When the Aam Aadmi Party contested the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Chhattisgarh, it lost its deposits in all 11 seats. Four years later, it contested the Assembly elections in 84 out of 90 seats and met the same fate.
Hoping to be third time lucky, the AAP plans to contest the Assembly elections in the State again later this year. Both its Chief Ministers — the party’s national convenor Arvind Kejriwal of Delhi and Punjab’s Bhagwant Mann — are scheduled to address workers in Raipur on March 5. A formal announcement on fighting the elections is also expected to be made there, according to the AAP’s State president Komal Hupendi, a former government official-turned-politician who has been with the party since 2016.
Mr. Hupendi says that the AAP will be able to make a mark, and even spring a surprise in the form of a “miraculous result” in the Assembly polls. His confidence, he says, hinges on two factors: “our own efforts into organisational overhaul and the changed circumstances in the State”.
Elaborating on the first point, Mr. Hupendi says that while local efforts have been ongoing since 2019, it is only in the past one year that the central leadership of the party, particularly the State in-charge and Delhi MLA Sanjeev Jha, have been taking a keener interest in the matters of Chhattisgarh. The result of this, he claims, is the strengthening of the organisational muscle it will need to pose a challenge in the bipolar politics of the State that is currently ruled by the Congress.
“The membership count stands at 3-4 lakh today and they are from all parts of the State. We have presidents and secretaries in all the districts, at Lok Sabha constituency level, and presidents at the block level. We have workers in the remotest village,” he says.
On the changed circumstances, Mr. Hupendi — who contested the 2018 Assembly elections and got 9,000 plus votes, the maximum for any AAP candidate — said that back then, the party had been in power in Delhi only for three years. However, it now has a “long governance record and delivery of promises” to show, he claims. Now ruling two States, the party is also seen as more resourceful than it was in the past.
“Also, the last time, BJP was in power for 15 years and people were more keen to vote them out than bringing in Congress, so the space for a third player was limited and we could only register our presence. This time it will be a more open election,” says the AAP leader.
Political commentator Uchit Sharma adds that despite the political stability and bipolar nature of the State’s politics, the third player has made its presence felt.
“The third player has been more of a spoiler. In 2003, it was the Nationalist Congress Party that got 7% of the vote, which upset the Congress’ apple-cart. In 2018, it was the Janata Congress Chhattisgarh (J) or JCC-J that received as much. In 2013, when the BJP won, only 96,000 votes separated it from the Congress. Again, in 2018, the gulf was really wide between the Congress (46 % vote share) and the BJP (32 %), but even then 22% of the votes were there for the taking. In the event of a closely contested election, a challenger could be a handful,” Mr. Sharma says.
The JCC-J was founded by the late former Chief Minister Ajit Jogi. It won five seats last time but has seen its MLAs leaving the party in recent times. Its internal strife has also provided a conducive ground for a new player to emerge, Mr. Sharma says.
Eyeing tribal votes
It is a commonly held perception — backed by a relative shift in vote shares — that in States such as Gujarat, Punjab or Delhi, where the AAP has made an impact, it has mostly been at the cost of the Congress. It is reliably learnt that in Chhattisgarh, too, the party is eyeing the Satnami and tribal vote bank which currently supports the State’s ruling party.
As the elections draw closer, the Sarv Aadivasi Samaj (SAS), has also emerged as a challenger for the State’s tribal votes. In the recent Bhanupratappur byelections, the 20,000 votes received by the SAS were dubbed as a cause of concern for the Congress and the BJP by observers. However, the JCCJ and the AAP had kept out of those elections and it is believed that their votes were transferred to the SAS.
For its part, the Congress — which is much stronger in Chhattisgarh than in other States where the AAP has eaten into its vote share — dismisses the challenge.
“People here recognise only hand or lotus [the election symbols of the Congress and the BJP respectively]. There is no room for any third player to emerge. Also, do they have issues that will make the voters take them seriously?” says Dhananjay Singh Thakur, the Congress spokesperson in the State.
The BJP’s Ajay Chandrakar, a former minister, expresses similar views on the lack of issues or narrative by the AAP, but adds that if it has any impact at all, the AAP would harm the Congress more than the BJP. “History suggests that they have harmed the Congress wherever they have gone. So if they are holding a workers’ conclave in Chhattisgarh, it is the Congress that should be worried,” he says.
Mr. Hupendi says that the party’s focus for now is to corner the ruling Congress on its unfulfilled election promises. “Now that the elections are approaching, the government is talking about unemployment allowance that was in its manifesto the last time. What were they doing for four years? And even now, the announcement is said to have several riders rather than benefitting everyone who is unemployed. Similarly, their claims on providing waivers on electricity bills [a key plank for the AAP in Delhi] also have caveats. We want to go to the voters with the message that when we say something, we do it and do not keep them in the dark,” he says.
Efforts were made to reach out to AAP leaders in Delhi, including Mr. Jha, to understand how Chhattisgarh figures in the party’s wider schemes, but they remained unavailable for comment.