If three young men made the last Gujarat election interesting, it is Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that promise to make this one a potboiler.
In 2017, Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mevani and Alpesh Thakur, three young politicians who were neither related to the Congress nor the BJP, drummed up such excitement that many believed Narendra Modi could even lose his home state.
The BJP did not lose. It managed a majority in the 182-member assembly with 99 seats. The Congress was proclaimed the “real” winner; it won 77 seats and restricted the BJP to two digits.
The world has changed since. The boys – all three – have joined political parties. Jignesh is with the Congress; Hardik has switched from the Congress to the BJP; Alpesh is with the BJP too.
AAP, a new player in Gujarat, could well be the x-factor.
When Kejriwal started campaigning in Gujarat six months back, no one took him seriously.
By the time the election dates were announced, AAP had become a force to reckon with.
The question now asked most in Gujarat and outside is, whether AAP will displace the Congress as the main opposition. Or whether AAP will damage not just the Congress but also the BJP.
But what if AAP is all optics and no substance? Could Gujarat also turn out like Uttarakhand and Goa, where AAP ran strong, visible campaigns, spent much money and resources but failed to do much?
In Goa, AAP only marginally improved its vote share from the 2017 assembly elections. In Uttarakhand, it managed a disappointing three per cent votes. After the election, the entire AAP leadership joined the BJP.
On the other hand, what’s to say that AAP can’t pull off a Punjab in Gujarat? In Punjab, AAP formed a government after winning an unprecedented 92 of 117 seats earlier this year. There is every indication that AAP will do much better in Gujarat than in Goa and Uttarakhand, but a Punjab redux seems to be an impossibility.
Most analysts make a mistake when they try to measure AAP with traditional tools.
AAP has, no doubt, reduced itself to a “traditional” political party in the last 10 years. It has learnt all the tricks of the BJP and the old Congress.
What still sets it apart from other parties is the perception of the common man. AAP is seen as different. It is this perception that makes it an attractive option.
We have to understand that people are fed up with old-style politics. They want something new.
Modi’s success partly lay in the projection that he is not like other politicians, that he is different. The organisational flex, the brilliant use of technology and the outsized money power enhanced his draw manifold and gave him cult status.
Kejriwal is the original outlier. He represents disruption; his is a protest vote. He represents the rejection of traditional politics and its structures.
This phenomenon is not confined to India. The world over, the shift towards right-wing politics reflects that new yearning among the masses, the yearning for something new.
It seems that the post-Second World War dispensation is past its sell-by date.
It’s no wonder that left liberals are on the defensive and are fighting to stay relevant. In India too, their space is shrinking, and the BJP and AAP are taking over. Gujarat is no exception.
It is no surprise that a party which, almost a year back, was a nonentity, has suddenly emerged as a vital force. Different opinion polls are consistently showing that AAP has turned the Gujarat election into a triangular contest. For decades, Gujarat was a straight fight between the Congress and the BJP. Though the Congress has been losing in Gujarat since 1995, it has consistently won 38% of the votes and more, which is no small number.
In 2017, its vote share jumped to 42%. This time, there is a strong possibility that its vote share willdrop substantially. If that happens, the Congress will be in serious trouble in the state and nationally as well. Only the Congress can be blamed for this.
Despite a strong showing in the last Gujarat election, the Congress did not make any effort to capitalise on the gains. It could not keep Hardik Patel, who was a star of the last election. It has no plans to use Jignesh Mevani effectively. For more than a year, the Congress has had no Gujarat chief.
Rahul Gandhi created ripples in 2017 for his aggressive campaigning. This time, he is everywhere but in Gujarat. In the last six months, he has rarely visited the state. His ambitious Bharat Jodo Yatra is neatly skipping Gujarat. It is now clear that the Congress never had a plan for Gujarat. It will pay the price.
But AAP in Gujarat has its own problems. Three to be precise.
1. Unlike Punjab and Delhi, Gujarat is a much bigger state in sheer geography. For a new party to reach every corner of the state is a humongous task. If AAP had started its preps immediately after the 2017 election, it would have been strong, organisationally, by now. The lack of an organisation could be its undoing. There might be sympathy for AAP but to take such voters to the polling booth requires booth level organisation, which is missing, for now. Kejriwal hopes to neutralise that with his personal charm.
2. In Delhi, Kejriwal is a charismatic leader and in Punjab, Bhagwant Mann has a huge following. AAP’s phenomenal victory in 2022 owes a lot to Mann’s popularity. He drew big crowds in his rallies; some of his rallies flaunted bigger crowds than Kejriwal’s. But in Gujarat, AAP lacks a face. Its state leaders are hardly known in the entire state. Kejriwal is the only saving grace. But we all know he can’t be the Chief Minister of Gujarat.
3. AAP started well by pitching its “Delhi model of governance” versus Modi’s “Gujarat model”. But it has gradually drifted towards hardcore Hindutva. In Modi’s home state, luring Hindutva voters would count as a major success. But had AAP persisted with the non-BJP and floating voters, it would probably have been better off. It seems that with its Gujarat state convenor Gopal Italia’s old tapes surfacing, AAP is nervous. In a hurry to make up, the party dropped its “Laxmi-Ganesh photos on currency” shocker, which, it seems, has not gone down well with the urban and educated middle class.
Still, AAP cannot be taken lightly. It is an unknown commodity for Gujarat voters. Nobody can say with confidence how much it will damage the Congress. But AAP is here to stay, at the cost of the Congress.
(Ashutosh is author of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ and Editor, satyahindi.com.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.
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