An unusual third factor in Gujarat’s poll battle
Fuelled by an Opposition vacuum, the AAP’s gambit in the state is to emerge as a challenger, not just to the Congress in the Opposition space, but to the BJP as an option for voters seeking change
The 2022 Gujarat assembly elections are a unique contest. The winner is almost certain but the real interest lies in who the runner-up will be. Until the dramatic, and rather noisy, entry of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) into the poll fray, the election was following a familiar pattern set over the last 25 years, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would outscore the Congress by roughly 8-10 percentage points in vote share. Now, while the BJP remains in pole position, the political conversation revolves around just how far the AAP can go in breaking the BJP-Congress duopoly.
Travel into the small villages of Saurashtra and South Gujarat — the relatively poorer parts of the state — and amid a sea of saffron and the occasional Congress flag, the sudden presence of the jhadoo (broom) symbol is striking. While Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal had a meteoric rise in Indian politics, his “Mission Gujarat” is easily his most audacious gambit. Boosted by a sweep in Punjab, the AAP is at it again, hoping to emerge as a magnet for those seeking change in Gujarat.
But Gujarat is not Punjab, where power routinely alternated between the Congress and Akalis. This is a state where the BJP hasn’t tasted defeat — not even in a municipal elections — over the last 25 years. This is the closest we have seen to total domination since the Left Front ruled Bengal for 34 uninterrupted years. This is not just the BJP’s original Hindutva laboratory, but also its most successful experiment: A state where politics, religion, and civil society have merged to create a Hindu mini-rashtra with Prime Minister Narendra Modi lionised as a son of the soil and a Hindu God-like figure.
And yet, Gujarat is also a state with a large Opposition space, with the Congress consistently hovering around the 40% mark in vote share. While the Congress vote has crumbled across north India and dipped even in its original fortress of Maharashtra, in Gujarat, the party hasn’t seen a similar erosion. This is partly because no political party has emerged in Gujarat to contest the Congress’s claim to being Opposition party #1. Until now. This is where the AAP’s Gujarat power play is so noticeable: Not only is the party challenging the BJP’s writ over Gujarat, especially in its neo-middle-class urban fiefdom, but it is also battling the Congress’s standing as the natural alternative to all anti-BJP forces. Be it the Muslims in Surat or the tribespeople in the Dangs, the AAP has consciously targeted traditional Congress vote banks while also addressing the concerns of the Hindu majority.
The strategy is risky. On the one hand, the AAP is appealing to Gujarat’s sense of “Hinduness” by offering a more benign version of the BJP’s saffron politics, even advocating for images of Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesha on currency notes. The party has also deliberately stayed silent on contentious issues such as the release of Bilkis Bano’s rapists.
On the other hand, the AAP is attempting to lure a growing pool of disenchanted voters, especially the young, with a host of guarantees — from unemployment income to free electricity — in the hope that those sections of society who feel left out of an uneven “Gujarat model” are drawn towards it.
And yet, scaling up from being a less than 1% vote share party whose 29 candidates in 2017 all lost their deposits, is a very tough task. The Congress, despite an uninspiring and factionalised state leadership, still has some goodwill and strong brand recall that isn’t likely to fade away overnight. In 2017, fuelled by farmer and trader anger, and the Patidar agitation, the Congress actually defeated the BJP in rural Gujarat and only lost in the final analysis because of the BJP’s stranglehold over the cities and semi-urban centres. While the AAP appears visible in Saurashtra and South Gujarat, its presence is more limited in the central and north Gujarat regions.
But by at least showing the intent to fight, the AAP has done what the Congress often fails to do in Gujarat in recent times: Look the BJP in the eye. One of the weaknesses of the Congress in Gujarat has been a certain ambivalence in directly confronting the Modi-led juggernaut: Since 2017, 20 Congress lawmakers have joined the BJP, leaving many supporters disillusioned. For more than a decade, the Congress was led by a former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-BJP strongman in Shankersinh Vaghela, proof that the party never really nurtured an effective leadership of its own during the Modi era.
Which is also why the BJP perhaps fears a disruptor such as Kejriwal more than it does a familiar rival such as the Congress. Over the years, the BJP knows the Congress’s weak spots: Stereotyping the Congress as a dynastical, pro-Muslim party, for example, is a time-tested tactic. The AAP, by contrast, comes with less ideological baggage, and hence, is far more flexible in its responses. In the last phase of the Gujarat campaign, the BJP has chosen to ignore the AAP, keen not to give it any more mileage. Ironically, a decent AAP showing may prove a short-term advantage to the BJP by dividing the Opposition vote further but it could also transform long-term equations in Gujarat and beyond.
Post-script: Gujaratis relish filmy dialogues. On the campaign trail, the AAP’s chief ministerial face, Isudan Gadhvi, a former TV news anchor turned neta, roared defiantly, “Tiger abhi zinda hai!”. The crowd cheered enthusiastically. Gadhvi himself is facing a tough fight in the Khambhalia constituency of Saurashtra, but his charismatic persona embodies a spirit of defiance that Gujarat has been missing for a while. The AAP isn’t anywhere close to winning Gujarat, it may not even reach double digits in terms of seats, but in an otherwise dull and predictable election outcome, it has brought, as one senior Gujarati journalist puts it: “Thodi si jaan! (some life)”.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal