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In Goa, AAP 2.0 Banks on Utopian Freebies and the ‘Bhandari’ Factor

From offering freebies to banking on a Bhandari CM face, how prepared is the Aam Aadmi Party for battlefield 2022?

Updated
Opinion
8 min read
In Goa, AAP 2.0 Banks on Utopian Freebies and the ‘Bhandari’ Factor
i

As the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) prepares to contest an assembly election in Goa for the second time, it comes to the electoral battlefield 2022, better prepared, with a new formula, and a fresh approach.

The AAP in 2017 contested 39 of the 40 seats in the Goa election and managed to pick up 6.27% (or 57,420 votes totally) of the vote share -- a decent percentage for a new party in the fray at the time. Despite this, it was unable to win a single seat, with almost all of its candidates but one, losing their deposits. As a result, the party is not yet a recognised state party and remains so only in Delhi and Punjab thus far.

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AAP 2.0: What Has Changed Since 2017?

In the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, AAP once again fared badly; both candidates for the north and south Goa parliamentary seats lost their deposits. They polled fewer votes (25,647) than their candidates did in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll (27,103), when the party first made its electoral debut in Goa. After that debacle, the AAP leaders rued that the Goan voter was obsessed with the Congress and the BJP, signalled it would rethink its Goa thrust, and the party's leadership returned to the drawing board.

An improved performance in the December 2020 Zila Panchayat (ZP) elections, where the party garnered a 15% vote share, and its first single seat in the 50 member ZP, however renewed its central leadership's interest in the state. Since then it has altered its approach, trying a deft hand at social engineering among Goa's caste groups to tap into new social groups.

In preparation for 2022, the AAP has expanded its field of vision from the south Goa Catholic dominated strongholds of the Congress, that it de facto concentrated on in 2017, when it named the efficient and upright former bureaucrat and its convener at the time, Elvis Gomes, as the party's chief ministerial candidate. Moving away from focus on this segment, the AAP altered its earlier slogan of 'Goa for Goans' to 'Bodol Zai' (Konkani for 'We need Change').

In 2022, marking a shift in its targeted vote base and caste calculus, the party has announced lawyer Amit Palekar, who hails from the Bhandari community, as its chief ministerial candidate.

In a clear outreach to the state's sizeable Bhandari community of erstwhile traditional toddy tappers, AAP President and Delhi's Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal met Gomantak Bhandari Samaj leaders on a visit to Goa and promised greater representation in ticket distribution to the community. Bhandaris say they comprise 30% of the state's electorate, a figure contested by other Hindu communities. Their numbers, however, are significant.

With the party's outreach to the Bhandaris, and sensing the opportunity to leverage greater political space for its community, some Bhandari samaj leaders had made statements that they would support a party that gave them greater representation, setting the BJP and the AAP in a race to tap that vote.

The AAP has fielded 12 Bhandaris and went a step further to say its chief ministerial candidate would hail from the community, naming Palekar later. The politically aspirant Bhandaris are spread across all parties including Congress, BJP and MGP as well. Kerjriwal's gambit, however, of announcing that it would allot the CM's post to a Bhandari, and the deputy CM's post to a Catholic in a potential AAP government, was an attempt to tap into both communities combined presence of 60% of the state. It is also a way to project that both these communities were sometimes left out of the CM position.

In November 2021, Delhi's Deputy CM Manish Sisodia shook up Goa's political landscape and rattled especially the BJP, when he told the media that “...Arvind Kejriwal visited Goa several times in the last few months. A very important thing has come to the fore from his visits. In 60 years, there were 13 CMs. Among them were people from the Brahmin, Gomantak Maratha, Maratha and Catholic communities. However, the Bhandari community which accounts for 30% of the population of Goa, had only one CM from the Bhandari samaj and that is Ravi Naik."

Sisoida added, "He (Naik) was the CM for only two and a half years. That is, in 60 years, a Bhandari did not become the CM even once for a full five-year term. To remove this injustice, we will have a person from the Bhandari samaj as the CM".

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AAP's strategy of honing in on disgruntled and sidelined caste groupings was evident in the revamp of its state committee in September 2020. The Elvis Gomes team was replaced by a new team under chartered accountant Rahul Mhambre, a Gaud Saraswat Brahmin (GSBs), marking a strategic outreach to this segment.

How the AAP Became Home To Disgruntled BJP & Congress Cadre

After the demise of its prominent Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, the BJP Goa leadership, in a bid to woo back Hindu OBC segments that had voted against it in 2017, began replacing Parrikar's key GSB appointees in the government.

Wading into that fissure, Sisodia in April 2021, pointedly said that members of the BJP who believed in Parrikar's vision, development plank, and ideology were being "insulted and sidelined". "I am appealing to all the BJP workers who were with Parrikar to join us and we will fulfill his dream", he had said.

In yet another significant shift from its 2017 formula, when the party had fielded mainly activists, social workers, professionals, and political newbies --- AAP's footwork this time, marks a decided political maturity. "This time round, AAP has picked up a number of candidates with political muscle, not just the common man, as it did last time. Political co-ordinators sent to Goa from Delhi two years ago have identified a dozen second and third rung former BJP leaders," said one political journalist.

This became easy, as the BJP cadre scattered and grew disgruntled with the large scale import of defections from the Congress and the MGP into their party in 2019. AAP strategists were the first to tap into the BJP karyakartas' resentment in August 2020 and poach from this disgruntled BJP cadre. Prominent among them are former BJP industries minister Mahadev Naik and more recently BJP ex-MLA, Alina Saldanha, besides several of the BJP's 2017 runner-up candidates displaced by the Congress entrants.

A few Congress rebels, social workers and some original members make up the rest of its candidate list. Kejriwal's latest offer of an AAP ticket to BJP rebel Utpal Parrikar, Manohar Parrikar's son, was in keeping with the AAP strategy this poll.

Like the Trinamool Congress, a three-term win for Kejriwal in Delhi, has similarly set off a renewed expansion mission in the five states going to polls. Its footprint in Goa began when green activists such as Dr Oscar Rebello, musician Remo Fernandes, environmentalist Dr Claude Alvares and Dr Dattaram Desai adopted the party as a new hope.

From Freebies to Pilgrimage Plans: What Will Work and What Won't?

From 2014, when the AAP contested the Lok Sabha polls and first entered the political fray in Goa, its progress has been both slow and steady in a state, where the Congress and the BJP are political behemoths. With its 6.27% vote share in 2017, the AAP may have chipped off vote share from the Congress but this time it is attempting to gnaw into the BJP vote-bank as well, setting off a fresh worry for the latter party, that in 2022 faces high anti-incumbency and a split from its erstwhile regional saffron minor partner, the MGP.

Kejriwal has made several visits to the state. He is personally monitoring Goa, and hit the campaign trail, going door to door in some villages, besides making a concerted outreach to disgruntled tourist taxi operators.

AAP strategists in Goa have been making all the politically agile moves this past year --- targeting village WhatsApp groups to identify and address village-level issues, door to door outreaches with some 4,000 volunteers and event managing teams, taking its main selling point --- promising a rerun of its Delhi model of health and education infrastructure upgrades, free electricity and free water supply --- to households in Goa.

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The 13 points and guarantees of Kejriwal's Goa model promises include almost socialist Utopian ideals of employment for all (or a dole of Rs 3,000 a month), granting land rights, education revolution ( free high quality education from birth to graduation), health revolution (free healthcare for all in high-quality hospitals and mohalla clinics), solution to farmers' issues, corruption-free and honest governance, start mining (or paying Rs 5,000/month to mining ban), fix roads, boost trade, boost tourism, Rs 1,000 a month to women, 24x7 300 units of free electricity and 24x7 free water.

Kejriwal's offer of free pilgrimages to Ayodhya, Shirdi, Velankanni and Ajmer Sharif, drew a similar competitive promise from the BJP. The party's move to appease religious sentiments, however, struck a negative note.

Like all parties, the AAP displayed agility in distributing rations, meals, oxygen and oximeters during the COVID waves. Political watchers agreed that its very young team of professionals and volunteers are relentless experimenters, run sophisticated social media campaigns, and are quick on the uptake. Though this can sometimes run to the gimmicky -- as did a recent hunger strike by its CM face that ended up angering genuine activists protesting an illegal construction in the sacred Catholic Old Goa church site.

Is TMC's Entry in Goa Proving to 'Advantage AAP'?

As the BJP, Congress, and TMC all granted tickets to couples and families this poll, the AAP can present itself as different -- with new and untested faces. Making an appeal to Goans to give it a chance, elect its clean, honest candidates for a corruption-free, progressive government, the AAP has been tearing into the BJP for its corruption, and the Congress for its MLAs selling out to the BJP.

A vote for the Congress is a vote for the BJP, is the AAP's slogan in Goa.

For all it's considerable effort though, including managing to keep itself in the media spotlight, the AAP has found it difficult to penetrate voter acceptability, though analysts agree the quality of its pitch and press conferences are high.

"Goa's politics is completely personality driven. It has nothing to do with schemes, promises, marketing or anything. The heavyweight politicians in every segment gravitate to the major parties, whom they perceive enjoys a better voter preference and chance of winning that election. And major parties chase those heavyweight politicians, to garner their winning numbers. That is the way it works in Goa," says political commentator and lawyer Cleofato Almeida Coutinho. He reckons the AAP has reasonable chances in three-five seats in 2022, and will do considerably better than its 2017 performance, if it can overcome the negative prism of being seen as a party from Delhi attempting to make inroads into Goa.

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This time round, AAP has actually benefited from the TMC's aggressive attack attempting to weaken the principal opposition, Congress, in Goa. Accusations of being the B-team of the BJP, and fracturing the secular anti-BJP vote has this time round, stuck more against the TMC, in the ugly contest between the TMC and Congress in Goa.

Cognizant of the overcrowded, disunited opposition space, and fear and anger among Goa's electorate who desire a regime change from 10 years of BJP rule --- the AAP threw in its counterbalancing proposition to duck mounting public resentment on this count.

"If Goa gives a fractured mandate that requires a coalition, then we are ready to think of a coalition with a non-BJP party. This is only if the need arises," Kejriwal announced during his 17 January visit to the state. He categorically ruled out a pre-poll alliance with any party --- a signature AAP move.

(Pamela D'Mello is an independent journalist based in Goa. She has been widely published in Scroll.in, Mongabay, Huffington Post, BBC, Deccan Herald, The Asian Age, Telegraph, Associated Press, Frontline, EPW, Down to Earth, The Hindu among others. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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