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Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Rajasthan assembly elections 2018: Can reserved seats swing polls?

Both Congress and BJP are eyeing larger share of reserved seats in the state

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) attempt to expand its social base and the Congress’ bid to regain influence over the Scheduled Castes (SC) and the Scheduled Tribes (ST) have set the stage for an interesting electoral contest in Rajasthan, where there are 59 reserved seats in the 200-member assembly.

The results of the last three assembly elections indicate that the party that wins more reserved seats manages to form the government in Jaipur. In 2008, Ashok Gehlot came to power in Rajasthan with the help of 34 reserved seats. In 2013, when the BJP won the state elections, it had won 50 reserved seats.

However, it may not be as easy for either the BJP or the Congress this time. Upper caste men had burned down the houses of Dalit leaders, BJP member of legislative assembly (MLA) Rajkumari Jaatav and former Congress MLA Bharosi Lal Jaatav, during a protest in Karauli district supporting the dilution of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities Act).

“Governments don’t do enough to reach out to Dalits. They only come to our constituencies when it is time to vote. There is a general anger among the people as atrocities have increased and there is no support from the government. Previous governments made some attempts, but this time there has been no effort. We would like a change," said Kanha Ram, 26, a farm labourer from Sikar district’s Dhod constituency.

The challenge for the BJP is bigger considering the violence against the Dalit community in an election year. In July, a 22-year-old man was beaten to death in Barmer because of his alleged affair with a girl from a different community.

The BJP had also faced the ire of Dalits during the Bharat Bandh in April when widespread protests led to violent clashes and six people were killed.

Eventually, the Union government had to bring in a legislation to negate a court order that had let to the clashes, months ahead of the state polls, in August.

The political and social influence of Dalits and tribals is evident as the two communities together account for more than 31% of Rajasthan’s population and play a decisive role in state elections. Dalits and tribals account for 17.8% and 13.5% of the state’s 68.6 million population, respectively, according to the 2011 census.

Interestingly, both communities are aware of their political influence and want the BJP and the Congress to ensure their problems are addressed.

“Our elders used to say that in Rajasthan, the Dalit and tribal reserved seats are the first indicators of anti-incumbency. Generally speaking, there is a mood for change among the people, especially among tribal voters. However, some schemes of the government are doing well here. The inclusion of our area in the Fifth Schedule (of the Constitution) by the Union government is also a key factor," said Anil Kumar Katara, 43, a contractor from Dungarpur, an ST constituency.

The centre had approved the inclusion of three districts in Rajasthan under the Fifth Schedule, which protects rights of tribals. The areas include three districts of Banswara, Dungarpur, and Pratapgarh, among others.

Both the Congress and the BJP have tried to reach out to the SC and ST population and have made a series of announcements in their manifestoes, including tribal sub plans for rapid socio-economic development of the community, strengthening the Forest Rights Act, filling up vacancies for reserved candidates in government jobs, and providing scholarships to SC and ST students.

“Reserved seats in Rajasthan have often given a fillip to the winning party by increasing its tally. While traditionally the support, especially from tribal seats, went to Congress, the BJP too has emerged as a key contender, which is evident from the 2013 results," said R.D. Gurjar, former principal of the University Rajasthan College, Jaipur.

“This time, however, there is a lot of anger against the SC/ST ruling. While the government did act later and upturned the court’s order, there is still a lot of anger among Dalits and tribals and they feel that they have been betrayed, and the BJP may bear the burnt of that," Gurjar said.

Pretika Khanna in Sikar contributed to this story.

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