I was moving into an unused room in Manish Sisodia’s official residence in Delhi on 16 June 2017. I had been volunteering under him since June 2016, working on the Delhi government’s school reforms project. Since I could not afford rent in the city, he had been kind enough to open his doors for me as a stop-gap arrangement. As I was approaching the entrance with my suitcase, I was greeted by a barrage of TV news reporters waiting outside for him. A Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) raid was underway. I asked some reporters what was going on and they told me the CBI was investigating Sisodia for charges of corruption. It was an eventful first day for me at the Sisodia residence, even if nothing eventually came out of that investigation.
As we have found out, this was only the first of many encounters with the CBI that the deputy chief minister of Delhi would have over the years.
The BJP would use the same script with several Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leaders over the years: BJP leaders begin by making allegations against an AAP leader on the eve of an important election, with national news channels running catchy sound bites from BJP press conferences all day long. Righteous news anchors follow up by cornering AAP spokespersons on primetime debates waving papers “exclusively accessed” by them that “prove wrongdoing”—no doubt leaked to them with one WhatsApp broadcast. Then the agency files an FIR, invites the AAP leader to join the probe and questions them for hours that turn into days. The next step is a dramatic raid at their residence, which may or may not be followed up with an arrest. If it is a case under the draconian Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), they have even managed to indefinitely deny bail as is being done with Delhi Health Minister Satyendar Jain.
In this instance, AAP believes that the BJP’s attempt at framing Sisodia is aimed at puncturing AAP’s pitch to Gujarati voters that it is a ‘kattar imandar’ party. Even though the popular perception in media circles is that BJP cannot be unseated in Gujarat, Arvind Kejriwal has made it clear that he is in it to win it.
Also read: Arvind Kejriwal isn’t a one-man army in Gujarat. Here are 3 new AAP poster boys
Data shows a change in Gujarat winds
No one can deny that the voter mobilisation in AAP’s favour in Gujarat in a matter of a few months has been unprecedented. Even if one is to go by independent surveys such as the tracker poll conducted by C-Voter, AAP was getting 17 per cent votes in early October. In an interview with SatyaHindi, Yashwant Deshmukh of C-Voter explained, “In March when AAP won Punjab, its state-wide vote share in Gujarat was close to 0. In a matter of five months (the tracker poll was released early in October), the fact that it has steadily gone up since then to 17% is significant.”
Some might say, how can a 17 per cent vote share cause the BJP to be so worried about AAP? Here is how. C-Voter may be significantly underestimating AAP’s current vote share in Gujarat – not on purpose, but because of its methodology. The C-Voter survey considers a cumulative sample to model vote share. This means that C-Voter’s latest daily sample may reflect a higher vote share for the party, but it will still consider the cumulative responses received over a longer timeframe to provide a more statistically sound figure. Ordinarily, this would be solid data that would come close to reflecting reality. But when a party like AAP, which is an unknown entity in the state, consolidates as fast as it appears to be doing, the survey will likely lag in providing us with an accurate picture of its vote share. The Times Now-ETG survey, which gave the party a much higher vote share of 24 per cent (against BJP at 48 per cent and Congress at 21 per cent) is a more real-time snapshot of where things stood when ETG collected its sample in September.
Even if AAP had a 24 per cent vote share in September, one could argue that it is not enough to give the BJP a run for its money. However, the Times Now-ETG survey offers a strong indication of which direction the winds are blowing in Gujarat. It asked respondents who they perceive to be in a fight in the state: 52 per cent said they saw a bipolar ‘AAP vs BJP’ fight, 14 per cent said they saw a triangular ‘AAP vs BJP vs Congress’ fight, while only 16 per cent thought it would be a direct fight between the BJP and the Congress. As AAP grows stronger, the perception of a bipolar contest between AAP and BJP will only gain more credence, enabled by the Congress’ disappearing act in the state. In these circumstances, the consolidation of the ‘change’ vote towards AAP is a real possibility.
Also read: AAP-ruled Punjab is missing the ‘Delhi model’ Kejriwal is promising in Gujarat and Himachal
The biggest threat to BJP
The real clincher, however, is the C-Voter data on the composition of the AAP voter in Gujarat. According to Deshmukh, almost one-fourth of AAP’s voters in the state are former BJP voters. The AAP has shown that it can attract the BJP’s votes, based not just on the survey, but also on the Delhi example where it has repeatedly beaten the state BJP unit with a coalition of its own core voter base along with pro-Modi voters who vote for Kejriwal in the state assembly election.
If the AAP continues to attract a quarter of its voters from the BJP and the Congress collapses, it might finally convert the decades-long anti-incumbency against the BJP in Gujarat into a rare defeat.
Another understated reason for AAP catching the Gujarati voters’ fancy this election is the widespread frustration over the BJP’s inability to arrest inflation. In the Times Now-ETG poll, 44 per cent of respondents said that inflation was the most important election issue for them. Experts will tell you that the BJP has the unique ability to weather inflationary concerns. There are two explanations for the BJP’s past invincibility: One, voters believe inflation was as bad or worse under the Congress government; two, the BJP’s contract with its voters is that it’s the only party that is furthering a nationalistic agenda and so they must overlook inflation and other economic concerns. But Kejriwal’s politics of quantifiable welfarism that counts the monetary value of savings for each household if his party is elected, combined with his competing nationalistic credentials, upends the traditional understanding of voter behaviour towards the BJP–and therein lies the biggest threat to the BJP’s electoral coalition in Gujarat.
Kejriwal’s promises of free power, education and healthcare, basic income for women, unemployment allowance for the youth and other welfare programmes have offered the Gujarati voter an alternative that promises to address the cost-of-living crisis without compromising on their aspiration for an outwardly nationalistic politician who the BJP cannot box into the anti-India, anti-Hindu or dynasty bogeys it uses so effectively against many other opponents.
None of this means the AAP is sure to defeat the BJP in December 2022, But the AAP leadership is convinced that it is not merely posturing in this battle—Kejriwal is fighting to win. It is his sheer audacity that riles up the BJP to use the crudest weapons in its arsenal against AAP. Sisodia is just the latest target of this effort.
Akshay Marathe is an AAP spokesperson and a public policy graduate from Harvard University. Views are personal.