Surat: Clouds of mosquitoes buzz around the stagnant water in Kholi Khadi, an open drain in ward 17 of Surat city. Flowing through the middle of a market, the dirty, smelly drain has metal sheets erected on either side. It was sludged out ahead of the monsoon, but the air around it is heavy and malodorous. You can’t stand there without holding your breath.
Even so, this dirty old ‘naala’ is touted as a ‘victory’ by Aam Aadmi Party councillors of the ward. The future, they say, looks good. “We’ve coerced the Surat Municipal Corporation to release funds worth Rs 162 crores for the redevelopment of this drain,” said Vipulbhai, one of the four councillors of ward 17.
Aam Aadmi Party has 24 councillors in the 120-member Surat Municipal Corporation, the only significant representation it has in any elected body in Gujarat. And they are being deployed to make the party a household name in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat. The campaign is partially hinged on the work these councillors have been able to push in Surat, which will be used to ‘advertise’ the party in the region.
However, most of the local victories they are parading are yet to reflect on ground. Electric poles in the middle of the road are still a hazard. Most of the schools are still without benches. And of course, the ‘naala’ is as rank and dirty as ever, with the AAP racing against time to come up smelling of roses. Kholi Khadi may not be ready for a photo-op by the time Gujarat goes to polls in November.
Urban governance claims in Surat
Nevertheless, Aam Aadmi Party councillors are on the ground—making their presence felt by listening to people’s grievances and holding protests against the ruling BJP’s ‘autocratic ways’.
Open drainage, local health centres, betterment of infrastructure at schools and promotion of Delhi model of governance form the nucleus of Aam Aadmi Party’s bid to win the hearts of the people of Surat.
Surat is the entry point for AAP in Gujarat, and party members are using the limited mandate they got in the city really well, says Gujarat state coordinator for Lokniti-CSDS, Mahashweta Jani. She argued that the Congress failed to give tickets to members of the Patidar community ahead of corporation elections, and those votes were absorbed by the AAP. Since then, they haven’t let up. “Their corporators are on ground, speaking to people, aggressively pushing back the BJP in the municipal corporation elections. This is something Congress never did,” she said.
The party’s councillors claim that they are committed to addressing civic issues that have been lying untended for more than a decade. In ward number 17, where all four councillors are from AAP, Swatiben, is batting for better hospital facilities, and has secured a nod from the SMC for a 100-bed hospital.
Vipulbhai, another councillor, boasts about the Mahatma Gandhi Prathmik Vidyalaya, where the AAP has invested more than Rs 40 lakh to get the school painted, procure benches and improve infrastructure for students who have so far sat on the floor. AAP claims that it is the first time a school has been developed from the personal funds of councillors. ThePrint reached out to mayor Himali Ben to verify this claim but she didn’t respond.
The councillors also point to low looming high-tension wires in the area that they’ve said will soon be removed because of their efforts. Low-income societies, who have been living without ‘pucca’ roads for decades, have now got cemented roads because of the AAP’s efforts, claim the councillors. “Eighteen high-tension poles, erected in the middle of the street in Surat are going to come down, after AAP councillors fought for it,” Vipulbhai claimed.
Most of these issues have yet to be resolved despite AAP’s presence in the SMC for over a year. Swatiben attributes the delay to last year’s “crippling” wave of Covid.
On ground, both Vipulbhai and Swatiben are local celebrities, recognised by residents and shopkeepers alike. In this, they have taken a page from the BJP style book, by ensuring that they have a strong presence on the ground. But will this goodwill translate into votes in the upcoming polls?
Convincing locals an uphill task
Even residents who are enjoying tangible benefits are hesitant to vote for AAP in the state elections. “For 20 years we’ve lived with ‘kuccha’ roads, but within a year, AAP has changed that for us. They’ve done good work,” said a resident of Varachha, who did not wish to be named. However, when it comes to state elections, he hasn’t made up his mind yet. “I have always voted for the BJP, and it will take more than building a road to convince me to change my vote this year,” he said.
Some believe it is the BJP that is responsible for the good work, while still others claim they can’t see any change. “Four AAP councillors [in ward 17] are unable to do the work, one BJP worker gets done quickly,” contended Harsha Ben, who embroiders sarees for a living in the area. “I made a mistake voting for AAP in corporation elections, my vote is going to the BJP in state elections,” she said.
The BJP, too, is quick to counter claims of AAP’s success. “Aam Aadmi Party only works on lies. The things they’re saying about Gujarat schools are false. Here, education has been free and schools have consistently performed well. They say they’ll provide free healthcare, but Ayushman cards already exist. Electricity connections here are strong as well, and power is cheap. Voters are not blind; they can see through their lies. AAP is not a contest for us at all,” said BJP Surat General Secretary Ghanshyambhai, while dismissing them.
Prospects in state elections
AAP remains undeterred by the cynicism and the criticism. Surat AAP district president, Mahendra Navadiya, says the party plans to strengthen its grip on all of Saurashtra, which has about 50 seats in the legislative assembly. “We’re going to win 70-80 per cent seats in Saurashtra, including the ones dominated by the Patidar community,” he said confidently.
Raising issues of urban governance, however, may not help the young party in Gujarat. Because not only are they new, but breaking into BJP’s vote bank in a highly communalised electorate will be difficult. Jani, too, senses roadblocks. BJP’s control of state media is ruining their efforts. “The AAP is not even called for panel discussions. Compared to the BJP, their media presence is negligible,” she admitted.
Vote banks are divided along communal lines, and the BJP doesn’t see the party as a real threat. “AAP has only attracted Muslim votes and cut into the traditional Congress vote bank,” a source in the BJP said, adding that the BJP is only concerned about two seats within Surat and nothing more. Jani, too, acknowledged the grim reality that AAP’s performance in Surat may help the party in urban pockets, but will fail to make them shine in the eyes of a rural voter.
However, to lure rural voters, the Aam Aadmi Party has been conducting ‘gramin baithaks’ across Gujarat, where they are advertising their work in Delhi, Punjab and Surat. “We’re telling people about the roads we’ve built, hospitals we’ve planned and the school renovations we’ve done,” Navadiya said.
Congress, too, says that the only reason the Aam Aadmi Party won the municipal elections was because they made “mistakes while distributing tickets”. “There are 6,000 elected candidates in Gujarat if Zila Panchayat, municipal councils etc are counted. Just one area in Surat, where AAP has 23 elected representatives, doesn’t become a threat” said Arjun Modhvadiya, former leader of opposition in Gujarat state assembly.
Anti-incumbency though might just help the Aam Aadmi Party. Kholi Khadi might be dirty, but at least the promise of covering it up is a ‘pucca’ promise, say some residents. Perhaps AAP is not wrong to look for roses hidden in the stink surrounding the drain.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)