Battles within

Print edition : May 10, 2019

Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, the BJP candidate from Jaipur (Rural) filing his nomination for the Lok Sabha election, on April 16. Photo: PTI

Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot. Photo: Shahbaz Khan/PTI

Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot. Photo: K.V.S. Giri

Harvested wheat lying bundled in fields. Lack of remunerative prices and loan waiver are predominant issues. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Voters in Bansur Assembly segment of Jaipur (Rural) constituency complain of lack of work. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

At a public meeting in Sikar for Amra Ram, the CPI(M) candidate. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Former Rajasthan BJP MLA Manvendra Singh, who joined the Congress in 2018. Photo: PTI

Congress leader Ghanshyam Tiwari. Photo: THE HINDU

Amid divisions within the Congress and confusion within the BJP, the battleground for 25 seats is one that is evenly poised.

In Rajasthan, there is a commonly held belief borne out by empirical experience that during Lok Sabha elections, the electorate mostly swings towards the party that rules the State. In 2013, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stormed to power with a three-fourths majority in the Assembly elections. The very next year, it won all 25 Lok Sabha seats in the State. However, five years later, it suffered reversals in the 2018 Assembly elections when its tally came down to less than half from 163 seats to 73. The Congress, under the leadership of Ashok Gehlot, formed the government with a simple majority of 100 seats, which was nowhere near the BJP’s 2013 performance.

The Congress could have significantly increased its tally had it not been hobbled by internal squabbles and faulty candidate selection, according to observers. Insiders said that if the party had been cohesive and there had been no confusion over its local leadership, the results would have been much better. However, the fact remains that the Congress also failed to capitalise on the widespread discontent among farmers, Dalits and minorities.

Elections will be held in two phases in the State, the first on April 29 for 13 seats and then on May 6 for the remaining 12. As per the Election Commission’s schedule, the first phase of voting in the State coincides with the fourth phase of elections in the country.

Modi wave absent

Since the Congress is in power, it ought to enjoy an advantage. The other factor that goes in its favour is that compared with 2014, a “Modi wave” seems to be distinctly absent. All parties face an electorate that has been deeply bruised by the Central government’s policies such as demonetisation and the goods and services tax (GST) regime.

During interactions with a cross section of people in six Lok Sabha constituencies, this correspondent found that a depressed market, price rise, unemployment, low wages, water shortages and lack of remunerative prices for crops were still burning issues among the electorate. Also, working-class and middle-class members of the majority community attested to the seeds of communal divide that had been “sown” and which had “grown” over the last five years.

The insecurity among minority community was a relatively new phenomenon in the State, and people openly expressed their apprehensions. Similarly, there were BJP supporters who openly used divisive language to describe minorities.

Such sentiments were seen in Tonk-Sawai Madhopur as well as in parts of Sikar and Jhunjhunu in the Shekhawati belt. “They have completely ruined the social fabric of the Shekhawati region,” said Virender, a mechanic, referring to fringe Hindu right-wing groups. “There never used to be any communal tension. Now, even the smallest of arguments is given a communal colour.”

Vikas, a furniture seller in Nawalgarh tehsil in Jhunjhunu, said: “They have all kinds of names, this Sena or that Dal, but their main objective is to create disharmony.”

He recalled that until a few years ago the procession taken out during Ramnavami celebrations was thin. But now thousands of people are being mobilised in a show of strength. The Congress-led government is viewed as being soft on such elements for fear of losing the votes of the majority community.

In Ajmer, the actor Naseeruddin Shah had to cancel the inauguration of the Literature Festival following protests over a remark he had made in the context of the lynching of a police officer in Uttar Pradesh. The State government could not guarantee his protection.

The Shekhawati region was also an arena of intense farmer struggles mostly led by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), the peasants’ wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). In this region, Sikar especially was the hothouse of several farmer agitations, having inherited the tradition of peasant struggles since 1936 where the prime demand was “land to the tiller”.

In September 2017, a 13-day State highway blockade over the waiver of farmer loans led by the AIKS received widespread support from the people. The then BJP government was forced to concede the demands but it did not move to implement the agreement until February 2018. It finally agreed to write off a part of the loans taken by the farmers.

The Congress, on the other hand, did not initiate any farmer-related struggle in the State. Yet, it was the major beneficiary of the anger of the people against the BJP in the Assembly elections in 2018. While campaigning for his party in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, Congress president Rahul Gandhi made a grandiose announcement that all farmer loans would be waived in 10 days.

The Congress formed the government in all the three States, and in Rajasthan the Ashok Gehlot government did initiate the process of waiving cooperative loans but did not waive all farmer loans. Congress supporters have said during the latest campaign that if the party is voted to power at the Centre, it will waive all farmer loans. But the electorate, especially the farming community, does not seem to be convinced. Amra Ram, the CPI(M)’s nominee from the Sikar Parliamentary constituency, said that the refinancing of banks had not been done. The government had not issued no-objection certificates to those farmers whose loans up to Rs.50,000 had been declared waived. Also, no fresh loans from cooperative banks were being given, he added. Unrest among the farmers brewed once again early this year as onion prices crashed.

After a 15-day protest by the AIKS in Sikar in February-March, the government announced that it would increase the rate under the Market Intervention Scheme, but then, citing the model code of conduct for elections, refrained from doing so. The prices of other vegetables, meanwhile, shot up even as the farmer continued to receive much less for his produce.

Triangular contests

Sikar is one of the constituencies apart from Churu and Bikaner where there is a triangular contest involving candidates from the Left. The other contestants in the fray in Sikar are sitting BJP MP Sumedhanand, who, people say, won owing to the Modi wave last time, and Subhash Maharia of the Congress.

“Actually, one can say that there are two BJP candidates and no Congress candidate because Subhash Maharia was a former BJP MP who fought as an independent in 2014 after being denied the ticket by his party. Maharia was a Central Minister too in the first avatar of the NDA government. Today he is the Congress nominee,” Amra Ram said.

Jaipur (Rural), which includes a part of Alwar district, is one seat that will be closely watched as Information and Broadcasting Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore faces Krishna Poonia, a fellow sportsperson and Olympian, of the Congress. Of the eight Assembly segments in Jaipur (Rural), the Congress won five, the BJP two, and an independent one.

Many voters told Frontline that the contest was evenly poised. In urban areas such as Jaipur city, the surgical strike in Balakot seemed to have had some impact on the youth, but rural segments in Jaipur did not seem impressed. “2014 was different. There is no wave this time. The main issue is lack of work,” said Jagdish, a daily wager in the Amer Assembly segment, one of the eight segments falling in Jaipur (Rural) constituency.

“Government officers make fun of us when we ask them for work. The Gehlot government took some good initiatives like pension but a lot more needs to be done,” he added.

Non-implementation of daily wages for unskilled work was observed in all six constituencies. Tarachand, Jagdish’s son, who works in the jewellery polishing sector, said that employment was the top priority. “We have to get enough to eat; Rathore became MP from here, went away and did not look back. If the chief does not work properly, then our condition only gets worse,” he said, adding that the jewellery sector had taken a beating following demonetisation.

“Modiji itne deshon mein gaye. Kuch business to waapas laatey (Modiji travelled to many countries. He could have got us some business),” he added.

At Kookas, another area in Amer constituency, the national highway on both sides is littered with five-star hotels, but none of them seemed to have benefited the locals. “They don’t employ us. There is no work at all. I sit here at the tea shop all day waiting for someone to give me some work, any work,” said Ramchander, a daily wager, who added that there was a “Rahul wave” in the area.

In Shahpura, an Assembly segment of Jaipur (Rural), reactions were mixed. A section of the Yadavs were upset with the Congress for not giving the ticket to their caste brother, a Sachin Pilot loyalist. “The Congress is losing from Shahpura. Yadavs are unhappy. Gujjars won’t vote the party as their man [Pilot] was not made Chief Minister. Rathore will win owing to other factors, but there is no Modi wave,” said Bhagirath Yadav, a Congress worker.

In Shahpura, the trucking business is the main source of employment, but it has been badly hit by the e-way online payment system.

“We are in the property and transport business. Transporters need money for diesel. How can they wait for cheque payments? There needs to be money in circulation. Many sold off their trucks due to the fund crunch while finance companies did the rest by taking away the vehicles they had financed as transporters were unable to pay them. Paani, bijli, sadak, rozgaar [Water, electricity, roads, employment]—these are the main issues in every election but our political parties don’t give it importance,” said Govind Sharma, a BJP supporter.

Divisions in Congress

Overall, there is a perception that the Congress is divided and vertically split right down from its top rank and file. The running joke is that there are as many power centres in the party as there are castes. And the application of “jateeya sameekaran”, or caste-based calculations, to assess support among the electorate during elections is still quite a real phenomenon.

To that extent, the caste “base” of Congress leaders such as Ashok Gehlot, Sachin Pilot, Ram Narayan Dudi and C.P. Joshi and their ability to rally other communities behind them are often seen as a yardstick of political clout. But such identities have proven themselves as impediments, too, affecting the prospects of the party as a whole.

Soon after the elections in 2018, there was a stalemate over who would be Chief Minister. The tussle between Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot came out in the open after Gujjars went on a protest demanding that Pilot be made Chief Minister. Pilot himself has never overtly played the Gujjar caste card, but Gujjars saw him as his father’s heir and a legatee of the community. Yet, the agitation to make him Chief Minister as a pressure tactic suited him. For seven days, there was no decision. Things quietened after Pilot reluctantly accepted the post of Deputy Chief Minister. Earlier too there had been Deputy Chief Ministers, but the bitterness was never apparent. There have been other decisions too that have not shown the Congress in a flattering light.

The induction of BJP leaders such as Ghanshyam Tiwari and Manavendra Singh into the Congress has raised eyebrows. Manavendra Singh, the Congress candidate from Barmer, is a former MP and MLA. Elected to the Rajasthan Assembly in 2013, he quit the BJP and joined the Congress in 2018 and contested against Vasundhara Raje in Jhalawar in the Assembly elections. His father, Jaswant Singh, veteran BJP leader and former External Affairs Minister, was denied the BJP ticket in 2014. He stood as an independent.

Col. Sona Ram, a former MP of the Congress, quit the party to join the BJP. Sona Ram was twice Congress MP in the 12th and 13th Lok Sabhas. Now, even he has fallen foul of the BJP and was denied the ticket.

The BJP has fielded former MLA Kailash Chaudhary, a Jat, who could not retain his seat in Baytu in the recent Assembly elections. In Barmer, caste calculations seem favourable to the Congress, which has a natural edge, having won in seven of the eight Assembly segments. Water, unemployment and the rail line from Gujarat to Jaisalmer are the major issues here.

Ghanshyam Tiwari, a former six-time MLA from the BJP who made communally controversial remarks in the Assembly while still in the party, is a critic of Vasundhara Raje. He floated an outfit called Bharat Vahini Party just before the Assembly elections last year. It failed to win a single seat. Tiwari failed to retain the Sanganer seat, from where he had won several times.

Most of the dozen independents who won were Congress rebels who have now extended support to the government.

The contests in the State will mostly be between the Congress and the BJP, but the presence of the Left in some seats and the Bhartiya Tribal Party (BTP) in constituencies of southern Rajasthan might make the battle tough for the Congress. The BTP, a new outfit floated by a section of the tribal upper middle class, claims to represent tribal rights and won two seats in the recent Assembly elections. It has a presence in the tribal areas of Gujarat that run contiguously through Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

If the Congress seems to be vertically split, the BJP has its own set of problems, and this is clear from its delayed declaration of nominees. For instance, in Dausa, it has fielded former Union Minister Jaskaur Meena. The party remained indecisive until April 15. It rejected the claims of both Rajya Sabha member Kirori Lal Meena, who was seeking the ticket for his wife, and Om Prakash Hudla, a BJP rebel and independent candidate from Mahwa. Similarly, its decision to give the ticket to “outsiders” in a few constituencies has not been received well by local claimants.

In Tonk-Sawai Madhopur, the victory of the sitting BJP MP, Sukhbir Jaunpuria, is not assured. In 2014, the relatively unknown Jaunpuria, who hails from Haryana, won on the back of the “Modi wave” which even BJP workers concede is absent this time. “2014 waali baat nahi hai. Koi lehar nahi hai,” said a BJP IT cell worker in Tonk city, referring to the lack of a wave. The Congress has fielded former Minister Namo Narayan Meena in the hope of cornering the Scheduled Tribe, the Scheduled Caste and minority votes. But Jaunpuria has been in touch with the public more than Meena. In this constituency, too, employment, water and infrastructure are key issues.

The ban on sand mining had hit the construction industry hard. Sawai Madhopur is home to the famous Ranthambore sanctuary, but local people feel they have not benefited from those who have made wildlife tourism a business.

In Tonk, the communal divide was palpable. Here, Gujjar and minority votes are substantial and were considered key in ensuring Pilot’s election to the Assembly last year. But there is some uncertainty over who will ultimately benefit from Gujjar votes.

Manish Bhardwaj, a BJP worker, told Frontline that Gujjars were upset with Pilot as they had voted for him to see him become Chief Minister. “Pilot won’t come to campaign here. The Gujjars have Jaunpuria who is also a Gujjar and their caste representative,” he said.

In the market, there was palpable anger against demonetisation. “The common man was made to stand in lines. I am a trader, so is Mr Modi. He did not do the correct thing. One cannot have bills for 90 per cent of the products,” said Parmanand Sahoo, a trader who voted for the BJP in 2014. He said that if polling crossed 60 per cent, the BJP was sure of cornering most of the seats; otherwise, it was advantage Congress.

Both the Congress and the BJP appear to be evenly poised at the moment. The difference in the vote shares of the Congress and the BJP in the Assembly elections was also negligible. The fact that there is a Congress government in the State will have a bearing on the mind of the voter. Local factors like the influence, accessibility and reputation of the local legislator and the image of the Chief Minister could also play a role, although the voter wants livelihood issues and basic amenities like education, health and water to be addressed as a matter of priority. To that extent, none of the “promises” of income guarantee by either party are being viewed as credible declarations.

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