As Punjab sweep gives wings to AAP hopes, Gujarat remains an uphill task

Buoyed by its stunning victory in the Punjab Assembly elections, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is now gearing up to expand its footprint in Gujarat, whose politics has traditionally been a bipolar affair involving the BJP, which has been ruling the state for over 25 years, and the principal Opposition Congress.

Eyeing the Opposition space in Gujarat, AAP is hoping that a shrinking Congress would enable it to emerge as another major political player in the state slated for Assembly polls in December this year.

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AAP seems to have already switched to campaign mode in Gujarat. It is launching a “Tiranga Yatra” in each district of the state from March 19, which will be led by a number of party leaders from Delhi. The party supremo and Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, along with Punjab CM-designate Bhagwant Mann, would also visit Gujarat in the coming days to boost its membership drive.

AAP’s Gujarat hope has been fuelled by its performance in the February 2021 Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC) polls in which it sprang a surprise by winning 27 seats, while the Congress drew a blank. The BJP clinched the SMC, but the AAP got the main Opposition’s space vacated by the Congress. Subsequently, top AAP leaders, including Kejriwal and his deputy Manish Sisodia, started to make frequent visits to Gujarat, declaring that the party will contest all the seats in the next state Assembly elections.

In October 2021 Gandhinagar Municipal Corporation (GMC) polls, AAP had won only 1 seat but in the three-cornered contest the Congress lost several seats. The Congress, which had won 16 seats in the 2015 GMC polls, managed to win only 2 out of the total 44 GMC seats due to splitting of Opposition votes against the winner BJP.

AAP’s impressive performance in the SMC polls had, however, come in the backdrop of the Patidar community’s discontent with both the BJP and the Congress.

In the 2016 SMC polls, held in the wake of the Patidar quota agitation, the Congress had won 36 seats out of the total 116 wards, of which 26 were Patidar-dominated wards – the highest that the party has ever got in such wards, as Patidars, who are traditionally BJP loyalists, turned to the Congress.

Ahead of the 2021 SMC polls, a section of Patidars had been upset with the BJP as criminal cases filed against the members of the community’s youth organisation PAAS (Patidar Anamat Andolan Samithi) had still not been withdrawn despite the promises made by the BJP ministers. It also got miffed with the Congress over its decision to deny ticket to Vilasben Dhorajiya, wife of advocate Sanjay Dhorajiya, who has been fighting cases for these PAAS youths in courts.

AAP appointed a 32-year-old firebrand activist and vocal BJP critic, Gopal Italia, as its state unit chief in 2020, who also belongs to the Patidar community. As a PAAS member, Italia had participated in the Patidar quota stir, forging ties with PAAS leaders like Alpesh Katheria and Dharmik Malaviya.

It was in this context that at the behest of the PAAS a section of the Patidar community backed AAP in the 2021 SMC polls.

Patidars, which account for 19 per cent voters in Gujarat, play a key role in determining Assembly polls in 71 of the state’s total 182 constituencies. This agrarian community has always been a key support base for the BJP.

In clear signs that AAP’s bid to make inroads in Gujarat politics will be an uphill task, the PAAS is now spurning AAP. PAAS co-convenor Dharmik Malaviya said, “Gopal Italia knew that it (the SMC win) was due to PAAS, but he boasted in public meetings in Surat later that it was due to the hard work of AAP leaders and workers. When we asked Italia to correct his statement, he denied. So we have decided not to support AAP in the coming days. Even Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia knew it was PAAS volunteers’ hard work which led to AAP’s victory in SMC polls.”

Malaviya said the PAAS backed AAP because they were “angry with the Congress and did not want BJP to win”.

Since the SMC poll outcome, six AAP corporators have joined the BJP, including the party whip, Bhavna Solanki. A Patidar philanthropist businessman Mahesh Sawani also quit the AAP last month.

The Patidar quota agitation was spearheaded by then PAAS leader Hardik Patel, who is now the Gujarat Congress working president.

Among other places, Surat had also seen violence during the Patidar quota agitation in 2015. In the 2017 Assembly polls, some Patidar-dominated districts like Amreli voted for the Congress, but Surat went with the BJP. The BJP won the polls, winning 99 seats as against the Congress’s 77. The AAP contested 29 seats, but lost its deposits in all of them.

Dismissing AAP challenge in Gujarat, state BJP president CR Paatil attributed its Punjab victory to “infighting among Congress leaders”, saying “Each and every political party has the right to contest elections. The people of Gujarat are with BJP and they like and support PM Narendra Modi and we will not have any problems from rival parties in Gujarat in the upcoming Assembly elections.”

According to the Gujarat AAP’s spokesperson Yogesh Jadvani, the party has so far over 6,000 members as well as 64 elected members of various urban and rural local bodies across the state.

Italia is hopeful that AAP’s Punjab victory would “boost the morale of the party workers and leaders in Gujarat”. “The political revolution which started from Delhi has reached Punjab and it will definitely expand to Gujarat. The AAP expert teams, which had made strategy in Punjab elections, will come to Gujarat to help the party win the upcoming polls,” he claimed.

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