New Delhi: On Sunday, at the Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP) fifth anniversary celebrations here, national convenor Arvind Kejriwal laid to rest "a vertical divide in the party" over contesting in Gujarat.
"If the AAP is winning, then vote for the AAP candidate. If somewhere else, another party is winning, vote for them. Defeating the BJP is our goal," Kejriwal told AAP members from across India assembled at Ramlila Maidan.
The stance marks a departure from the AAP's strident anti-Congress politics, a legacy of the anti-corruption movement on 2011 out of which the AAP emerged, defeating the ruling Congress in Delhi in 2013.
Two days before the anniversary, Kejriwal, also Delhi chief minister, said at a book launch: "I don't know how much index of Opposition unity will matter. The next election will be Modi versus the people of India... For me, democracy is about people, not parties and leaders. The people elected Modi and they will defeat him. There are circumstances when people will say they will vote for anyone but him."
An AAP leader said the priority for them has been India, not the party. "Things are so bad that wearing a skull cap can get you thrashed on a train. For India today, the main danger is the BJP that is ruining the economy and disrupting social harmony. Our party has no flag, but the Indian Tricolour. We don't hesitate in fielding candidates who are not party members. In the interest of the country, we will support individuals and groups who are in the best position to defeat the BJP in places where we don't have a presence," the AAP leader said.
Earlier this month, AAP minister and Gujarat election in-charge Gopal Rai had said: "The impact of (the) Punjab (defeat earlier this year) was bad. It took us six months to recover. We began our preparations late, so we are working hard on every seat that we are contesting. We find that while the public is pro-Congress, the party has no grassroot workers going door to door."
Privately, AAP leaders admit the national and Gujarat leadership was bitterly divided over contesting in the western state. "There was a vertical divide. The state unit insisted on contesting and we agreed to put up a limited fight as we have established politicians from other parties who have joined us. Arvind's statement and his support for (Gujarat Dalit leader) Jignesh Mevani makes our stand clear," said a senior Delhi-based leader.
An AAP leader in Gujarat added: "There is a perception that we are tacitly supporting BJP, which is incorrect. The disagreement was so sharp that our state convener Kanubhai Kalsaria is fighting as an Independent."
The AAP has contested civic polls in Uttar Pradesh. But much to the chagrin of its Bengal members, it has avoided any expansion in the eastern state which would put them in conflict with its closest ally, chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
After falling out with Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar when he re-aligned with the BJP, Kejriwal is believed to be in touch with the state's Opposition leader, Tejashwi Yadav of the RJD.