When Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal touches down in Gujarat on Saturday to inaugurate the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) campaign in the state for next year’s polls, he will be relying on an unusual ally: former BJP legislator Kanu Kalsaria.
The AAP has big plans in Gujarat, the home state of both prime minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah, and 62-year-old Kalsaria has emerged as Kejriwal’s principal point person.
Hundreds of posters plastered across Saurashtra welcoming Kejriwal also prominently feature the three-term MLA from the tiny coastal town of Mahuva who fell out with the BJP over farmers’ issues.
The AAP has announced it will contest 182 seats in assembly elections scheduled next year and Kejriwal’s whistle-stop tour of Saurashtra is being viewed as the virtual launch of the party’s electioneering in the state.
Kalsaria’s activist past together with the run-ins he had with Modi during his days as the Gujarat chief minister fits effortlessly into the AAP’s scheme of things.
The former BJP MLA put his political career at stake when he went against the “industry-friendly” government of Modi and opposed the setting up of a cement factory on a wetland.
Fighting on the side of local farmers, Kalsaria won the battle and the plan for the factory was shelved.
But he lost political support within the BJP and ultimately lost the 2012 assembly election.
But he didn’t give up on activism. Besides running a charity hospital in Mahuva, Kalsaria has set his eyes on opposing a mining project. Some 10,000 farmers turned up at his behest for an environmental public hearing last month over the project.
Disillusioned with the BJP, Kalsaria joined the AAP in 2014.
“I feel the AAP has been trying to fight corruption,” he says. “Thought some leaders of AAP also came under the scanner, but they were sacked,” he points out.
Observers say Kalsaria’s pro-farmer, honest and no-nonsense image is something that AAP can use to its advantage.
Kalsaria distances himself from the 2002 Godhra train fire and the communal riots that followed, both of which occurred during his first term as MLA.
“I was never in favour of the fundamentalist stand taken by the BJP government. But I did not say much then. After Vajpayee, saffronisation of the BJP happened”, he said.
Now, the AAP is hoping to exploit the disquiet within the farming community over poor cotton prices and inadequate power supply which apparently contributed to the BJP’s poll reverses in local body elections last year.
The choice of Saurashtra for Kejriwal’s first electoral foray into the state is significant. He will be addressing three farmers’ rallies during the day in the region. With Kalaria by his side, the AAP leader is clearly hoping to win them over.