Emotive response

Print edition : June 07, 2019

BJP workers celebrate the party’s lead in the Lok Sabha elections, in Bikaner, on May 23. Photo: PTI

Congress president Rahul Gandhi, with Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot, addresses the media after meeting the Dalit woman who was gang-raped in Alwar district, on May 16. Photo: PTI

Narendra Modi’s aggressive nationalism masks real issues to secure big wins for the BJP in Rajasthan.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) clean sweep of the Lok Sabha seats in Rajasthan, where the Congress formed a government following the Assembly elections held in December 2018, took the opposition entirely by surprise. The general trend in Rajasthan had been for the party in power in the State to win the Lok Sabha seats too. For instance, the BJP’s sweep in 2014 followed its big victory in the Assembly elections in 2013. A newly elected Congress-led government was in power in the State and the anti-incumbency sentiment had not yet set in. On the other hand, it was expected that the anti-incumbency factor prevailing against the National Democratic Alliance government would bring in benefits for the Congress. Although it never thought it would win all 25 seats, the Congress hoped to hold on to at least half of them. But the 2019 result was a virtual repeat of 2014. Not just that, the vote share of the BJP went up by nearly four percentage points, from 54.94 per cent to 58 per cent, and the victory margins were larger. On an average, the vote share of BJP candidates ranged between 55 and 60 per cent in almost all the constituencies.

The vote share of the Congress too went up by four percentage points, from 30.36 to 34.2 per cent. However, it could not consolidate the advantage it had in the Assembly elections.

Congress’ rout

All the Congress’ star candidates lost, including Vaibhav Gehlot, son of Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, in his home turf, Jodhpur. Ashok Gehlot was elected to the Lok Sabha five times from here. This was considered a safe seat for his son, but he was washed away in the wave that crossed Rajasthan and the other Hindi-belt States. He lost to the BJP’s Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, Union Minister of State for Agriculture, by 2.74 lakh votes. The defeat is seen as a personal one for the Chief Minister for more than one reason. Both Narendra Modi and Amit Shah campaigned here.

Similarly, in Barmer, the son of former Union Minister Jaswant Singh, Manavendra Singh, who left the BJP last year and contested on the Congress ticket, lost by more than three lakh votes to Kailash Chaudhary of the BJP. Manavendra had unsuccessfully contested against Vasundhara Raje in the Assembly elections from Jhalrapatan.

Overall, the average victory margin has ranged between two lakhs and four lakhs. In Ajmer, Bhagirath Chaudhary trounced newbie Riju Jhunjhunwala of the Congress by four lakh votes and secured a vote share of 64.58 per cent. In the byelection to Ajmer in February last year, Raghu Sharma, a Minister in the present Congress government, won by more than 80,000 votes against his nearest rival, the BJP candidate. But he was not renominated as the party’s candidate. Similarly, Dr Karan Singh Yadav, who won the Lok Sabha election from Alwar by over 1.5 lakh votes, was not renominated from here.

Union Ministers Rajyavardhan Rathore and Arjun Ram Meghwal retained their seats from Jaipur (rural) and Bikaner (reserved) respectively. Rathore defeated fellow Olympian Krishna Poonia of the Congress with an even larger margin than last time, of around four lakh plus votes. Meghwal, who contested against his cousin Madan Gopal, secured a smaller vote margin. Here the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) secured 1.04 per cent of the votes.

The Congress and the BSP were expected to make some gains in eastern Rajasthan. As such, the victory margins for the BJP were lower in some of the seats in the region. The narrowest margin of victory for the BJP (78,000 votes) was in Dausa where former Union Minister Jaskaur Meena was pitted against Savita Meena, the wife of a Congress legislator. The BJP had delayed the declaration of the candidate from here following competing claims by Meena community leaders such as Rajya Sabha member Kirorilal Meena.

The Modi factor

There were 11 candidates in Dausa, which has been associated with the late Congress leader Rajesh Pilot. Dissensions in the BJP in Dausa did little to damage the party’s prospects in the Lok Sabha election as much as it did in the Assembly elections. In Karauli-Dholpur, the victory margin for the BJP candidate, Manoj Rajoria, was less than a lakh. Here the BSP managed 2.58 per cent of the votes. In the parliamentary election, Modi was seen as the great unifier by the party cadres who canvassed for votes in his name, reducing the candidates to non-entities.

Therefore, any anti-incumbency sentiment against the sitting MPs did not have an effect. In many places, the Prime Minister’s image was printed more prominently than that of the candidates. The message was that a vote for the BJP was a vote for Modi. Former BJP Minister Nihal Chand Meghwal, who was summoned by a court in a rape case, won from Ganganagar with a margin of four lakh plus votes. Nihal Chand was dropped as Minister of State for Panchayati Raj last year but was given the ticket from Ganganagar, where he won for the fifth time.

Sitting MP Ramcharan Bohra defeated former Jaipur Mayor Jyoti Khandelwal by over four lakh votes to retain the Jaipur seat. There were 25 candidates from here, the highest number of Lok Sabha contestants in any constituency in the State. In Jhalawar-Baran, Dushyant Singh, son of former Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, retained his seat with a greater margin than last time with four lakh plus votes.

After the first phase of voting and almost 10 days before the second phase, a young married Dalit woman was gang-raped in Alwar district. The delay by the police in filing a first information report (FIR) became a cause celebre for the BJP to make claims about the breakdown of law and order in the State. In public rallies, top BJP leaders repeatedly referred to the incident. There were protests by Dalit groups as well. It soon became an election issue. The matter subsided after all the accused were nabbed and Congress president Rahul Gandhi visited the victim and her family.

Rhetoric of nationalism

The BJP whipped up nationalism to good effect. The first rally by the Prime Minister after the surgical strike in Balakot was held in Churu where he said that “the country was in safe hands”. In Barmer, he took it to a different level when he told the crowd that India’s nuclear bomb was not “kept for Diwali”. His repeated invocation of the military and the armed forces was considered by many as an open defiance of the Election Commission’s Model Code of Conduct. “If I am not to talk about military valour, what am I here for? A bhajan mandali [spiritual gathering]?” he asked.

Yet the defeat of the Congress cannot be attributed to aggressive nationalism alone. The Congress was almost divided from the top to the bottom. The differences were reflected in the tussle over the choice of candidates which ultimately affected the overall prospects of the Congress apart from demoralising the rank and file. The factionalism in the Congress was a talking point even among the electorate. Nearly a fortnight after winning the Assembly elections, the party could not decide who would be Chief Minister given the aspirations of both Ashok Gehlot and party president Sachin Pilot. By the time a compromise was reached, it was too late.

The attempts of the Congress to woo the majority community by offering subsidies to cow shelters in its manifesto and by not taking any proactive action against cow vigilantes who continued to stalk the highways was also seen as appeasement of the majority community. The non-implementation of the grandiose promise to waive all farm loans within 10 days of coming to power by none other than Rahul Gandhi was a factor that caused deep resentment among farmers.

While cooperative bank loans had been waived thanks to successful struggles waged by the All India Kisan Sabha, the farmer and peasant wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), during the BJP’s tenure, the Congress was not seen as having done anything substantial for the farmer community. A leader of the Kisan Sabha had told Frontline that the Congress would pay the price for not implementing what it promised during the elections.

On the competitive “cow politics” of the party, he prophetically observed that “when the cow could not ensure a victory for the BJP in the Assembly elections, it was impossible that it would deliver a victory for the Congress and save it from obvious defeat”. The Congress leadership, on the other hand, tried to convince farmers that it would be able to waive all farm loans only if it was elected at the Centre. In hindsight, this argument did not seem to have appealed to the agrarian community.

BJP woos dissidents

That the party lacked a credible farmer leader from among Jats, a numerically and politically influential community in the State, was put to good use by the BJP. Its projection of a rebel BJP legislator, Hanuman Beniwal, first as a farmer leader and then allying with his party for the Lok Sabha election was a political master stroke of sorts. Beniwal had broken off from the BJP citing differences with Vasundhara Raje ahead of the Assembly elections last year and formed the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party. He tied up with the outfit of another BJP rebel and former Minister, Ghanshyam Tiwari, who unlike Beniwal was unlucky and lost very badly in the Assembly elections. While Tiwari left his parent party to join the Congress, Beniwal declared his party as an ally of the BJP for the Lok Sabha election and effectively won from Nagaur, trouncing former Congress MP Jyoti Mirdha by 1.8 lakh votes.

The BJP managed to win reserved seats as well. In Bharatpur (reserved), newcomer Akhilesh Jatav of the Congress was defeated by Ranjeeta Koli of the BJP by over three lakh votes. The BSP came third here, securing 2.76 per cent of the votes. In Banswara, the Bhartiya Tribal Party (BTP), which made its debut in the Assembly elections by winning two seats, spoiled the chances of a Congress win by putting up a candidate who secured 17.42 per cent of the votes. Even though the BJP candidate Kanaklal Katara won by over two lakh votes, had there been an understanding between the Congress and the BTP, it would have been difficult for the BJP to win from here.

A triangular contest was very much visible on the ground in Sikar, the hotbed of farmer agitations led by the Kisan Sabha. Yet the dividend of all the struggles were reaped by the BJP candidate, “Sant” Sumedhanand Saraswati, who won by 2.9 lakh votes and defeated former Minister Subhash Maharia, who had crossed over to the Congress from the BJP. Amra Ram of the CPI(M), who led many of the farmer struggles, including the one that led to the waiver of farm loans by the Vasundhara Raje government, came third. Ironically, both “sants”, or saints, fielded by the BJP, in Sikar and Alwar, won with resounding margins despite having nothing to do with farmers’ issues or the problems of the peasantry.

In Tonk-Sawai Madhopur, former Union Minister Namo Narayan Meena of the Congress put up a good fight against Sukhbir Jaunpuria, a businessman from Haryana; Jaunpuria’s victory margin of 1.1 lakh votes is small compared with that of other winners in the State. Here caste calculations went against the Congress. It is suspected that Gujjars who account for a sizeable number here voted against the Congress as their “caste brother” Sachin Pilot had not been considered for chief ministership. Several members of the community had told Frontline that they would not be voting for the Congress in the Lok Sabha election. Jaunpuria is from the Gujjar community and has represented Sawai Madhopur in the past.

In Rajasthan, in the absence of a third front, it was mostly a direct fight between the Congress and the BJP in all the 25 constituencies barring Sikar, Banswara and Udaipur where parties like the CPI(M) and the BTP too were in the fray. The BSP, which put up candidates in a number of seats, could not even come in the third place in many seats.

The loss of all 25 seats in Rajasthan has dealt a severe blow to the Congress as a whole, and its repercussions might reverberate in the already fissiparous party structure in the State. Ashok Gehlot was supposed to ensure victory in all the seats, which was a precondition for him becoming Chief Minister. The blame for the defeat, according to a Congress insider, however, cannot rest with Gehlot alone as it has been a rout not only in the State but elsewhere in the Hindi heartland too. “Had Rajasthan been an exception, it would have been different and heads would have rolled,” he said.

Unlike Madhya Pradesh, the Congress government in Rajasthan does not face any imminent danger of getting destabilised.

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