The Aam Aadmi Party’s Gujarat president Gopal Italia is a former constable and state secretariat clerk who was also associated with Hardik Patel-led Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS). Before he joined the Arvind Kejriwal-led partyItalia made the news for hurling a shoe at the former state Home Minister Pradipsinh Jadeja in protest against alleged corruption.
With six months left for the Assembly elections, Italia has a lot of ground to cover while maintaining a balance between party loyalists and new arrivals. In an interview, he talks to The Indian Express about the party’s efforts to carve out a third front in Gujarat, Hardik Patel joining the BJP, and why he thinks it is an honor for the AAP to have the ruling party hold a “grudge” against it. Following are the excerpts:
The BJP has been in power for the past 27 years in Gujarat. Their poll pitch is Hindutva and governance. The Congress has time-tested social engineering politics. What is the AAP’s politics here?
Italy: Our politics is our uniqueness. We have real issues such as education, healthcare, electricity, and regular water supply to do politics on. How will the common man benefit from the polarisation and social engineering politics of the BJP and the Congress? For ages, these parties have pitted one community against other for their political gains. We are offering something that none of these two parties have — ‘kaam ki rajniti (politics of work)’.
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Gujarat is a border state with India’s longest coastline. If chosen to power tomorrow, do you think the AAP will be able to form an amicable relationship with the Centre, especially in matters of national security?
Italy: There are no compromises when it comes to national security. Whatever needs to be done will be done in this regard. Recently, Punjab Chief Minister and our party leader Bhagwant Mann met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah regarding the same matter in the border state of Punjab. This is a non-negotiable issue.
You do not have a single leader in your Gujarat unit who has any experience in governance. If elected tomorrow, will you outsource governance to those with expertise in Delhi and Punjab?
Italy: When we formed our government for the first time in Delhi in 2013, none of us had any experience in governance. See, it is a good thing to have experience. You will always benefit from it, but one also needs to have good intentions along with experience. Both the BJP and the Congress have an experience of over 30-40 years in governance. What good did they do for the people? I do not think this is an issue. Our team in Gujarat has good intentions while our party in Delhi and Punjab have experience as well.
Recently, in Rajkot and Mehsana, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal attacked state BJP president CR Paatil, calling him the de facto CM of Gujarat. Is targeting Paatil part of the AAP strategy?
Italy: Why should we target Paatil? It is the BJP that has grounded Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel and allowed Paatil to roam around Gujarat making announcements on behalf of the state government as well as the Centre. Who is Paatil to announce that the Par Tapi Narmada project has been cancelled? What is his authority to tell the state government to reconsider the stray cattle bill? When the BJP itself has clearly told the people that their CM and his Cabinet are useless and CR Paatil is the de facto head, then should we ignore it?
Kejriwal also alleged during the Mehsana road show that the BJP was pressuring local TV news channels for not inviting AAP people to debates.
Italy: What is there to allege? It is crystal clear. You can go to YouTube and watch the retelecast of debates on local TV news channels for the past 10 days and you won’t find our panellists there. The BJP people have clearly instructed these channels that AAP should not be seen at all.
You went to jail for 11 days with your party workers last December…
Italy: The jail experience was exactly as it sounds. It is not a good place to be and we are not criminals. We were mentally ready to face all this when we entered politics. But it (going to jail) has only strengthened our resolve now to fight for the issues of the common man.
What has been the behavior of the police towards your party workers?
Italy: The police themselves know that they are being used to suppress people. When we were arrested and sent to jail, we got an opportunity to interact with several cops. Many of them believed that the government could use them for some real work instead of hounding political parties.
Your party’s senior leader Isudan Gadhvi was booked in a prohibition case. Do you think the BJP holds a grudge against you and your party?
Italy: It is obvious that a dishonest and corrupt man will hold grudges against honest people. They (BJP) are a party of goons whereas we are a party of educated, civil people. We take it as a badge of honor that the BJP holds a grudge against us.
The issue of frequent question paper leaks in government recruitment exams had the potential to snowball into a political storm in Gujarat. Yet, it was a damp squib. Why?
Italy: It was not a damp squib. People are really upset and angry and they will respond to it during the elections. What purpose can their anger serve now? If they hit the streets, the police will book and arrest them under false charges. Moreover, a common man is already troubled about rising inflation and fuel, LPG, and food prices. They know that a real alternative has arrived in Gujarat this time in form of AAP and they will express their anger by voting for us.
Your party underwent a rejig in Gujarat on Sunday, with 850 new office-bearers being appointed. What was its purpose? Was it to accommodate everyone?
Italy: No, it’s a routine rejig exercise by our party as it has been expanding in Gujarat. This restructuring was necessary for the kind of work we have planned for Gujarat.
Your party high command dissolved the entire Gujarat unit but spared you.
Italy: I am grateful to the party. I am a common man with no political ambitions or expertise. I just use my wisdom.
Have you faced any resistance within your party after the rejig?
Italy: See, there is no resistance as such but whenever a party undergoes reshuffling, it’s not necessary that everyone will be happy with it. So the reactions are mixed but we have not faced any resistance yet.
Is your CM face ready?
Italy: It is too early to answer this question. The Election Commission hasn’t even declared the election dates yet. We do not want to announce a CM face six months before the polls and parade the person in villages as a groom.
You were inviting Hardik Patel to join your party, what happened then?
Italy: Why just Hardik? We want all fighters to join the AAP. But it’s completely their prerogative where they wish to go.
So, did you try to reach out to him when he was in the Congress?
Italy: Why try? I am in touch with Hardik. We both belong to the same community and we keep bumping into each other at public functions. I will still say that the AAP is ready to welcome anyone who is willing to fight for the issues of the people and against the draconian regime of the BJP.
Last year, your party won 27 seats in the Surat Municipal Corporation elections. It is being said that the PAAS was behind the victory. Your comment?
Italy: We received love and support from all sections of society. It would be unfair to say that the 27 seats were won because of the PAAS or my association with it. But yes, we did receive the support of the PAAS.
So will you get blessings of the PAAS in the Assembly elections even though Hardik has now joined the BJP?
Italy: Only time will tell.
Are any attempts being made to reach out to the Patidar community? Your party has not made any public statements on the matter.
Italy: We are just doing our job and we are not here to target or lure any community. This is exactly what the BJP and Congress have been doing in Gujarat for years.
Tell us one issue in Gujarat that the AAP wants to pick up before the polls. You have raised several issues in the recent past but none have culminated into a major poll plank yet.
Italy: Why should we single out an issue? This is absurd. It is like saying that the AAP will only fight for education and not healthcare. When people are frustrated with so many issues, they want solutions for each one of them. There are parties like the BJP and the Congress that only have one issue as their poll plank.
How do you see Congress as an Opposition in Gujarat?
Italy: The BJP and the Congress are not A team and B team. They are one team in Gujarat. They have an understanding with each other at the village, taluka, and district levels. How can you stand up as an Opposition when you do backroom dealings with the BJP?
The AAP has joined hands with the Bharatiya Tribal Party. Have you come up with any pre-poll alliance yet in the tribal belt?
Italy: Talks are going between us on various dimensions. The elections are six months away, so we will see what comes out of it.
Are you in talks with any other political party in Gujarat for an alliance?
Italy: Which other party in Gujarat?
For example, the AIMIM.
Italy: You think it’s a party? Good for you.
What is the AAP’s stand on the Prohibition Act?
Italy: This is a major issue in Gujarat. We will see how to proceed with it.
Do you think the Prohibition Act will end one day?
Italy: It doesn’t matter what I think. We need expert discussions on this subject and find out the opinion of people.