Updated: January 4, 2022 2:14:52 pm
Last Thursday, a Gandhinagar sessions court granted bail to 55 Gujarat Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leaders and activists after they had been lodged in Sabarmati Central Prison for 11 days for holding a protest outside the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s state headquarters in Gandhinagar.
As many as 93 AAP members, including 10 college students and 28 women activists, were arrested and put in the Ahmedabad-based jail on 20 December for protesting outside the BJP office against the alleged leak of a question paper in the Gujarat clerical staff recruitment examination.
The arrested AAP members included virtually all the senior leaders of the party’s Gujarat unit, including its state president Gopal Italia. They were booked on various charges under 22 IPC sections, including criminal conspiracy, and sections of the Epidemic Diseases Act and the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act.
This was the first time in Gujarat in decades that the entire top brass of a political party was arrested on such stringent charges and jailed for holding a protest. The eight-year-old AAP, however, succeeded in making an impact by raking up the question paper leak scandal: the Gujarat police was forced to lodge an FIR and make arrests in the case following which the state government cancelled the exam.
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For the past several years now, the AAP has been making attempts to make inroads in Gujarat politics dominated by the BJP and the Opposition Congress party. The AAP had contested the state’s all 26 Lok Sabha constituencies in the 2014 general elections, but lost everywhere. It contested 29 of the total 182 seats in the 2017 Assembly polls, but lost its deposits in all of them.
Stepping up attempts to make its mark in Gujarat, the AAP appointed the 32-year-old firebrand activist Gopal Italia as its state unit chief in 2020. A former police constable, Italia had hit the headlines in March 2017 when he threw a shoe at then state home minister Pradipsinh Jadeja alleging the government’s failure in enforcing prohibition.
While expanding its organisational base in the state, the AAP subsequently inducted a slew of prominent faces from different fields, including popular TV anchor Isudan Gadhvi, youth leader Yuvrajsinh Jadeja, farmer activist Sagar Rabari, Patidar youth leader Nikhil Savani, and noted industrialist Mahesh Savani among others.
In February 2021, the AAP contested the urban local body elections across Gujarat and sprang a surprise by winning 27 seats in the Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC) polls. The BJP again won the SMC, even as the Congress drew a blank, thereby vacating the principal Opposition’s space there for the new player.
Following the AAP’s SMC victory, top leaders from Delhi, including party
supremo and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and his deputy Manish Sisodia, started making frequent visits to Gujarat, sensing an opportunity to expand the party’s footprint in the state. They have since declared that the AAP will contest all the seats in the state Assembly elections slated for December this year.
In October 2021 election to the Gandhinagar Municipal Corporation (GMC), the AAP won only 1 seat but in the three-cornered fight the Congress lost a number of seats. The Congress, which had won 16 seats in 2015 polls, managed to win only 2 of the total 44 GMC seats due to splitting of votes against the winner BJP.
“The manner in which we performed in Gandhinagar elections has made BJP nervous,” claimed Sagar Rabari. “Initially, they thought that AAP is here to only cut the Congress votes. However, as our vote percentage keeps rising election after election, they (BJP) are now scared… Putting our leaders in jail under stringent sections shows the BJP’s fear.”
Seeking to reach out to youths and connect with people in urban areas of Gujarat, the AAP has been raising issues like employment, education and various scams, aiming to carve its position in the anti-BJP space with the Congress failing to dislodge the BJP from power for 25 years now.
Gujarat politics has traditionally been a two-party affair, where power has oscillated between the Congress and the BJP, with the latter ruling the state continuously since 1990s.
“The Congress is content with being the primary Opposition party in Gujarat. However, even the supporters of Congress know that it is only AAP that can bring some change in the system. Therefore they are also joining us in large numbers,” Rabari said.
The Gujarat BJP, however, dismisses that it may face any challenge from the AAP in the “near future”. A senior BJP said, “We do not see them (AAP) as a potent political opponent in the next Assembly elections. We consider them as a motley group of destructive elements who have no positive agenda. Since 2013-14, barring a couple of names, no reputed person has joined the AAP party in Gujarat. And whoever are there in the AAP Gujarat, they do not have cohesiveness.”
On the registration of stringent criminal charges against the AAP leaders for protesting outside the ruling party’s headquarters, the BJP leader said, “Whatever happened, has happened in haste. And so, if you notice, our party has gone silent on the issue after initial registration of FIR. Someone at the top in our (BJP) party has realised that they (AAP) want publicity and we are going to deny them the same.”
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