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File photos of Vasundhara Raje during ‘Rajasthan Gaurav Yatra’ at Jothri village in Dungarpur, and (right) Congress leader Sachin Pilot during an election rally at Tonk.
File photos of Vasundhara Raje during ‘Rajasthan Gaurav Yatra’ at Jothri village in Dungarpur, and (right) Congress leader Sachin Pilot during an election rally at Tonk.

Close call Rajasthan is still Congress’ to lose

Congress may scratch past the finish line in Rajasthan elections, but it is clear the grand old party has not been able to make use of the BJP's fall from grace

Jaipur: Four suicides and an election—the four young friends who decided to end their lives in a mysterious suicide pact in Alwar this November could have never imagined its far-reaching repercussion on Rajasthan’s forthcoming Assembly polls on 7 December. The suicides of Manoj Meena, Rituraj Meena, Satyanarayan, and Abhishek have jolted the desert state. With the first reports claiming the suicides were because of depression over unemployment, most political parties, especially the Congress, rushed to seize the moment. Although the boys’ families have rejected the “unemployment" theory, saying they were too young to become disillusioned with joblessness and were under no plausible financial crunch, we are just days away from an election.

Unemployment has indeed become one of the biggest poll issues in Rajasthan. With BJP’s 2013 manifesto promise of 15 lakh jobs for the youth remaining unfulfilled, the disillusionment of the youth is palpable. There have been allegations and counter allegations about the actual employment generation in the state. Clearly, voters are upset.

Clear picture, but...

The funny thing is that despite the broken promises to the youth and farmers (more about that later), Rajasthan will vote with an air of uncertainty this time around. Although the desert state typically votes out the ruling party every five years, there is this feeling that both Congress and BJP have a tough fight on their hands. There are many who say that although Congress has an edge thanks to anti-incumbency, the grand old party has not been able to make full use of loss of popular support for the BJP.

Remember, the BJP got a massive mandate in 2013, winning 163 out of 200 seats . The BJP’s share of vote had risen from 34.27% in 2008 assembly polls to 46.03% in 2013 polls. That’s why the BJP’s mounting unpopularity is stumping many pollsters. What complicates matters is that much of the anger is directed at chief minister Vasundhara Raje—and not Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The popular slogan doing the rounds “Modi se bair nehi, Vasundhara teri khair nehi," seems to sum up popular sentiment and indicate BJP’s precarious position.

Most analysts are guessing that Congress will garner around 115-120 seats this time around. In 2013, it could manage only 21 seats. Poll analyst and columnist Narayan Bareth, however, is sceptical about Congress’s chances. He says: “Congress could have built on factors like loss of popular support for BJP government, anti-incumbency, rise in mob lynchings, farmers’ unrest, privatization of schools, health care, roadways, but failed to do its homework or any legwork to strengthen itself at the grassroots. Congress did not speak out during the mob lynching in Alwar, Dalit killings in Dangawas and lost many other such opportunities. BJP, on the other hand, may have lost popular support but is very strong at the grassroots. To break that chain will be difficult."

That said, the BJP’s popularity has been on the wane since the lynching of dairy farmers Pehlu Khan and Rakbar Khan. The state government’s silence about the lynchings by cow vigilantes in April, 2017 and in July 2018, and failure to book the accused have put off many of their supporters. Twenty-three days after Pehlu Khan’s death, when Raje finally tweeted that such incidents would not be tolerated in her state, it was thought to be vastly inadequate and too late. What happened did not go down well, more so when all accused in Pehlu Khan’s case were let off.

This polarization of politics in Rajasthan is here to stay. Take one instance to see how the ground has shifted. The RSS, which always shared an uneasy relationship with Raje, was irked when she gave the go-ahead for razing temples in walled city of Jaipur for the metro project in 2015. They formed the Mandir Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, which paralyzed the city with protests, and woke up the authorities. Now, the BJP managers camping in Rajasthan say that winning the desert state is important if they want to build the Ram temple in Ayodhya. Problem is, in the face of such blatant communal polarization, the secular Congress has not been able to counter it as aggressively as it should have.

Caste equations

The Congress did not also protest when Jats flattened the homes of Dalits in Dangawas, Nagaur district in May, 2015. Four people were killed. This policy of appeasement and an attempt to keep all vote banks intact, including Jats, may backfire for the Congress. The party now has to manage Jats as well. Jats, who form 10% of the total state’s population, were traditionally Congress voters. They shifted base to the BJP before 2013 Assembly polls. Now, the Jats have a new leader in Hanuman Beniwal, an Independent MLA, who formed the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party and is contesting 58 seats out of the total 200. Beniwal has joined hands with Bharat Vahini, another party formed by former BJP leader Ghanshyam Tiwari.

Both BJP and Congress party strategists now have to contend with smaller parties that form a third front, which could cut into their vote share. With Bahujan Samaj Party and Aam Aadmi Party also throwing their hats in the ring, a two-horse race is looking messy.

On the other hand, Rajputs, who have been traditionally BJP supporters, have vowed to vote out the BJP. Rajputs account for 8-10% of the state’s population and have influence over 30 seats. Many perceived slights by the Raje government—from how BJP’s Jaswant Singh was sidelined and the alleged fake encounter of history sheeter Anandpal; to the sealing of the gates of Raj Mahal Palace in Jaipur —have upset the Rajputs. Despite Rajput’s anger, the BJP has given 26 tickets to Rajputs. Meanwhile, instead of cashing in on the ire, the Congress bungled, giving only 15 tickets to Rajputs.

Farmer and govt unrest

In September, 2017, farmers in Sikar staged a massive protest for almost a fortnight, demanding a loan waiver, compensation for damaged crops, payment of insurance money and implementation of the Swaminathan Commission’s report. Thousands blocked the highways and vowed to continue blockades till their demands were met. Congress says at least 350 farmers have committed suicide since 2013 because of flawed government policies. At least five garlic growing farmers in Hadoti region, who could not sell their produce at the minimum support price of the crops, took their lives

The government dithered on the crisis with state home minister Gulab Chand Kataria even mockingly saying that there would be no relief for farmers who commit suicide. “Agrarian crisis, which has never been an election issue, would become a major issue this time," says Amra Ram, farmer leader, and a former four-time CPI (M) MLA from Dhod and Data Ramgarh in Sikar district. In 2013, CPI( M) drew a blank. The party is betting on a revival of an active agrarian movement and the Left this elections.

On another front, the number of protests by government employees has been unprecedented in the last five years. However, each time, the protests—resistance to privatization, implementation of Seventh Pay commission, better pay grades and so on—have been met with indifference by the Raje government. Often, her government didn’t even come to the negotiating table. For instance, the move to privatize Rajasthan Roadways and Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation were met with protests. “Although the move to privatize many heritage hotels and premier government properties has been put on hold, it is only a kind of temporary oral relief. There has been no written official communiqué over this issue," says a government employee on condition of anonymity.

A tacit decision has been taken by the government employees to vote out the BJP. Manoj Saxena, president of the state’s federation of ministerial staff union, had said after a long-drawn protest in September and October this year that “thousands of government employees and their families would vote against the BJP and apprise the people of the ruling party’s failure to fulfill its own promises made in the 2013 manifesto. We have taken a pledge for making a ‘BJP-mukt’ Rajasthan."

Reforms and Backlash

Raje was hailed as the rani of reforms when she first took over. She initiated reforms in land acquisition, labour, education sector. Rajasthan was then hailed as ‘reforms laboratory and ideal model for development’ next only to Gujarat. Even with bold and far-sighted reforms, the BJP government’s attempt to woo industry captains has not meet with much success as there have been no major investments in the state to talk of.

Similarly, education sector reforms was initiated by merging of over 17,000 schools, staff rationalization, opening of Adarsh schools in each gram panchayat, reintroduction of board examination in class 5, 8 to improve falling standards. That said, revising of syllabuses and a move to run schools on Public Private Partnership model, education activists say, did not go down well with the masses. There were questions over government’s claim of an increase in enrolments and problems raised by privatizing education.

Although Raje took special care to empower women through Bhamashah scheme—where the woman becomes the head of the family and all financial and non-financial benefits of government schemes are transferred directly to the account holder—complicated procedures to get the rightful benefits put off many beneficiaries. Abha Sharma, a political columnist, says this government’s Annapurna project that aims to provide healthy food for 5 and milk distribution at schools are considered well thought-out projects, but have floundered due to lack of proper implementation. That said, Gaurav Paths (roads) built in many small towns have come in for praise.

Leadership issues

Even though Raje has been on various yatras throughout her five-year tenure, questions about her inaccessibility persist. A sense of ‘arrogance’ had been the hallmark of her first tenure from 2003 to 2008. This time, her attempt to be in the midst of people should have come in for praise. She even started the tradition of holding the state-level functions at various district headquarters than just in Jaipur. But the Opposition says she never met the actual people. “All those who actually got to see her were first screened and then given access. This way she lost touch with reality," say political observers. Many common people complain that they couldn’t meet her at the Jan Sunwais (public hearings). For instance, people wearing black clothes and black handkerchief were disallowed.

This time if Raje fails, her detractors may get to call the shots. That said, Raje has always bounced back. She is said to be one of BJP’s biggest fundraisers, whom the party cannot afford to lose.

Congress’s failure to project a clear leader may prove to be its nemesis. Ashok Gehlot, two-time chief minister, still nurses a weakness for the top job. Gehlot’s simplicity, easy manners and Gandhian ways have helped him inch close to Rahul Gandhi. Inching past the much younger and less experienced state Congress chief Sachin Pilot, is not likely to be tough for Gehlot. Although Gehlot was put on duty outside Rajasthan in the last five years, he has been brought back to oversee the party in this crucial elections. Many of Gehlot’s favorites have got tickets this time.

As for Pilot, it is a make or break situation. Although he has toiled hard in the last five years, his inexperience may work against him for the chief minister’s post. The by-elections win in February 2018, has, however, been a major booster for Sachin, who has vowed not to wear the traditional safa (turban) till he makes the Congress come back to power in the state. The usual problems of infighting during ticket distribution and rebels may just upset the Congress’s apple cart despite disenchantment with ruling BJP in the state.

Although both Congress and BJP are claiming victory and big margin, pollsters say this time it has been difficult to predict the results. Congress may just scratch past the finish line but with no chief ministerial face to project and a tussle between top leaders, it has a dilemma on hand. The smaller emerging parties and disgruntled rebels of both parties could play a major role in case of a hung assembly.

Rakhee Roy Talukdar is a freelance reporter based out of Jaipur.

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