In Pushkar constituency in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district, the advocate Prakash Rawat is able to locate my phone number even as I sit talking to him in the BJP candidate’s party office. Rawat is the BJP’s IT head for Ajmer district and is responsible for social media messaging for five Assembly seats besides being in charge of 241 polling booths in Pushkar constituency. The way the system works, he explains, is that there are 32 shakti kendras for the 241 polling booths that are monitored by six mandals. That, in a nutshell, is the breakdown of the BJP’s famed election management for a cluster of voting booths in an Assembly constituency.
There are multiple layers in the sangathan, or organisation, of the BJP and the RSS, from candidate to cadre to leader. In Pushkar, I happened to meet a group of local professionals working full-time for the BJP for this election. They were ideologically driven and made some interesting points. Their analysis was that the sidelining of former Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje does not sink a party like the BJP as people are also motivated by the party’s ideology and by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other BJP leaders. Rawat’s display picture on WhatsApp has him greeting Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath when he came to campaign in Rajasthan.
In contrast, they say, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has built the entire campaign around himself, sidelining others in the Congress; this, the BJP strategists estimate, could be his undoing.
One can therefore say that while leadership tussles can create confusion, they do not disrupt the BJP/RSS structure as happens in other political parties. The other distinct feature of the BJP structure is that the worker is given feedback, appreciated down the line, and ultimately rewarded. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, I met Chaudhury Bhupendra Singh, then the RSS/BJP-in-charge for parts of western Uttar Pradesh, in another BJP candidate’s office. He clearly knew the terrain and gave me ground assessments that turned out to be absolutely accurate. Three years later, after the party swept the 2022 Assembly election, Bhupendra Singh was made the president of the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh unit.
The group of professionals I met while travelling through Rajasthan had also thoroughly mapped the seats and their demography. Even as he complained that he was losing money each day that he worked for the party, the businessman in the group, which also included three advocates, was equally convinced that it was his national duty. The panna pramukh (responsible for micro-level voter outreach) who elaborated on the structures recognised me. On confirming my name, he said: “Hindu-Muslim is not an issue but rashtrawadi [nationalist] is.” As if to prove a point, he wanted a selfie with me, and we eventually settled for a group picture as everyone wanted to be in the frame.
This group was formally working on the party’s electoral campaign. There are other individuals who are informally enlisted and tasked with spreading the word and the rhetoric, which ranges from dog-whistling to open abuse of minorities. They are now embedded in rural and urban clusters of most States in the Hindi belt.
On the road to Pushkar and Ajmer, I met a group of men gathered under a tree in Balukalan village, which falls in the Dudu Assembly constituency currently held by an independent who was expelled from the Congress after being charged with rape. Ramu Chaudhary, a Gujjar, said he was telling people to vote for the good of the nation and therefore for the BJP as the party had got rid of Article 370 and was building a Ram mandir at Ayodhya. “Bharat mata ki jai”, “Jai Shri Ram”, he hailed loudly.
‘Dharam’ and ‘desh’
Dharam (faith) and desh (nation) now go hand in hand, he said, and that was what would define the future. The people, Chaudhary said, would not forgive Ashok Gehlot for giving salaries to teachers in madrasas. Chaudhary spoke aggressively and showed a distinct hatred towards minorities. He said that his entire family was linked to the RSS. Muslims, he believed, are “pampered”, and Hindus have finally got their moment in Bharat. The group of men around him seemed to agree.
And yet, Rajasthan is not witnessing a polarised election. Indeed, the main determinant of voting choices appear to be caste identities. Most of the Scheduled Castes, the minorities, and a large chunk of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) appear to be voting for the Congress as they have received benefits from the many welfare schemes that have been rolled out.
Voters belonging to social groups that are not covered by reservation, such as Brahmins and Rajputs, and a section of OBCs overwhelmingly support the BJP. The Jat community is divided, with a larger segment choosing the Congress. A similar situation appears to prevail among the Meenas, classified as a Scheduled Tribe. Unlike in 2018, the Gujjars seem headed towards the BJP in this election as many believe that Gehlot has sidelined their most prominent leader, Sachin Pilot. They, however, support Pilot in his own seat, Tonk.
“On the face of it, this is a regular State election, where local issues are foregrounded and there is a competition to announce welfare schemes. But the national leadership of the BJP is strongly signalling Hindutva issues.”
This election has been fought seat by seat, and among the causes for unhappiness with the Gehlot government are the leaking of examination papers and the safety of women. Besides, there is a State-wide water crisis, for which people blame both the State and the Centre. Wherever villagers had made up their minds to vote out the government, they also mentioned corruption on the part of several MLAs of the ruling party and complained that cuts are taken when workers are paid for MGNREGA work.
So, on the face of it, this is a regular State election, where local issues are foregrounded and there is a competition to announce welfare schemes. But the national leadership of the BJP is strongly signalling Hindutva issues. Modi himself raised the issue of the murder of the tailor Kanhaiya Lal, who was killed in Udaipur in 2022 by two Muslim zealots. In his speech, he linked the murder to vote-bank politics by the Congress.
In other outings, Modi spoke of tushtikaran (appeasement) politics and raised the issue of an attack on Sanatana Dharma by “the Congress and its friends” who he claimed want to finish off the culture of Rajasthan. Home Minister Amit Shah has said that if the Congress wins Rajasthan, then the banned Islamist group Popular Front of India would also return to Rajasthan.
BJP’s ‘No Muslim’ policy
The BJP has not fielded any Muslim candidate this time. They did not accommodate former MLA Yunus Khan, considered close to Vasundhara Raje; Khan is now contesting as an independent. The BJP’s “No Muslim” policy reached tragicomic proportions in Ajmer’s Masuda seat. Abhishek Singh, ostensibly a Rawat Rajput, was announced as the candidate but later accused of being a closet Muslim as it was claimed that he belongs to a clan that also follows Islam. His name was cleared in the fifth list of candidates but dropped the same evening although the BJP gave no reason for it officially. The hapless Abhishek Singh was last quoted in the press as swearing on his Kuldevi Mata Ashapura, reiterating his faith in Siva and claiming descendance straight from Prithviraj Chauhan.
Saba Naqvi is a Delhi-based journalist and author of four books who writes on politics and identity issues.