The setting was picturesque. The sun was setting over the Arabian Sea on Sunday, May 22 with the sky taking on hues of red, saffron and yellow. Appropriate for the occasion, it would appear, as Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal took the stage in the packed to capacity Campal ground in Goa’s capital, Panaji. The grounds reverberated to applause. A beginning had certainly been made.
In fact, that was an encore. Five months earlier, Kejriwal had wowed Punjab at the Maghi fair rally. All parties in Punjab hold their rallies in Muktsar on January 15. It’s a trial of strength for these parties. With assembly elections barely a year away, the event had been hyped by all parties. Despite its new entrant status, AAP scored over rivals that day. AAP’s rally was twice the size of the SAD (ShiromaniAkali Dal) and Congress rallies put together. If there was any doubt, it was effectively put to rest by a C-Voter survey: The State of Punjab opinion polls gave AAP 84-100 seats out of total 117 if elections were held then.
It’s not only Punjab and Goa. AAP has been on an expansion spree, trying to spread across India as rapidly as possible. It has even formalized the expansion programme christening it “Mission Vistaar”. The reason, party leaders say, is the demand from various states. “How could we stop the people who want to be associated with AAP,” said party spokesman Ashutosh who is handling the mission. He says the party started in 2013 with “Mission Buniyaad” which was later converted to Mission Vistaar after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. But, even this phase has ended with the party having set up state units in almost every part of the country except the north-east.
“Our next target is to have district-level and booth-level organization set-up. Our slogan is 10 youth per booth,” Ashutosh said. The strategy seems simple - keep expanding and go for the kill only when the party feels it’s strong enough to win the polls.
AAP had contested 439 of 545 Lok Sabha seats in 2014. A large number of people from all walks of life joined AAP and contested. These included well known journalists like Anita Pratap and Ashutosh; eminent writers and even bankers like Meera Sanyal; teachers, also social workers like Medha Patkar; theatre artists like Bhagwant Mann besides doctors, lawyers and other professionals. But the party could win only four seats in Punjab. It could not win a single seat in Delhi, where it ruled only three months before parliamentary elections. Kejriwal himself contested against Narendra Modi from Varanasi. This created a country-wide buzz for AAP but did not translate into electoral gains.
The 2014 electoral debacle was a lesson for AAP leaders. They started from scratch, brick by brick, meeting people in Delhi to explain their position locality by locality, house by house and man to man. The hard work ultimately translated into votes and the party achieved one of the biggest electoral victories - winning 67 of 70 seats at stake in the Delhi assembly elections.
This writer witnessed both rallies - at Muktsar and Panaji. Kejriwal asked me about Muktsar. “The going looks great for you. But the challenge is to sustain this tempo for next one year,” was my verdict. He replied in his typical Hindi: “Sirjee, ye mahaul to mere sahyogiyonki vajah se hai. Maine to abhi campaign shuru hi nahin ki hai. Mere aanekebaad to tempo aurbadega” (The surge is because of my associates. I haven’t started campaigning yet. The tempo (enthusiasm) is going to rise further after my entry.)
At the Muktsar rally Kejriwal declared that AAP was already winning 100 seats in Punjab. But the target is to win all 117.
Punjab was an obvious choice for AAP after its 2014 Lok Sabha election performance. SAD ruling the state for the past 10 years not only faces double anti-incumbency but has also lost the goodwill of the public. It’s top leaders face charges of corruption, of involvement in the drugs trade. The Congress is no better. It is not only mired in internecine strife but has not done much to win the people’s trust. AAP just filled the vacuum.
It’s not only Punjab and Goa, AAP has been on an expansion spree, trying to spread across India as rapidly as possible. It has even formalized the expansion programme christening it “Mission Vistaar”
Kejriwal reveled in AAP’s new-found glory but ruled out contesting from other states. “We have learnt our lessons from Lok Sabha polls where we spread ourselves too thin across India. Had we concentrated only in 3-4 states, we could have won 35-40 seats,” was his analysis, adding: “We won’t contest Uttarakhand as it coincides with Punjab elections but will go for Himachal because elections there are scheduled six months after Punjab. Our entire team from Punjab would then shift to Himachal. In any case, you need lot of funds to contest elections. You know, our party is running Rs one crore deficit”.
GUNNING FOR GOA
Things seem to have changed in the last five months. AAP received positive vibes from Goa and decided it stood a chance there. AAP leaders conceded that they had diverted funds collected for the Punjab elections, to hold the Goa rally. They also confided that there were strict instructions from Kejriwal not to accept any funds from somebody seeking a favour – a contract, tender or any such work - from the Delhi Government.
The May 22 rally in Panaji, was convened after a ground level campaign spread over four months and was a grand success. Looking at the milling crowds, Sujay Gupta, Editor of the daily O’Herald said, “This no doubt is the biggest rally ever organized in Goa. More important, I can see the who’s who of Goa, present here.” Top professors, architects, singers, artists, lawyers, doctors and engineers had come to listen to Kejriwal. Each comment drew applause from the audience. Even a short-circuit that disrupted the sound amplifiers for almost 20 minutes failed to diminish people’s enthusiasm. In fact, the crowd had started trooping in at least two hours earlier for a rally timed to begin at 5 pm. That was surprising because even on working days during summers, Goans keep their shutters down between 1 and 4 pm. Most of the crowd that turned up to listen to the diminutive chief minister of Delhi comprised of Christians and Muslims, who have so far been voting for the Congress. The AAP seems to be eyeing the 26 per cent Christian and 6 per cent Muslim population (the balance comprises of Hindus, mostly Konkani Brahmins and fishermen).
Prominent among those present was celebrity TV anchor Rajdeep Sardesai and his wife Sagarika Ghosh. Local media had been rife with speculation of Rajdeep joining AAP and being projected as the party’s chief ministerial candidate. But Rajdeep (son of the late Goa born cricketer DileepSardesai) scotched the rumours saying, “I am ready to become chief minister if people of Goa want me. But I don’t think they want me to quit journalism at present.” Clearly, something has gone wrong for the ruling BJP, which won an absolute majority in Goa in 2012 under Manohar Parrikar, a person of integrity - an engineer by qualification and a politician by choice. When he was moved to Delhi as Defence Minister, his replacement Laxmikant Parsekar too has a clean image but inaction seems to be his undoing.
“Parsekar is a good and honest person. But all development work has come to a halt in Goa under him. Everything is in bad shape,” said Sandeep vSethaye, a restaurant owner near Panjim.
Despite its new entrant status, AAP scored over rivals. AAP’s rally was twice the size of the SAD and Congress rallies put together. If there was any doubt, it was effectively put to rest by a C-Voter survey: The State of Punjab opinion polls gave AAP 84-100 seats out of total 117 if elections were held then
Corruption is a major issue in Goa, especially illegal iron ore mining. The Justice MB Shah Commission appointed by the Centre in 2010 had reported that 55 per cent of the iron ore exported from India, was being excavated in Goa. The commission report had estimated that illegal mining had ruined almost 2700 hectares of land, damaged the state’s ecology resulting in a scandal of Rs 35,000 crore.
The Supreme Court acting on the Commission’s report, had in 2013 ordered registration of FIRs against 150 persons including state politicians, most of them belonging to the Congress. Be it former chief minister Pratap Singh Rane, ex-minister Churchill Alemao or legislators ChandrakantBabuKavalekar and PandurangMadkaikar, the Congress party had become synonymous with corruption.
Alemao is the prime accused in Rs 300 crore PWD tender scam; Madkaikar is an accused of land grabbing in Old Goa; Kavalekar had amassed so much property that the Parrikar government hired a chartered accountant to audit his wealth. Rane is said to have patronized all corrupt Congress leaders, which is the reason why Kejriwal focused on corruption. He explained how he had contained it to a large extent in Delhi and how AAP, if voted to power, would do the same in Goa. Like Punjab, Goa is also plagued by corruption, drugs and mafia, he said. Because of tourism, Goans are better off than residents of any other state. Literacy levels are among the best in the country. The same is true for health facilities. Their per capita income rivals that of Delhi and Mumbai. Law and order is not a major issue. The only sore points are poor roads and deteriorating tourism infrastructure.
AAP had started its activities in Goa recently. National treasurer Pankaj Gupta, who is on charge of the party’s campaign in Goa, said serious campaigning started only in March. “We have progressed fast but there still is a lot of ground to be covered. We are actually racing against time,” he admitted.
But AAP’s strategy seems shrewd. They focus on states with a bipolar polity, for example BJP vs Congress. With Congress already on a downward spiral, AAP aims to corner its vote bank and challenge the BJP. This what they did in Delhi and aim to repeat that act first in Punjab, followed by Himachal and Goa before moving on to other states. “We have a formidable organiza-tional structure in UP, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Gujarat, Haryana and Rajasthan,” said Ashutosh, “but we won’t contest in any of them until we penetrate the stage up to booth level. Our rivals need to know that AAP doesn’t contest for the sake of contesting any more. When we enter the fray, we aim to win and trounce the opposition.”
I asked Kejriwal if it would not be better to go for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections with at least half a dozen states under his belt? “Sir, I am better off with three or four states we can govern well, than ill-managing 10 states,” was his response.
Well thought Arvind. But, it’s a long way to go and the road is not smooth. As by-elections for the Delhi municipal corporation showed, AAP’s vote share slid from 54 to around 43 per cent. Add to that the Damocles sword of disqualification hanging over 21 of his Delhi MLAs. Kejriwal has to save his ground in Delhi first before moving on to other states.
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