Come August, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) commander-in-chief Arvind Kejriwal will launch a blitzkrieg campaign in Gujarat, the home turf of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. The onslaught of charges by central agencies against two of his close lieutenants — Manish Sisodia and Satyendra Jain — seems only to have whetted Kejriwal’s resolve to storm the lion’s den and pitchfork the party’s prospects in the high-stakes battle.
With the Singapore trip aborted, as Kejriwal failed to get timely clearance from Delhi Lieutenant Governor, the AAP chief will instead hit the ground in Gujarat on August 1, 4, 7 and 10, beginning with a public rally in Somnath and subsequently visit Rajkot and then Bhavnagar, the epicentre of the Gujarat liquor tragedy.
Sources say more ‘Kejriwal Guarantees’ are expected to be announced, while the focus will be on Bhavnagar.
In a first, with the AAP’s entry, the Gujarat assembly elections 2022 may become a triangular contest, instead of the traditional bipolar battle that the state has been witness to.
ILLICIT LIQUOR IN ‘DRY’ GUJARAT
The AAP, facing a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe on its excise policy in Delhi, has left no stone unturned to highlight the scourge of scores of deaths due to consumption of illicit liquor in Batod, Bhavnagar in dry Gujarat.
Not only did Kejriwal visit Bhavnagar and demand compensation for the kin of those who have lost their lives and those undergoing treatment, AAP MPs Sanjay Singh, Sushil Gupta and Sandeep Pathak sought the attention of the House raising placards, shouting slogans in the well of the House, which resulted in their expulsion. AAP workers have also taken to the streets in Delhi and Gujarat, demanding accountability and also the resignation of chief minister CR Patil.
On whether the AAP plans to make this a key poll plank in the run-up to the polls, Sandeep Pathak, AAP RS MP and Gujarat in-charge, said the issue goes beyond politics and the nuts and bolts of a campaign.
“The matter is so serious that we do not consider it just an issue for our campaign. On humanitarian grounds, it is our political responsibility to raise it on every forum. More than 75 people have lost their lives. The situation is so grave that they are not even admitting people to hospitals,” he says, adding, “Every political party worth its salt must take up the issue.”
Pathak explains the protest against the deaths has nothing to do with its standard campaign strategy, which has already been formulated and is in place. However, the AAP will continue to raise the issue until “the government addresses the key concerns” and strikes at the root of the massive tragedy. Kejriwal has promised that the prohibition, which is in place in Gujarat, would be strictly enforced, if the people of the state give the party a chance.
The signature campaign of the AAP, with the staggered release of ‘Kejriwal’s Guarantees’, has already taken off on July 21, with the AAP chief announcing 300 units of free electricity every month, uninterrupted power supply and a waiver of dues pending till December 31, in Surat.
Party sources say the response of people to the free electricity campaign has been “phenomenal”.
A week ago, on July 26, Kejriwal visited the iconic Somnath Temple to offer prayers, proceeded to Rajkot for a packed ‘town hall’ with traders, where he announced five guarantees, including refund of VAT within six months and simplification of goods and services tax.
ભાજપે એવો માહોલ ઊભો કર્યું છે કે વેપારી ચોર છે,
જ્યારે હકીકતમાં વેપારીઓ ઇમાનદારીથી ટેક્સ ભરવા માગે છે
2015 માં દિલ્હીનું બજેટ 30,000 કરોડ હતું, 7 વર્ષ પછી તે 75,000 કરોડ થયું છે
— AAP Gujarat । Mission2022 (@AAPGujarat) July 26, 2022
In the coming days, expect the AAP to reach out to traders, believed to be the core supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party, more intensely.
Signing off his dialogue with traders, Kejriwal had said pointedly: “When our government was formed in Delhi, it was said that the traders in Delhi were the vote bank of the BJP … please call up your friends and relatives and if they say that the government of Delhi is not performing well, don’t vote for us. But if they say that our government is performing well, we also deserve once chance in Gujarat.”
The party also held a ‘Tiranga Rally’ on June 6 in Mehsana, with AAP convener Arvind Kejriwal, flanked by state president Gopal Italia and AAP leader Isudhan Gadhvi, leading it.
Delhi CM & AAP national convenor Arvind Kejriwal along with Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann begin ‘Tiranga Yatra’ as part of their roadshow in Ahmedabad, Gujarat pic.twitter.com/K07UJ17Yjo
— ANI (@ANI) April 2, 2022
Speaking of a recent survey which gave the ruling BJP over 40%, opposition Congress over 30% and the new kid on the block, AAP, over 13% of the vote share, Pathak says, “I don’t think it is a current survey. It is a month or two months old survey. Our survey gives us much more than what you have seen on TV. We already crossed 20% long ago, but this is not the right time to reveal the estimates of our survey.”
On the challenge posed by the opposition Congress in Gujarat, also reflected in the findings of the survey, Pathak says, although he has sufficient grounds to challenge the findings of the survey, he would keep that aside for the moment and instead talk about the Congress in Gujarat.
“The Congress party is almost dead, but what you will find are the remains of a party scattered across the state, particularly the rural belt. However, due to debilitating weaknesses in its functioning and leadership, their organisation is dead in the absence of vision and focus. The vote share that is seen to be in their support will ultimately desert them.”
The AAP, he says, is confident and comfortable with the survey results.
Saurabh Bhardwaj, AAP Delhi MLA, spokesperson and Vice-Chairman of Delhi Jal Board, says that a lot of people in India are sceptical of the Congress. “People are scared of voting for the Congress because even if they form the government, others buy their MLAs and topple their government. It has happened in Madhya Pradesh, Goa and Karnataka.”
WHAT IS DIFFERENT THIS TIME?
Bhardwaj believes there is a lot of difference between the last time, when the party was readying for the Gujarat assembly elections in 2017, and this time.
“Last time, we had a new government and there was a tussle between our government and the central government, but this time, when we go for the elections, we have a track record of almost seven years, delivery, and a ‘Delhi Model’ to showcase to the people of Gujarat.”
Bhardwaj compares election-bound Gujarat to the just-concluded Punjab polls. “When we fought assembly elections for the first time in Punjab, we had hardly anything to showcase, except our intentions, but now we have the education model, health models, electricity and water subsidy for many years. People can now believe that the party that has delivered in Delhi, can do so in Gujarat too.”
Secondly, he says, now the party has governments in two states and people are looking at us as an alternative to the BJP, while earlier in 2017, the alternative to the BJP was the Congress.
Pathak rubbishes any possibility of an alliance with the Congress to take on the might of the BJP. “No, no, absolutely not. Not in this lifetime,” he says.
Hasn’t the party already announced an alliance with the Chotubhai Vasava-led Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP)? Isn’t the party already open to pre-poll alliances in Gujarat? “We haven’t formalised any agreement yet with the BTP either pre- or post-poll. They are doing good work in the tribal belt. We are going ahead with them in a friendly gesture,” he says.
On the seat-sharing between the AAP and BTP, Pathak says that the AAP will disclose that in the coming days, but as of now there is no official agreement between the two.
“What I am seeing now in Gujarat is that people are fed up of the 27-year-old rule of the BJP, they are frustrated. They feel that they don’t have a choice as the Congress was never their choice. Now, the cadre is energised with the AAP contesting these elections with full force and the chief minister of Delhi going to Gujarat almost every week,” says Bhardwaj.
Another indicator of the AAP’s “good chance of forming the government” in Gujarat, he says, is the Surat municipal elections, where people chose the AAP as the opposition party, giving it far more seats than the Congress.
The Delhi MLA feels that this is the reason why AAP MLAs and ministers are being targeted by the central government agencies and the Lietuenant Governor of Delhi. “You can feel that there is nervousness within the top leadership of the BJP with respect to Gujarat,” he says.
With the arrest of Delhi minister Satyendra Jain, the CBI probe against Delhi Deputy CM Manish Sisodia on the erstwhile excise policy and the Lokayukta probing alleged financial improprieties in building classrooms, the AAP has a huge challenge on its hands.
Are the party’s strategists worried about the impact of the onslaught of probes against the Kejriwal government in poll-bound states?
Pathak, the party’s man on the ground in Gujarat, points out that the CBI’s raids on the chief minister’s office and residence, and Deputy CM’s residence did not prevent the party from winning the 2020 Delhi Assembly elections with a brute majority. “That they are filing so many cases is testimony to the fact that we are doing far better in Gujarat than is commonly perceived. This is going to boomerang on the BJP. Public perception is clear that this is a vendetta exercise to discourage the AAP from fighting the elections.”
Pathak believes that by unleashing one agency after another on the AAP’s ministers and MLAs, the BJP is exposing its weakness. “If you are on a weak ground, if you feel threatened by another party, then you resort to such tricks. The AAP is gaining strength each day. I think it is bad for them. It would be good for us in the eyes of the people,” he says.
Bhardwaj argues that the provisions under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) are draconian and go against the principles of natural justice. He further says the BJP will use the PMLA against its political opponents more frequently and that cannot be the reference point to decide who is honest.
“The people of Gujarat know about the Gujarat model and how the political adversaries were silenced. They understand,” he says.
Asked whether the party is prepared to take on the challenge of multiple cases against key persons within the AAP, Bhardwaj says, “There is nothing to prepare, we only have to prepare ourselves to go to jail, and our people are prepared for that.”
The already-evident fierce tussle between the AAP and the BJP top leadership will possibly peak ahead of the Gujarat Assembly polls.
Political analysts believe that the BJP is well-placed to win the elections, with the AAP dividing the opposition’s vote share. The AAP, however, sees it differently. Pathak says, “The fight in Gujarat is between the AAP and the BJP, so the BJP has to fight hard if they have to win. Our campaign will be high-octane, a multifold jump from what you saw in Punjab. We are going to challenge them in a big way and they will experience an election that they have never seen before.”