On a blistering Sunday afternoon in Panaji, established national parties and the myriad regional outfits in Goa felt the heat following an impressive rally by the Aam Aadmi Party. As rivals reeled from the scale and organisation of the May 22 event, AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal, who is Delhi's chief minister, formally announced that the party would contest all 40 seats in next year’s elections for the Goa Assembly.
Though AAP is clearly just testing the political waters in the state, both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party were stung into a response by noon the next day.
The state unit of the ruling BJP dared Kejriwal to bring concrete cases of corruption before the state Lokayukta. The party also suggested that AAP make public detailed accounts of the money spent on Sunday’s massive rally, where it was clear that no expense had been spared. The BJP went on to accuse the Delhi chief minister of “insulting Goans” for suggesting that the state’s tourism was renowned for “sex, drugs and gambling”.
Leaders of the opposition Congress also hit out at Kejriwal, pointing out that while he had spoken about corruption during the BJP’s four-year reign in Goa, the state unit of AAP had neither exposed nor taken on the state government on these issues. A Congress spokesperson accused AAP of becoming active only months before an election year.
While Sunday’s mega rally ruffled the feathers of the major players, Goa’s regional parties had started to feel AAP’s presence much earlier. In the weeks running up to Kejriwal’s rally, supporters of regional fronts such as Goa Forward, United Goans Democratic Party, Goa Suraj Party, and several newer formations, had engaged in a war of words on social media.
AAP was labelled as an outsider to Goan politics, yet another “national”, New Delhi-based political formation imposing itself on the small coastal state, with a limited understanding of local realities.
For all its mobilisation, it is this outsider tag that might well be the biggest challenge for the Aam Aadmi Party in Goa to shake off. The state is already painfully conscious about its shrinking “native” numbers and emotive issues over identity, language, migration, shifting land ownership for “outsiders” and demands for special status take precedence.
It did not help that AAP’s first major political meeting was almost an all-Hindi affair, where slogans such as Bharat Mata ki Jai and Vande Mataram raised a language and cultural pitch devoid of the state's Konkani and Marathi ethos, something which parties like the Congress and BJP take particular care to incorporate and emphasise.
In addition, the overwhelming presence of outstation volunteers and supporters that AAP brought in to bolster its limited local presence and organisational muscle soon became fodder for its detractors. However, there was considerable participation from the largely Christian pockets of North and South Goa.
To boost its connection with the local population in the Konkani-speaking state, the party needs powerful local orators and leaders, an element which was missing at Sunday’s rally. The absence of outspoken activist Oscar Rebello was certainly felt. Rebello has been a consistent supporter and prominent party face since AAP’s inception, but is reluctant to dive into electoral politics.
With Rebello out of the picture, some sections of the state unit have discussed journalist Rajdeep Sardesai as a possible chief ministerial candidate. While Sardesai has denied any immediate interest in entering politics, his presence at Kejriwal’s rally, albeit in the press area, has further fueled speculation. Sardesai told Scroll.in that too much was being read into the matter, adding that he was in the state to receive the Goan of the Year award from a local publication.
AAP’s foray into Goa makes sense for a party wanting to grow its presence outside Delhi. It’s a manageable experiment, given that Goa is a small state. In addition, there is current widespread disaffection against both the BJP and the Congress in the state. As the BJP battles anti-incumbency, the Congress is waiting in the wings to return to power in Goa, but is grappling with internal leadership squabbles and negative media coverage. This presents an opportunity for AAP to present itself as a viable alternative.
Its hoardings have called for a political revolution and there are early indications that the party will use the organisational experience gained in Delhi to its advantage in Goa.
State in-charge Pankaj Gupta has virtually camped in Goa over the past six months, slowly building the party’s organisational base and extending its reach with the help of local, village-level civic activists and the intelligentsia. Door-to-door campaigns and a concerted effort to draw in middle class women appears to be working in AAP’s favour. The party has also found support from disgruntled sections of educated youth, who are attracted to AAP’s anti-corruption plank in a state where corruption is rife, government jobs are allegedly sold, and cliques and political patronage are more beneficial than merit.
While it would appear that its local supporter base is still small, AAP is promising to ramp up its presence in the coming months. For starters, Kejriwal is expected to visit the state more frequently. But it remains to be seen if the party will makes waves given that the BJP and the Congress are firmly established here and regional parties have pockets of carefully cultivated voter bases. The party also faces the challenge of steering the discourse towards its USP of anti-corruption in a state where local issues currently dominate the discourse.
Anti-corruption is its comfort zone, but the party will at some point have to take a stand on some of Goa’s more vexed, intractable and divisive issues such as mining, casinos and language, all of which have singed every ruling political party in the past. This will be key to its prospects of being more than just a peripheral player in the state.
Ultimately, if AAP has to maintain the momentum created through Sunday’s rally, it will have to etch out its local presence, not just in organisational skill but also in ideological clarity.