It came as a shock to both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a relatively new player in Gujarat, won 27 seats in the Surat Municipal Corporation elections in 2021.
To make it worse for Congress, it drew a blank in the same polls.
Known popularly as the ‘diamond city’, Surat is home to many industries — the textile and diamond-polishing ones being the most prominent among them.
The Kathiyawadi community, which originally hails from Gujarat’s Saurashtra region, has settled in Surat for many decades, contributing to the strengthening of the economic prowess for which the city is today known.
Surat BJP leaders are today convinced that the antagonistic sentiment that was prevalent against the party in 2017 (largely due to goods and services tax implementation issues) has been effectively neutralised.
In 2020, the BJP appointed C R Patil as its chief of the state unit.
Patil belongs to the Marathi community and is said to enjoy proximity to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
As a confidante of the then chief minister Narendra Modi, he spearheaded the efforts of the BJP in southern Gujarat since 2002. He is known as the ‘money-muscle man’ in the BJP who can take up organisational responsibilities effectively.
Following Modi’s move to New Delhi in 2014, ‘caste’ returned as more important an electoral issue in Gujarat than it was in the ‘Modi years’. One of the results of this was said to be the Patels’ disapproval of Patil being the head of the BJP in the state — a Patil versus Patel tussle.
The BJP has planned its moves carefully since then though.
Today, it cannot be claimed that the BJP faces any threat from the trio which earlier might have made the party sweat during the 2017 state assembly elections. Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakore are in the BJP, and Jignesh Mevani’s politics does not appear to be garnering any significant popular support.
Furthermore, by appointing Bhupendrabhai Patel as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, the Patidar sentiments have been assuaged to a large extent.
Additionally, many other leaders from the community have been given prominent political positions within the party and in the government since then.
As far as the ‘rewdi’ (freebies) debate is concerned, several BJP observers suggest that the freebie culture may attract the migrant workers’ vote in places such as Kamrej, where the AAP has a decent presence.
On the other hand, Surat-based columnist Yuvraj Pokharna cites a recent incident from Gujarat where Arvind Kejriwal rhetorically asked people present in a closed-door meeting in Vadodara airport, “Free bijli chahiye ki nahi chahiye?” (Do you want free electricity or not?). To his surprise, the audience collectively responded, “nahi” (no), leaving him embarrassed.
“While experts may attribute the success of the election to Hindutva and Moditva, the fact is, Kejriwal’s double-speak on matters related to faith is dubious at best,” says Arpan Charavarthy, a political observer, who is also a resident of Surat.
Whether it is with Manish Sisodia’s earlier comment about having a hospital instead of a temple, or with Gopal Italia’s insensitive comments, the party has failed to capture the imagination of the Hindu voters in Gujarat.
As a result of Congress's inaction, the AAP has made some inroads in Gujarat as far as the urban constituencies are concerned. But, it is only enough to capture the disgruntled Congress votes and not enough to pose any real challenge to the BJP.
Despite AAP Gujarat chief’s ‘temple run’ — in the case of meeting Naresh Patel, chairman of the Shree Khodaldham Trust (SKT) to appease the Leuva Patel voters, the theatrics seems to have failed. Almost immediately after Italia’s visit, Nareshbhai paid a “goodwill visit” to Prime Minister Modi.
But challenges apart, the AAP has focused on reaching out to the younger generation of voters in Gujarat.
“Many of us have been receiving phone calls from the AAP volunteers for the past few days. They ask us to give them one chance since the BJP has been in power for almost 27 years in Gujarat. There are tailored outreach programmes, and cannot be categorised as a one-fit-for-all. Party workers have been asked to focus on delivering three voters from every house in Gujarat, to increase their polling percentage,” adds Yuvraj Pokharna.
At the time, when AAP made its presence felt in the local body polls in Surat, it still enjoyed an image of being a party borne out of an anti-corruption movement.
However, in recent months, the AAP leadership has been defending itself from grave charges of financial irregularities and misconduct. Its top ministers are under the scanner of investigative agencies.
The politics of freebies too seems to have lost its appeal as the people of Delhi reel under the hazardous levels of pollution.
The AAP government in Punjab continues to fail in controlling stubble burning in the state. From a security point of view, as well, AAP in Punjab seems unable to deal with extremist forces rearing their head in the border state.
It can be said that all these factors would play in voters’ minds before the elections.
Also read: What Is The AAP Trying To Do In Gujarat?
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