahmedabad, AAP is silent on some major issues of auto drivers such the rising price of gas, with almost all autos CNG-run.

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BJP Gujarat spokesperson Yamal Vyas denied the party was reacting to AAP’s campaign. “We are only using autorickshaws for publicity and campaigning, which is nothing new… We are not concerned with what Kejriwal is doing. We have a clear idea of what the people of Gujarat want. Kejriwal can do whatever he wants.”

First published on: 15-09-2022 at 10:11:17 am
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