Ahmedabad: From villages to cities in Gujarat, there’s hot anticipation, and it’s not because of Navaratri. As the 2022 assembly election fever grips the state, a former journalist, a social worker, and an ex-Congress MLA are taking on the Bharatiya Janata Party on its home turf. They are the new faces of the Aam Aadmi Party — local leaders sharing poster space with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.
On a regular Friday evening, the Gujarat office of the AAP is almost empty. The few workers present say that all the “big leaders are busy preparing for the elections and have gone on a tour of Gujarat.”
Kejriwal isn’t a one-man army in Gujarat. Over the last few weeks, Gujarat AAP president Gopal Italia, Isudan Gadhvi, and Indranil Rajguru have upped their campaigns. They are travelling across the length and breadth of the state, convincing voters to give them — and their party — a chance.
Thirty-two-year-old Italia, after seven years of being an activist and social worker, knows the lay of the land, especially that of rural India. Gadhvi, a former journalist and editor of VTV Gujarati, who anchored the hugely popular Mahamanthan, has a legion of fans. Rajguru, a prominent Congress leader earlier, shifted allegiance to the AAP in April this year. Lakhs come to hear them talk. But only Rajguru has political experience among the trio.
And good intentions can only take them so far with some voters.
“Anyone can become famous by doing political stunts. Only trust the ones who will work,” says a loyal BJP supporter in Ahmedabad. He, like many others, is still sceptical of the ‘new faces’ in AAP.
Gadhvi, Italia, Rajguru, and all ‘the new faces in AAP’ seem to be the Davids to the BJP’s Goliath, armed with concrete conviction — and the playbook written by Kejriwal who was once a newcomer himself.
Gopal Italia courts social media popularity and controversy with the intuitive ease of a millennial. He sees himself as a ‘truth speaker’. “I speak the truth. People understand that what I speak, I speak very clearly and honestly,” he says.
In 2019, a video clip in which Italia is seen firing shots from a “pistol made of PVC pipes” — with reference to the ban on firecrackers — went viral. Before that, he had released an audio clip of a conversation he reportedly had with then-deputy CM Nitin Patel on alcohol consumption in the dry state. He was embroiled in yet another controversy after an old video in which he purportedly made derogatory comments against Hindu rituals resurfaced.
But ever since he was appointed Gujarat party president in December 2020, he has let up on these ‘stunts’ — one such was throwing a shoe at then-State Home Minister Pradipsinh Jadeja.
“Earlier, Gopal bhai also made many controversial statements, but now, I see him memorising the verses of the Bhagavad Gita,” says a member of the AAP on the condition of anonymity.
Now, Italia takes his cues from his party chief. “He [Kejriwal] did his job without thinking about the future and the consequences,” he says.
From constable to clerk to social worker, Italia has dipped his toes in many professions but found his calling with the AAP. He joined the party barely two years ago. “I never thought I would reach so far in life. And if I can come here from a small village, then others like me should also get the opportunity to do so,” he says. He went to school in Timbi, a small village in the Bhavnagar district and completed his secondary education in another village. After that, he went to Ahmedabad where he studied political science at Gujarat University.
AAP’s plan is to knock on every door in Gujarat and preach the message of hope and change. “We want to tell everyone about what we’ve done in Delhi and Punjab,” party workers say.
According to Italia, their message is spreading fast from house to house. “In a state like Gujarat, no one thought that someone would fight against the BJP. But now, people are showing trust in us,” he says.
Living ‘clean’ out of a car
Journalist-turned-politician Isudan Gadhvi, 40, is following a similar strategy — reaching out to as many people as he can before the election in December.
In the 14 months since he joined the AAP, he has travelled 90,000 kilometres. “I have visited every district of Gujarat twice,” says Gadhvi, who lives out of his Toyota Innova. He follows a gruelling schedule with campaign trails that go on for 10 to 12 hours at a stretch.
Gadhvi capitalises on his popularity as a journalist and ‘clean leader’ image. On Mahamanthan, he has covered a wide range of topics from farmers’ representation to examination papers leakages.
When he visited villages for his ground reporting, as many as 5,000 people would gather to tell him their problems. “People used to watch my show just like people used to watch the Ramayana and Mahabharata. But I could not solve everyone’s problem. So I thought of leaving the job and doing something for them,” he says. On 1 June 2021, he announced on Facebook that he was quitting journalism. He joined the AAP the following month.
“Many political parties gave me the opportunity [to join them], but I chose Arvind Kejriwal ji because he talks about issues,” says Gadhvi.
He claims that over five lakh people have given their support to the party since he joined it.
Like Italia, Gadhvi, too, grew up in the Pipaliya village in Rajkot district. His family wasn’t happy about his decision to become a politician. “Since I joined the AAP, I have received death threats. My family was upset, but I gradually convinced them. I told them: I am 40 years old now, I do not want to waste this life, so I will serve the people and do it through this path,” he says.
A compelling orator, Gadhvi’s campaign draws lakhs of people during campaigns. “People come from far and wide to hear my speeches. If you give me 35 minutes with a crowd of 50,000, I can keep them interested,” he adds.
And his followers trust him too. “Isudan Gandhvi was a popular journalist. People in rural areas are crazy about him,” says Ahmedabad-based political analyst Dilip Gohal.
Gadhvi wants free education, the right crop prices for farmers, and free medicines for all. It’s what keeps him going on the campaign trail. “I have made many policies. If we win, Kejriwal will get them implemented,” he says.
But the BJP claims to be unfazed by the competition. “Many parties come and go. RJD, LJP, BSP have also come in the past. We welcome them, but we don’t consider AAP as a competitor at all. Congress is stronger than them,” says Gujarat BJP chief spokesperson Yama Vyas.
For who politics is bread and butter
Among the trio of leaders, 56-year-old Indranil Rajguru has the longest political experience. Politics is his bread and butter, and he just wants to see the BJP lose. Rajguru was a prominent Congress leader and MLA for Rajkot East from 2012 to 2017.
And his reason for doing so is quite revealing too. He got disillusioned with the Congress’ inability to breach the communal divide in the state. “Gujarat Congress did not have the zeal to integrate religion. The AAP talks on issues, so I joined it,” says Rajguru whose father was also with the Congress.
The politician insists that he’s not “much interested” in contesting elections right now. “I don’t feel like contesting elections, but I want to do all I can to help the party. It is very important to defeat the BJP,” says Rajguru. “At one point in time, I was the richest MLA in the Gujarat Legislative Assembly.”
But his relationship with his voters is his currency. Like the other younger generation of leaders, he stresses ‘truth’. “I did not lie to the people. This is what people see, and that is why they like me.”
Rajguru positions himself as a leader who “prefers to work on the ground”. And unlike Kejriwal, he’s not an outsider to Gujarat politics.
These AAP leaders are laying the ground to convince Gujarati voters that there’s more to the party than the Delhi CM.
“The BJP is pretending that AAP is not their competitor, but it seems they are. There is no doubt that apart from Kejriwal, they are the crowd-pullers of AAP. Even before they entered politics, they were already famous. We can say that apart from Kejriwal, these are the poster boys of the AAP,” says Dilip Gohil.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)