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AAP grabbing attention in Gujarat. But BSP got 20% votes and still got 0 seats in UP 2014

AAP claims it would fill a representational and ideological gap in Gujarat’s politics. But does such a void exist?

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In a contest that seems pre-determined in favour of Bharatiya Janata Party, the only question that invites curiosity about the upcoming Gujarat assembly elections is how Aam Aadmi Party would fare and how much damage it would inflict upon Congress and BJP, both of which are rethinking their strategies in the face of an emerging challenge from the Arvind Kejriwal-led party.

The AAP unit in Gujarat has the advantage of a largely unblemished image that any new political entrant gets. Its confidence springs from several factors: Kejriwal’s fighting instincts, attraction for freebies promised by it, highly-charged social media campaigns, a morale-boosting landslide victory in Punjab, positive perception of the so-called Delhi model of governance and so on. But would all this be enough to cause a qualitative transition from the two-party dominance that has been the mainstay of Gujarat politics since 1995, despite several efforts by minor parties to alter it?

Hurdles for AAP in Gujarat

While some opinion polls (ABP C-Voter Survey and Hindu-CSDS Survey) have predicted a vote share of roughly 20 per cent for AAP—placing it after BJP and ahead of Congress in the Gujarat elections— ground realities foretell that it would be challenging for the party to pull off a surprise. Even if it does manage to get a sizeable chunk of the total votes, whether it would succeed in translating it into seats is open to debate. In a first-past-the-post election system, constituency-wise distribution of votes matters more than merely the high share of aggregate ballots, which might not get converted into the proportionate number of seats if votes are spread thin over the state and not concentrated into winnable seats. Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), for instance, secured the third largest vote share of 20 per cent in Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 Lok Sabha election but won zero seats. Likewise, AAP got 20 per cent votes in the Gandhinagar Municipal Corporation election held last year but could win only one seat.

What succeeded in Delhi and Punjab might not succeed elsewhere because the dynamics and variables of different states’ politics aren’t the same. Besides, new parties in a two-party state face structural barriers to success. The psychology of voters favours the existing parties. Voters primarily want to elect a winning or a winnable party. They see the ballot for a third party as a waste of opportunity.

AAP itself faced humiliating defeats when it tried to enter new territories. In the 2017 Gujarat election, the party contested 30 seats and secured just about 0.1 per cent votes. It got 6 per cent votes and two seats in the 2022 Goa elections. Its debut appearance in UP and Haryana was disastrous. In both states, the party got less than half a percentage of votes and no seats despite Kejriwal’s blitzkrieg campaign and the party’s tall claims. AAP contested all 70 seats in Uttarakhand but came to nought after securing 3 per cent votes. As a new party, the biggest challenge AAP faces is putting in place a minimal organisational structure to bring its voters to the polling booth.

AAP is mostly an urban phenomenon in Gujarat. Its political visibility is confined to Surat, Rajkot and the Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar area. People in rural and semi-urban regions poorly identify with its symbol, candidates and programmes. AAP has created its main voter base from Patidars. For one, AAP’s prominent state leaders are either previous collaborators of Patidar BJP leader Hardik Patel or activists of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, which spearheaded the reservation agitation between 2015-17. The party’s plans to penetrate Gujarat’s tribal vote bank seems to be floundering as its alliance with Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) fell through.

Its mobilisation and campaign strategies have largely ignored the interests of Dalits, Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and minorities. AAP has virtually no presence in Gujarat’s civil society networks (milk cooperatives, agricultural marketing committees, students’ bodies, professionals’ associations, trade unions etc.) dominated by BJP-RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) cadres.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a larger-than-life image among Gujaratis cutting across party lines. Kejriwal’s best shot at humility and emotive appeals would not dent Modi’s iconic stature and popularity in the state. Also, the promise of free electricity, government jobs, improved health facilities, free tours to pilgrimage places, monthly stipends to all women, unemployment allowance, minimum support price for fish etc., might not get much traction with Gujarat’s electorate—a large section of which would be more than willing to forgo them for the advancement of what they perceive to be the Hindu cause championed by BJP.

Also read: Gujarat voters question BJP’s ‘remote-controlled’ govt. But it’s no Advantage AAP, Congress

Decoding AAP’s strategy

So, what then, is AAP depending upon? Its strategy is focused on garnering a chunk of the anti-BJP votes that would otherwise have gone to Congress. Likewise, it is trying to chip into  BJP’s Patidar support base as also the Hindutva base by projecting ‘soft Hindutva’ as its key campaign theme. At most, AAP can count five Patidar-dominated seats in Surat (Katargam, Varachha, Olpad, Kamrej and Karanj) as winnable.

Its important state leaders, except the party’s chief ministerial candidate Isudan Gadhavi, are fighting from these seats. AAP will play the role of a spoiler for Congress and BJP in the remaining 182 seats. Congress would most likely be a big loser and  BJP a clear gainer in this triangular scenario. The impact of AAP’s vote-splitting role will be seen mostly in 57 seats (almost a third of the total seats) where the victory margin of Congress and BJP candidates was less than five per cent in the 2017 elections. Out of these seats, 35 were won with a margin of fewer than 5,000 votes.

AAP claims it would fill a representational and ideological gap in Gujarat’s politics. But does such a void exist or even need to be filled up? Empirical facts do not support the view that a substantial number of BJP or Congress voters are so dissatisfied with their parties that they are too keen to shift their loyalty to the new third party. Besides, such a move would only occur if AAP is perceived to be different from BJP and Congress on ideological grounds.

Despite these challenges, if AAP succeeds in winning seats in two digits in the next Gujarat Vidhan Sabha, it would undoubtedly mean a profound medium-term shift in Gujarat’s politics and a possible marginalisation of Congress in the 2027 election. Therefore, more than AAP, the 2022 election is a do-or-die battle for Congress. Even BJP would not wish for an aggressive and unpredictable AAP as the main opposition in Gujarat as it has experienced great comfort in dealing with the politics of Congress during a quarter of a century of its rule in the state.

Amit Dholakia is a professor of Political Science at Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara. Views are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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