The clock is running out on Vasundhara Raje, chief minister of Rajasthan. The Gujjar agitation and the caste war that has broken out between Gujjars and Meenas in the state are a stark testimony to the poor governance of the state over the last three years.
Vasundhara Raje has acquired an unenviable reputation for crushing all forms of popular protest with a heavy hand. At last count, the state police has now opened fire on common people on more than 16 occasions during her reign as chief minister.
In October 2004, seven farmers agitating for water for irrigation were killed in police firing. A revival of the same agitation in 2006 also met with a heavy police hand. Now, it is the turn of the Gujjars who have launched a violent agitation to secure the status of scheduled tribes for the community.
Raje’s transformation from being a charismatic leader who won a large mandate for her party to that of an arrogant and authoritarian leader appears complete.
She is now not very accessible even to her party MLAs and ministers, let alone the general public. Her personal conduct and image also have made her widely unpopular in the state.
Raje’s style of governance has also ensured that different sections of the society—agitating for their grievance redress—feel desperate and resort to extreme measures.
Raje herself is to blame for the current crisis involving the Gujjars. She made a personal promise to the Gujjars that their demands for obtaining scheduled tribe status will be looked into on the eve of last assembly elections, although the BJP manifesto did not make any mention of it.
But, since coming to power, she has ignored their representations and threats over the promise, which has led to the present conflict.
Meenas—the numerically strong ST community in the state estimated at 10% of the population—are opposed to the inclusion of Gujjars (5% of the population) as scheduled tribes as they fear that their hegemony will cease if they have to share the scheduled tribes reservation benefits with another community. However, they are unlikely to oppose their inclusion if the overall reservation quota for scheduled tribes is enhanced.
On the other hand, the Jats—the numerically strong community (16% of the population) that was given the status of other backward class (OBC) by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP government at the Centre—are sympathetic to the Gujjars’ demand because they will benefit from the Gujjars’ migration to the category of scheduled tribes, provided the existing quota for the other backward classes is not tampered with.
Reservations have been used by many parties in the past as an instrument to enhance their electoral prospects.
The decision of the V.P. Singh government to introduce caste-based reservations in 1990 and the agitation that followed engineered immutable electoral trends.
It has also set the Congress party on a course of gradual marginalization. The Congress has tried to reclaim the OBC constituency last year through its OBC reservation policy in elite central educational institutions.
Using the issue of reservations for political gains is like mounting a tiger. Once you have mounted it, you have no control over it. Although many parties have tried, very few have succeeded in using reservations to their advantage. And, the present agitation by the Gujjars perhaps marks the first instance of a major attempt by any caste to secure the status of scheduled tribe and how it is dealt with will be watched by many other caste groups.
It is ironical that at a time when caste divisions have somewhat blurred in the caste-ridden UP state—which has voted for governance and not just on caste lines—in Rajasthan, known for caste harmony, a reverse trend seems to be developing with the simmering caste divisions.
The growing unpopularity of Raje is likely to cost the ruling BJP heavily and while it is perhaps premature to call this election, the ruling BJP may end up with as little as 30 seats out of 200 in the assembly elections scheduled for October 2008.
Apart from the latest caste conflicts, power shortages, poor roads, unemployment and lack of irrigation facilities are some issues that have the potential to emerge as key electoral issues in the state. The power situation, particularly in rural areas and small towns, is a major cause for resentment among rural voters.
A change of leadership—which has been widely discussed in the BJP circles—may provide the party a fresh lease of life if it works overtime to restore normalcy, redeem its lost prestige and recover its lost ground.
If the BJP fails to take a bold decision, it can repent at leisure as Rajasthan may also spell doom for the party’s prospects in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, following the debacle in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research and consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at thebottom