AT AAP’s first national convention of elected representatives last week, Arvind Kejriwal declared that the BJP was trying to ‘crush’ AAP with criminal cases because it feared a defeat in Gujarat. With a high-voltage and eyeball-grabbing campaign, the AAP supremo and Delhi Chief Minister has managed to disrupt settled equations in Gujarat, where Assembly elections are to be held later this year. Yet, defeating the BJP would be a monumental feat, but what the start-up (or some would say upstart) party has managed to do is often set the agenda.
Kejriwal has forced the BJP to be reactive to his promises. In one public outing, he said he would give the Gujarat police the ‘best’ pay scales if voted to power. A few days later, the state government announced a Rs 550-crore package for the police. Kejriwal is making targeted promises to different audiences as also the promise of what he calls the Delhi model in Gujarat. The model is built on public investment in education, health and subsidised electricity.
Most commentators believe it was the AAP’s promise of free-of-cost electricity in the election-bound Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh that was the trigger for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s revdi culture remark in July. He said that attempts were being made to collect votes by distributing ‘free revdi’ and said that the ‘revdi culture’ needs to be removed from the country. Since then, AAP has been promising even more revdi that could be translated into ‘freebies’, with Kejriwal speaking aggressively on people being entitled to public money instead of it being used to make the rich richer.
All of this is happening in the backdrop of the Delhi leadership of AAP being mired in criminal cases. Last week, Delhi MLA Amanatullah Khan was arrested by the Anti-Corruption Branch (ACB); it followed the CBI raids on Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia in August and the arrest by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) of minister Satyendra Jain on May 30 under the PMLA, where the state counsel has been arguing that the bail application should be shifted to another judge (the current judge had asked some pointed questions).
But each raid or arrest seems to spur Kejriwal into greater aggression. Two days after the latest arrest, he declared that “only a dishonest person and a traitor will say freebies are not good for the country.” Clearly, he has taken a calculated decision to take the fight to the lion’s den. His endgame is to put up a decent show and emerge as the number two party in the state and use that for a national projection.
He may have irritated the BJP that could have imagined a routine election with the oft-defeated Congress in a state where the party has been in power for 27 years. But if the Kejriwal campaign takes off, the Congress must worry even more profoundly. But Gujarat is a tough state for any opposition to crack. It is the most urbanised state, with a large section of this voter influenced by Hindutva and what some analysts have called Moditva, the personification of the PM as the supreme Hindu leader. Sects such as the Swaminarayan sect also have influence as they paper over the differentiation between the sub-castes of major caste groups that have for decades seen the BJP as the natural choice. This is also because the political leadership of the country now comes from Gujarat, as do the two wealthiest businessmen of India.
Currently, Kejriwal is a novelty, but closer to the voting day, the PM will be campaigning in Gujarati.
There has always been an opposition constituency in Gujarat, although it has been unable to defeat the BJP for over 25 years. This is because the BJP can override economic issues with appeals to identity, community and loyalty to Modi, besides having the superior election machinery in the first-past-the-post system.
Yet, there are problems that simmer. Last week, thousands of government employees joined a ‘mass casual leave protest’ even after the government appeared to agree to some demands. The police, that Kejriwal tried wooing, have genuine problems. The average business in a state known for entrepreneurship has been hit by the GST rollout and demonetisation. There is the impact of the rising prices and shrinking GDP and the decline in incomes from agriculture, even as farmers’ indebtedness has increased.
There is, therefore, dissatisfaction on many fronts. And, it must not be forgotten that even after being out of power for over two decades, in 2017, the Congress had 41 per cent of the vote share in the Assembly election that the BJP won with 49 per cent of the votes. However, the Congress campaign was spirited and the fight-back had the energy of the Patidar agitation led by Hardik Patel, which, too, was triggered by economic dissatisfaction. But since then, Hardik is tamed and after a meaningless stint in the Congress, he recently joined the very BJP that he had abused to great public applause in 2017.
Yet, the AAP in Gujarat has electorally marked its presence so far only in Surat in the 2021 municipal corporation. The BJP got 93 of the 120 seats, AAP got 27 and the Congress was all but wiped out. It is clear the leader’s pitched campaign is creating a buzz, but it's not possible to predict if this eventually translates into seats.
The AAP’s strategy as it builds a national profile entails pitching the party as a ‘service provider’ that delivers on infrastructure and yet remains ideologically neutral. Unlike the Congress that is currently engaged in a journey to reclaim ideological values, the AAP is also wooing the Hindutva voter and chooses, therefore, to say nothing on matters such as the release of convicts in the Bilkis Bano case. Its leaders say that they are responding to a shifting national consciousness and do not wish to be drawn into a Hindu-Muslim trap that mostly suits the BJP. On minority rights, depending on who the minorities are, the AAP has shown pragmatism, given that it has, in 2022, also come to power in Punjab and managed a second term in Delhi in 2020, by steering clear of the Hindu-versus-Muslim debate that the BJP sought to trigger in the backdrop of the anti-CAA protests. The AAP does not fit into any joint opposition template and Kejriwal’s statements indicate there are no plans to change that. Besides, it has triumphed in Delhi and Punjab at the cost of the Congress, central to any such initiative.
The big question about Gujarat is whether the AAP can actually damage the BJP and wean away some of its committed voters. If it manages that, and the Congress revival fails, then the AAP will see itself as the ideologically neutral opposition party of the future, built around a leader who makes audacious plans.
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