Can India’s AAP repeat success outside Delhi?

Anti-corruption party tries to make inroads into Gurgaon as mainstream parties face scrutiny over past performance.

Caste and religion still dominate the poll-scape in Gurgaon as well as the rest of India [Baba Umar/Al Jazeera]

Gurgaon, Haryana – Agriculturist Raam Swarup, 65, lives in an expansive house in Haryana, one of the wealthiest states of India. But, something as simple as having a reliable water supply, good roads and electricity is hard to get.

“Everyday electricity and water play hide and seek with us. You can see for yourself the condition of the roads,” he tells Al Jazeera.

His village of Rewari, about 90km southwest of the capital, New Delhi, has been facing a much larger problem for years now: acquisition of their farmlands by the government on what he calls “paltry” compensation.

Swarup like many other farmers in the region alleges that their lands have been handed over to corporations and industries at what he says are “throwaway” prices.

He has always voted for the ruling Congress, but this time around, he is looking forward to vote for a new entrant, the Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man Party), which has vowed to break up the “politician-corporate” nexus – one of the main election issues in this region.

“The land acquisition process will be started afresh to protect the interest of farmers and we will compensate them satisfactorily,” Yogendra Yadav, AAP’s candidate from Gurgaon constituency (of which Rewari is a part) declared recently.

Yogendra, whose nearly two-year-old party won a surprise election for the New Delhi assembly last December on an anti-corruption plank, is making a debut in the dusty hinterland of India’s politics.

A three-wheeler draped in banners – showing Yogendra with a broom (the party’s election symbol) – has been fitted with a loudspeaker that blares out “Vote for Yogendra bhai” relentlessly here in Sohna town, north of Gurgaon.

Yogendra – a tall man with a thin frame and sporting an unkempt beard – comes out of his vehicle to enter shop after shop. He greets the common man and for every handshake he is draped with flower garlands with the promise that he would be voted to power.

“I would advocate the common man’s voice in parliament,” he tells the shopkeepers and street vendors.

Caste religion dominance

AAP is steadily making inroads into the newly developed financial and industrial centre of Gurgaon – also known as India’s Millennium City.

We’ve nothing to do with the Congress. We chose Congress in the assembly elections but their leaders never visited us or listened to our pleas. But our votes will protest now.

by - Ikram Bai, 28-year-old farmer

Yogendra’s candidacy from Gurgaon has been generating a lot of buzz on social media, but questions are being asked whether he will be able to strike a chord with the rural voters.

Gurgaon is a burgeoning city dotted with offices of multinational corporations with high-rise apartments and penthouses, but like the rest of India, caste and religion still dominate the poll-scape of the city.

“My vote will go to whomever my community chooses,” says Aangoor Devi, 60, who sells earthenware in Sohna.

Devi, who comes from kumhaar caste (potters) says caste decides a voter’s preference in her area.

On April 10, when Gurgaon constituency goes to polls, she might not vote for the AAP candidate, who is fighting on the plank of ending corruption and crony capitalism, but that does not stop her from putting a marigold garland around Yogendra’s neck when he campaigned in her hometown.

To counter the AAP candidate, the ruling Congress party and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) both have fielded Yadav, a pastoral community which makes up a sizable section of the 1.8 million electorate, candidates. 

Mewat vote

The Indian Lok Dal party (INLD), another strong contender in the district, has fielded a Muslim candidate, Zakir Hussain, to tap into the more than 400,000 Muslim votes in the constituency.

In India, where voters have a common complaint that their representatives never look back after the elections are over, Yogendra is promising them a share in every decision made.

“I would not claim to bring wonders. But if you people elect me, I promise that whatever issues I would take up in the parliament, I would be holding discussions and building a consensus with you first,” Yogendra tells a packed gathering in Yogendra village of Mewat, an underdeveloped Muslim region.

For many Muslims in Mewat, the religious identity of the candidate is more important than the party affiliations.

Mewat – a combination of a rustic area and a primitive ghetto – seems to have remained unaffected by years of growth and development. Its residents are mostly illiterate and make a living out of farming or daily labour.

“[INLD] candidate comes from our area. He is a Muslim. Why won’t we vote for him?” says Fajrudin Khan, 43, a Meo Muslim, which is a Muslim Rajput community from northwest India.

However, what does not serve Hussain’s cause is that his party has announced its support for nationalist BJP and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi – seen as a divisive figure and criticised for his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots that left more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead.

This has given AAP’s Yogendra a motivation to further up its ante in Mewat.

Fajrudin Khan (left) with Ikram Bai (middle) and another villager in Mewat [Baba Umar/ Al Jazeera]

The former psephologist asked the Meo Muslims to look back at history, when Hasan Khan of Mewat, a Muslim Rajput, joined forces with Hindu warrior Rana Sangha to defend the area from the invading armies of another Muslim ruler Babar – a veiled reference to Modi, who Yadav said promotes “divisive policies”.

“Muslims of Mewat are part of Hindustan, (India). That’s why (Mahatma) Gandhi also came to Mewat to stop Muslims from migrating to Pakistan in 1947,” Yogendra says. “We must reject communalism.”

But Meos say they are wary of “election-time promises” that are never kept.

“Previous government[s] promised us colleges, pure drinking water, and good roads but nothing happened after the elections. Our fields were acquired but the compensation was insignificant,” says Mubarak Ali, a daily wager.

Ikram Bai, a 28-year-old farmer, said that Congress’ ‘anti-farmers’ policy would cost it dear.

“Our prime agricultural lands have been acquired by the government for industrial purposes for a paltry compensation,” Bai says.

Back in Rewari, Swarup says he has hopes for AAP.

“It has promised to end the farmer’s miseries. AAP is taking corporations head-on which no one has dared so far,” he says.

While Yogendra seeks to cut into the Congress pie and halt the BJP wave in Gurgaon, his supporters say at least an alternate and substitute for all parties has come to Gurgaon after decades – a statement supporters of other parties deny publicly, but accept in private.

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Source: Al Jazeera