New Delhi: The upcoming elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh are likely to play an important role in the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) national expansion plan. Both the states are currently with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
On paper, the odds are stacked against the Arvind Kejriwal-led party that nevertheless fancies its chances in the two states. A win in either of these states could propel the AAP nationally as the BJP’s principal challenger, potentially replacing the Congress which has ceded much ground following a string of electoral defeats over the past eight years.
Realistically speaking, the AAP will be looking for a decent show in these states for its larger goal of getting recognition as a ‘national party’.
While the AAP has governments in Delhi and Punjab, it has also got the tag of a ‘state party’ in Goa where it won two assembly constituencies in March. Another such recognition from the Election Commission will qualify the AAP as a ‘national party’, which, according to senior AAP leaders, will set the stage for the 2024 general elections and boost Kejriwal’s image as a political leader on a national canvas.
The AAP is, therefore, putting its best foot forward in the upcoming assembly elections, entrusting specific responsibilities to its lieutenants for these two states.
These are the AAP’s five key people spearheading its poll campaign:
Raghav Chadha: ‘The key aide’
A close aide of Arvind Kejriwal, Chadha played an important role in spearheading the party’s Punjab campaign following which the 34-year-old chartered accountant became a Rajya Sabha member from the state. Chadha also heads an advisory committee to Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann. The AAP leader has been associated with Kejriwal since the Anna Hazare-led India Against Corruption Movement in 2011.
In Gujarat, Chadha is involved in chalking out campaign strategy, media strategies and distribution of tickets — a set of tasks that has striking similarities with the role he essayed in Punjab where the AAP wrested 92 out of 117 seats in March.
Sandeep Pathak: ‘Expansion strategist’
A former professor in IIT-Delhi, Pathak is another Kejriwal aide spearheading the campaign in Gujarat and overseeing preparations in Himachal Pradesh. Pathak, who has been with the AAP since its formation in 2012, was more of a back-end strategist working closely with Kejriwal. Pathak shot to fame after he was appointed as a Rajya Sabha member from Punjab — which, according to several AAP functionaries, was a reward for the work he had done in the state ahead of the polls.
A key strategist in AAP’s larger nationwide expansion plan, 43-year-old Pathak is primarily in charge of surveys as well as expanding the party’s support base in Gujarat. The Rajya Sabha MP is also involved in chalking out campaign strategy and media strategy in Himachal Pradesh where polling will take place on 12 November.
Gopal Italia: ‘Gujarat point man’
Prior to his foray into politics, Italia used to work as a constable and later as a clerk in Gujarat’s revenue department. In 2015, he caught the eye of Kejriwal for his role in the Hardik Patel-led Patidar agitation. Italia was already a popular political activist in Gujarat when he joined the AAP in 2020.
Currently, the 33-year-old is Kejriwal’s points person in Gujarat. He now oversees the key role of fundraising, organising public meetings and expanding the volunteer base of the party. Italia is the person who makes sure that the strategies approved by the party’s high command in Delhi are implemented on the ground in Gujarat.
Under Italia’s leadership, the AAP won 27 seats in the Surat municipal polls last year.
Italia is currently at the centre of a controversy after two undated videos of him surfaced last week. In one, he is allegedly heard making remarks about Modi that the National Commission for Women (NCW) chief dubbed “gender-biased, misogynist and condemnable”. In the other video, Italia purportedly appeals to Hindu women not to visit temples, terming them “places of exploitation”.
Isudan Gadhvi: ‘The advisor’
In Gujarat, 40-year-old Gadhvi was a popular face on television news in his role as the editor of VTV News, anchoring a popular show Mahamanthan. He joined the AAP in June 2021 and was soon appointed as the party’s national joint-general secretary and eventually given a post in its national executive — the AAP’s second highest decision-making body after the 11-member political affairs committee.
According to AAP sources, Gadhvi’s induction in AAP ahead of the Gujarat polls wasn’t much of a surprise for most party functionaries. “When it comes to Gujarat, Mr Gadhvi is the chief’s [Kejriwal] closest adviser. Being a journalist, he knows the pulse of the state and its politics,” said a senior AAP functionary.
Surjeet Thakur: ‘One man army in the hills’
Though Thakur joined the AAP in 2012, he was never in the close circles of its top leadership. His stock rose when the AAP was having trouble to steady the ship in Himachal Pradesh where the party was jolted twice in as many months.
The party received a setback when its key leaders, who had been associated with the AAP for about eight years and were preparing for campaign, joined the BJP in April.
The entire Himachal mission fell on Delhi Health Minister Satyendar Jain and Durgesh Pathak, one of Kejriwal’s close aides. But Jain was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate in May in a money laundering case. He is still in jail.
In June, Pathak became MLA from Delhi’s Rajendra Nagar constituency, which was left vacant after Raghav Chadha entered the Rajya Sabha. These developments left the Himachal unit virtually leader-less.
“Choosing a point man in Himachal Pradesh became a massive challenge and the Punjab unit had to be given charge of the state for some time. That is when Surjeet Thakur’s name was shortlisted,” said a senior AAP leader.
Thakur is a sociology graduate and holds a hotel management degree. Over the past few years, he was working with farmers in Himachal. “The party needed someone who could appeal to the youth as well as rural masses. Thakur fitted the role that way,” the AAP leader said.
In Himachal, Thakur has been acting as a “one man army”, spearheading the AAP campaign for around three months now. Last week, Punjab minister Harjot Singh Bains was appointed as state in charge to oversee affairs on behalf of the AAP central leadership.
(Edited by Tony Rai)
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