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'India has changed after AAP emerged'

May 15, 2014 13:29 IST

Arvind Kejriwal and other AAP leaders in Varanasi on March 25, 2014. Photograph: Sandeep Pal'The BJP used to be a party of decent, Hindu, middle-class people. Today, it is a party of goons. At the ground level, goons beat you up and at the senior level, the intellectuals justify the beating up.'

'On May 13, one boy sent me an SMS at 2.35 am: "Mayank sir, only five seats, what will happen?" There will be a lot of these idealist kids who want that quick transformation that may not happen. We will have to mentor them. We will have to explain to them that nations cannot be changed like that.'

Six-and-a-half kilos lighter, a stubble, a blue kurta that has seen better days and the experience of a hard-fought election at the national level...

Aam Aadmi Party leader Mayank Gandhi, who contested the election against Congress heavyweight Gurudas Kamat, was returning to Mumbai after camping in Varanasi since May 7.

During the flight back, he agreed for a quick interview.

Unlike Manish Sisodia, who insisted the AAP was able to counter the bhagoda accusation levelled against Arvind Kejriwal, Gandhi says it was one of the questions the AAP was constantly confronted with during this election.

India, he believes, would have to be prepared for more than a few jolts under the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. Gandhi, right, below, explored the future of the Aam Aadmi party and shared the lessons the Aam Aadmi Party has learnt from Election 2014 with Savera R Someshwar/

What do you think is going to happen on May 16?

I think the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) will form the government, led by Modi.

The UPA (United Progressive Alliance) will be in a bad state and the Aam Aadmi Party would get a fair number of seats, enough to make a difference.

The exit polls...

They are giving us about 5 to 10 seats. I think it may be better than that, but 5 to 10 is not a small number for a fractured mandate in a first election (for the AAP).

The thought process the AAP is talking about has found a place in the hearts and minds of the people.

Maybe we were not able to convince voters that we would be able to become a serious contender.

Modi marketed himself very well. There is a great amount of hope from him. Let the country go through a 'Modi phase'. Let his promises be exposed.

The reality will set in.

There is an opium cloud of falsehood that everyone is living in, believing something great is going to happen.

I hope something great happens but, if it does not, then here is a good chance for the AAP to be a serious candidate next time. We will also get the time to organise ourselves better.

Did you at any point expect the kind of response you got in Varanasi?

We knew if all of us go there and campaign, we will be able to make people aware of our views and the issues we are talking about. We were able to do that quite well.

The response to Arvind's (Kejriwal) rally was phenomenal.

It was a one-way fight until the last 10, 12 days (in favour of Modi), then it became a serious fight between Arvind and Modi.

It is very clear the Modi is going to win Varanasi.

I am not so sure about that.

It's a tough fight. I don't think Modi's win is a forgone conclusion.

There can be a major surprise. Whoever wins or loses, it is not going to be by a major margin.

What have you have learnt after fighting this election?

We are a new organisation. We didn't have assembly level, ward level, polling booth level management. All the people who came to us were all people who had not been part of politics before.

It will take us some time to build that complete network, right till the bottom. We need to work on it as fast as possible because, finally, we are in politics and we need to keep on fighting elections.

Without this structure, it is difficult to fight elections.

The Aam Aadmi Party knew that it is not going to make a great impact in this election in terms of seats. Did the AAP contest in order to understand how to fight an election? Was this an effective marketing strategy to increase awareness about the AAP before the assembly elections that will follow this year?

Fighting this election allowed us to build up the organisation in all the 420 seats that we contested.

It allowed us to percolate downwards and also get an understanding of the kind of support we have.

We were able to challenge big leaders who had criminal backgrounds, were communal or corrupt. We served notice to them that we were going to take them on and give an option to the people to vote for those who were clean and honest.

Aam Aadmi Party leader Mayank Gandhi

What kind of a result are you expecting in your constituency, Mumbai North West?

I have fought hard, I have fought honestly and I have fought the best.

Now, I will accept whatever people decide.

But, again, we had some serious drawbacks when it came to managing the polling booths. We don't pay money. And poll booth managers charge about Rs 2,000 per head.

If you look at Kamath, he had I think 9,000 people. So he spent Rs 1.80 crores (Rs 18 million) on just poll booth management when the entire election budget is Rs 70 lakhs (Rs 7 million).

They use a lot of things which we cannot bring ourselves to do. We don't think that is right.

Do you feel the lack of having enough money impacted the AAP campaign?

It has.

We only took official money.

The limit that has been set by the Election Commission has been unfair to people who want to fight honestly.

People who want to fight dishonestly don't mind if the limit is Rs 70 lakh or Rs 20 lakh (Rs 2 million).

In an electorate of 20 lakh people, Rs 70 lakh come to about Rs 3.50 per head. You can't go and reach out to the people with such low amounts.

Did you get enough money?

In my constituency, we got adequate money, but most of the constituencies had a lot of problems.

I know candidates who have fought with Rs 3 lakh (Rs 300,000) and Rs 2 lakh (Rs 200,000). You cannot reach out to 20 lakh people with 2, 3, 4, 10 lakhs.

That is an area we need to focus more on... to get honest funds from people.

Also, an atmosphere of fear has set in that if you give money, then you will be targeted, which makes a lot of people who want to give money afraid.

What did you think about Modi's campaign?

I thought it was a smart campaign.

It did a lot of positive things for the party, because it talked of a decisiveness which was missing for the last 10 years. The electorate got fooled by these kinds of dreams.

But there was no discussion on issues. The election was personality-driven -- it was about how Rahul Gandhi is, about how Sonia Gandhi is, about how Modi is.

For the last few years, we have been talking about issues such as corruption and price rise; nobody talked about that. Nobody talked about the issues facing the country; nobody talked about solutions.

I was very surprised that the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), which is against personality-driven politics, was supporting a Modi government instead of a BJP government.

In a way, a lot of people compromised on their principles for power.

The Maharashtra election is scheduled to take place in a few months. What are the lessons that you have learnt in the national election that you will apply to the Maharashtra election?

We are better off as far as the Maharashtra elections are concerned because we now have the structure in place. We have polling booth agents, we have covered every ward and every assembly seat; everyone is in place. We don't have to start from scratch.

Also, this time, many of the candidates got selected very late. For the assembly elections, we are going to start fixing up candidates much earlier.

We have more women candidates than any other party, but I still felt that was inadequate. We need more women candidates, more minority candidates, more backward class candidates -- the mix of candidates needs to improve.

We need to focus more on collecting funds. Most of this will depend on the results of the general election and the kind of promises that we make.

We will have to select issues that touch the heart of Maharashtra. We fought much of this election around the question mark that cropped up after we resigned from the Delhi government... it was more about that than being Maharashtra-centric.

Now we need to focus on Maharashtra and its issues.

How badly did the fact that your government in Delhi ran for only 49 days affect you?

It did impact the elections.

Many of your supporters were disappointed by that decision.

I agree. But if Arvind had not left the government, they would have accused him of lusting after power. That, even though the Jan Lokpal was not passed, he was still holding onto power.

If he had not brought in the Lok Pal, they would have accused him of protecting (former Delhi chief minister) Sheila Dixit.

A smear campaign was run brilliantly against us by the people who called us bhagoda (someone who runs away when faced with a difficult situation). There was no way we could be right.

But I don't think there was any bhagoda.

Do you think the AAP made a mistake in deciding to run the government in Delhi?

No, I think our decision to form the government was correct.

The decision to quit the government was also correct.

But we should have spent more days in explaining our reasons. We should probably have taken a referendum about leaving the government. We did not engage the people enough before taking such a major decision.

What do you think are the changes the AAP has managed to bring into the system?

A tremendous amount of changes, I think.

This country has changed after the AAP emerged. Look at the questions that are being raised, the issues that are being raised. In a way, it reminds me of the Green Party in Canada. It got eight per cent of the vote in the first election it fought. Today, it gets about less than a quarter per cent, but its agenda has been picked up by the mainstream political parties.

Our interest does not lie in forming a party and getting into power. Our goal is to change the way this country functions.

If we are able to achieve that, and I think a lot of it has been achieved -- many people have reduced VIP security, many are living simply, there is a lot of focus on corruption... people are asking questions.

The consciousness of people has changed after the AAP has come in.

Do you believe the AAP is slowly getting assimilated into the system? For example, you had fielded candidates who have cases registered against them. Arvind Kejriwal is yet to return the apartments that were allotted to him as chief minister.

As far as the criminals are concerned, we looked at each and every individual. There were either 15 or 17 who had serious cases and they were removed as candidates.

The others are all aandolan karis (protesters) who have cases filed against them for protests.

There is no criminal candidate in the party, I can say with certainty.

I am not really aware of the houses in Delhi, but I read somewhere that Arvind's daughter is having an exam and he is paying the rent for those flats. It is not as if he is staying free of charge.

The AAP supporters are completely...

Mad people (laughs).

Passionate about this country.

One guy, Amit, who was staying with me in Varanasi... the BJP goons caught him. They wanted him to remove his AAP cap and say Har Har Modi. Jo Hindu ki hitt mein baat karega, wohi desh mein raaj karega (Hail Modi. Only those who talk in favour of the Hindus will rule the nation).

He said, 'Tumko jitna maarna hai maar lo, main sirf Bharat Mata ki jai boloonga, Modi ki jai nahi boloonga. (Beat me up if you will, but I will only raise slogans for India, not Modi)'

He got beaten up four times during this election and now has a cast on his hand. These are kind of people we have...

The BJP used to be a party of decent, Hindu, middle-class people. Today, it is a party of goons. At the ground level these goons beat you up and at the senior level, the intellectuals justify the beating up.

I fear sometimes that maybe Hitler had followers like these.

I'm really not worried that Modi will come and be pro-Hindutva. But his supporters, the kind of goons that have been unleashed in this country, they will attack Muslims, cause riots, do hooliganism... That may lead to a lot of divisiveness.

It is a very sick mindset that I see in this country and that worries me tremendously.

This is not the country, not the Hindutva, this is not the pluralism that I was very proud of once.

AAP supporters are expecting a lot from the party. The exit polls say you may get 5 to 10 seats. Will that be a demoralising factor?

They are all young.

On May 13, one boy sent me an SMS at 2.35 am: 'Mayank sir, only five seats, what will happen?'

I called him and I talked to him but yes, there will be a lot of these idealist kids who have come in and want that quick transformation that may not happen.

We will have to mentor them. We will have to explain to them that nations cannot be changed like that.

You will have to go through that. You will have to go through all phases and you will have to fight till this country changes.

The vacuum that the Congress leaves behind because of its extremely poor leadership and its history of terrible governance in the past decade will soon be filled up by the AAP.

The AAP has a very good future. It is finally going to be AAP versus BJP. There will be two kinds of thought processes -- of Hindu supremacy versus the secular pluralist country.

I think there will be an electoral contest. Then we will see what happens.

Images: Top image: Arvind Kejriwal and other AAP leaders in Varanasi on March 25, 2014. Photograph: Sandeep Pal. Bottom image: AAP leader Mayank Gandhi.

Savera R Someshwar/ in Mumbai