In BJP stronghold of Rajkot, Arvind Kejriwal throws down gauntlet

In the first public meeting organised exclusively by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) since 2016 in Gujarat, Arvind Kejriwal mixed populism with politics, religion with promises of education and health, and seemed to draw a good response with his attacks on the BJP.

Held in Rajkot on May 11, the meeting drew enough of a turnout for AAP Gujarat unit chief Gopal Italia to proclaim: “We can be proud that we did not ride government buses to reach there but came on our own to listen to Kejriwal.”

This was the third rally in Gujarat by Kejriwal, the AAP national convenor, in quick succession, after a Tiranga Yatra in Ahmedabad in March and a tribal sammelan with Chhotu Vasava of the Bharatiya Tribal Party in Bharuch on May 1.

AAP had got a big boost in Rajkot last month with the entry of former Congress MLA from Rajkot (East) Indranil Rajyaguru. With declared assets of Rs 123 crore in 2012, Rajyaguru was at the time the richest MLA in the state Assembly. Rajyaguru joined AAP along with two of the four sitting Congress corporators in the Rajkot Municipal Corporation, Vashram Sagathiya and Komal Bharai.

At the Rajkot meeting, Rajyaguru featured as big as Kejriwal in the giant hoarding forming the backdrop of the stage.

The former MLA talked about his contribution to the region, while addressing Kejriwal as “sir”. “I want to tell you a story. When democracy was invented, everyone was holed up in a well. People came out climbing one another’s shoulders. I was among the first few to come out. Many who did so subsequently marched on, earned some money and became middle-class people. But, despite getting everything, I stayed put near the well, to haul over those still inside. Thus, I remained in politics,” said Rajyaguru.

AAP leaders said Rajyaguru joining had helped the party. Ajit Lokhil, organisational secretary of AAP’s Gujarat unit, said: “We wanted to hold an Arvind Kejriwal meeting in Rajkot (for long), but things started taking shape only after May 3.” Calling AAP a movement, he claimed that 25,000 people had attended the meeting, 70% of them from Rajkot city.

A city with a strong presence of the RSS, Rajkot has long been controlled by the BJP, both via its municipal corporation and its three Assembly seats, which were all held by the party for a long time. It was from Rajkot West (previously known as Rajkot-II) that Narendra Modi had contested his maiden election in 2001 to enter the Gujarat Assembly. Vijay Rupani too had won a bypoll to Rajkot West in 2014 before becoming a minister and subsequently CM in 2016.

Kejriwal promised that if voted to power, an AAP government would take every elderly of Gujarat on a pilgrimage to Ayodhya, and assure improved government schools, better hospitals and more employment opportunities for youth.

Save C R Paatil, the Gujarat BJP president, Kejriwal didn’t name any other politician in his speech, while claiming that irrespective of who sits in the Chief Minister’s Office in Gujarat, it is Navsari MP Paatil who runs the government. He termed the Congress the “little sister” of the BJP and asked people not to trust it either. He drew the loudest response when he asked all those who thought “CR Paatil was a thug” to raise their hands.

At his hotel, he received a delegation of those associated with the ceramic industry in Morbi.

In the audience, Kejriwal’s message of schools and hospitals struck a resonance, more than the Ayodhya promise. “Congress bhangi gai chhee (has imploded) and it is important to help Kejriwal win for the sake of my grandchildren. I have faith, he can do good. But it will be okay if he fails to do so as that is what I have seen all my life,” said Magan Vadher, 70, a retired factory worker from Shapar-Veraval industrial cluster on the outskirts of Rajkot, who has always voted for the Congress.

Mangala Muliyana, 67, a homemaker from Gandhigram area of Rajkot, said the Congress’s days were over. “Look, there are only the mother-son duo (of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi) left in that party… The broom of AAP will win now,” said Muliyana, whose son Deepak, a printing press owner, was a Congress worker but defected to AAP three years ago.

Manoj Khambhla, a maldhari (cattle-herder) from the city, said he had also changed his loyalty. “The BJP has enacted the new cattle law and is not allowing us maldaris to keep cattle in the city. How are we to earn our living and fund our children’s education?” said the 42-year-old, whose two daughters study in government-supported schools.

The BJP refused to talk about the meeting, suggesting that it was not worth spending time on.

Congress leaders brushed aside the meeting. “Everyone knows that AAP works as the ‘B’ team of BJP. That said, there is no space for a third political party in Gujarat. Even former chief minister Keshubhai Patel tried to launch a third front but failed miserably,” said Ashok Dangar, general secretary of the Gujarat PCC.

On the crowd at Kejriwal’s meeting, Dangar ironically cited the size of the rallies held by Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in Uttar Pradesh. “They used to draw crowds larger than Narendra Modi’s rallies, and yet we couldn’t do well there. If you arrange a meal and invite people, naturally people will throng to your meeting.”

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