Gujarat elections 2022 is a unique contest: the winner is almost certain but the real interest lies in who will be the runner-up. 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 BJP would outscore the Congress by roughly eight to ten per cent vote share in a direct fight. Now, while the BJP remains in pole position, the political conversation revolves on just how far the AAP could go in breaking the BJP-Congress duopoly.
Travel into small villages of Saurashtra and South Gujarat – the relatively poorer parts of the state – and amidst a sea of saffron and the occasional Congress flag, the sudden presence of the jhadoo symbol is striking. While Arvind Kejriwal has had a meteoric rise in Indian politics, his ‘Mission Gujarat’ is easily his most audacious gambit. In 2014, he attempted to take the fight to Narendra Modi in Varanasi and spectacularly failed. It was a bruising defeat, one that eventually split the AAP wide open. Eight years later, boosted by its sweep in Punjab, AAP is at it again, hoping to emerge as a magnet for those seeking change in Gujarat.
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 election – over the last twenty five years. This is the closest we have seen to total domination since the Left ruled Bengal for 34 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 Modi lionized as a son of the soil Hindu God-like figure.
And yet, Gujarat is also a state with a large opposition space, one where the Congress has consistently hovered around the 40 per cent mark in vote share. Whereas the Congress vote has crumbled across north India and dipped even in its original fortress of neighbouring Maharashtra, in Gujarat the party hasn’t seen a similar erosion. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the Congress hasn’t missed an opportunity to miss opportunities in Gujarat. Just how a party that won a record 149 out of 182 seats in 1985 with a massive 55 per cent vote share shrunk to just 33 seats and 30 per cent vote share five years later in 1990 is a tale marked by a series of political blunders that typify the Congress’s self-destruct proclivities.
But no political party has emerged since in Gujarat to contest the Congress’s claim to being opposition party number one. 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 its neo-middle class urban fiefdom, it is also interrogating the Congress’s standing as the natural alternative to all anti-BJP forces. Then, be it Muslims in Surat or tribals in the Dangs, the AAP has consciously targeted traditional Congress vote banks while also addressing concerns of the Hindu majority.
The strategy is risky. On the one hand, the AAP is appealing to Gujarat’s sense of Hindu-ness by offering a more benign version of the BJP’s saffron politics, even seeking images of Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesha on currency notes . The party has also stayed deliberately silent on contentious issues like the Bilkis Bano case for fear of raking up the 2002 Gujarat riot wounds.
On the other hand , the AAP is attempting to allure a growing pool of disenchanted voters, especially the young, with a host of guarantees – from unemployment income to free electricity – in the hope that poorer 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 one per cent party whose 29 candidates in 2017 all lost their deposits, is a very tough task for AAP. The Congress, despite an uninspiring and factionalised state leadership, still has a residue of goodwill and strong brand recall that isn’t likely to fade away overnight. In 2017, 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 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 for a fight, AAP has done what the Congress has often failed to do in Gujarat in recent times: look the BJP in the eye by taking the battle to the enemy camp. One of the weaknesses of the Congress in Gujarat has been a certain ambivalence in directly confronting the Modi-led juggernaut: since 2017, more than 20 Congress MLAs have joined the BJP, leaving many Congress supporters disillusioned. That for more than a decade, the Congress was led by a former BJP strongman in Shankarsinh Vaghela is only further proof that the party has never really nurtured a strong leadership of its own during the Modi era.
Which is also why the BJP perhaps fears a disruptor like Kejriwal more than it does a familiar rival like 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, hence is far more flexible in its responses. In the last phase of the Gujarat campaign, the BJP has chosen to ignore 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 ‘filmi’ dialogues. On the campaign trail, as Kejriwal’s handpicked choice for chief ministership, a former news anchor turned neta, Isudan Gadhvi, roars defiantly, “Tiger abhi zinda hai!”. The crowd cheers enthusiastically. Gadhvi himself is facing a tough fight in Kambaliya 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 seats, but in an otherwise dull and predictable election it has brought, as one senior Gujarati journalist puts it: ‘thodi si jaan!’ (some life).