A losing game

Of the three BJP-ruled States where elections are held in this round, the anti-incumbency sentiment is the strongest in Rajasthan.

Published : Nov 21, 2018 12:30 IST

Chief Minister  Vasundhara Raje with BJP president Amit Shah during the organisational meetings ahead of the State Assembly elections, in Jaipur on July 21, 2018.

Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje with BJP president Amit Shah during the organisational meetings ahead of the State Assembly elections, in Jaipur on July 21, 2018.

WITH 200 seats in the Assembly (constituting 25 Lok Sabha seats), Rajasthan, where the Assembly elections will be held on December 7, is of special importance to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, the two main parties pitted against each other in the State. As in the case of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, winning this round of elections wll be an uphill task for the BJP government in Rajasthan, which is facing an intense anti-incumbency sentiment. A Lokniti-CSDS-ABP News pre-election survey done in the third week of October found that of the three States, the sentiment was the strongest in Rajasthan. Other opinion polls have also predicted a comfortable lead for the Congress in the State.

The predominant reasons for the dissatisfaction among voters relate to State-specific issues such as governance, administrative decisions, law and order, farmer distress and remunerative prices for crops. In addition to these are unemployment, price rise of both food and fuel, and the Central government policies of demonetisation and Goods and Services Tax that broke the backbone of farmers and traders. In conversation with a cross section of people and political experts, Frontline found that there was a genuine feeling among them that the Vasundhara Raje government slumped into inertia despite the presence of a BJP government at the Centre and securing a three-fourths majority in the State in the 2013 elections (winning 163 of 200 seats).

“The Congress fell out of favour with the people for precisely this reason. It did not do anything for the electorate when it was in power. I have been a BJP voter all my life, but this time I am going to vote differently. This was the first time shops were literally empty in the days preceding Deepavali,” said a Sindhi trader in Jaipur city. Although the BJP has always had the support of the urban electorate, it is learnt that this time around there is strong disaffection among that group too. More worrying for the BJP is the fact that it had lost recent byelections to two Lok Sabha seats and one Assembly seat.

Dissent in the BJP

In 2013, the BJP led by Vasundhara Raje romped home with a thumping majority, limiting the Congress’ tally to 22 seats. Five years later, the party is finding it difficult to retain its massive mandate.

The inner-party rumblings began on the day the first list of 131 candidates was announced by the party. Surendra Goyal, five-time legislator and Minister for Public Health Engineering and Ground Water, quit the party for being denied the ticket. BJP MLA Manvendra Singh, son of former Union Minister Jaswant Singh, joined the Congress in October. This is seen as an advantage to the Congress because he belongs to the Rajput community, which is considered a traditional vote bank of the BJP.

The BJP MLA from Nagaur, Habibur Rehman, a well-known minority face in the party, returned to the fold of the Congress. So did Harish Chandra Meena, former Indian Police Service officer and BJP Lok Sabha member from Dausa. Given the caste combinations, the induction of these names into the Congress is expected to adversely affect the BJP.

Inner-party revolt

Observers attribute the anti-incumbency sentiment mainly to Vasundhara Raje, who leads the BJP’s election campaign in the State. There have been reports of tensions between the Centre and the State government and of an “oust Raje” campaign from within the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the BJP. Yet the BJP has not been able to project any credible alternative to the incumbent Chief Minister. A majority of the MLAs owe their allegiance to Vasundhara Raje, and any move against her is expected to affect the party organisation.

A silent revolt against Vasundhara Raje has been on in the BJP for some years now. Earlier this year, party veteran Ghanshyam Tiwari, who was Education Minister in her Cabinet, quit the BJP following differences with her and formed an outfit called the Bharat Vahini Party. Hanuman Beniwal, a former student leader and now MLA from Khinvsar in Nagaur, formed the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party in an attempt to tap votes of farmers who have been affected by agrarian distress. Beniwal had contested the 2013 elections as an independent candidate after he was suspended from the BJP. He has been projecting himself as a Jat leader and advocating the need for a “Jat Chief Minister” on the grounds that the Jats constitute the largest community in the State. In that sense, the appeal of both Beniwal and Tiwari is confined to protecting the interests of certain caste groups.

Irrespective of their claims, it is widely perceived that both their outfits are fronts created by the RSS in order to split the votes of the opposition, which hopes to ride the anti-incumbency wave. “As one can’t increase the pro-incumbency vote, the idea is to split and disintegrate the anti-incumbency vote. Hence, we have multiple outfits contesting today,” said Ramesh Dadhich, a social scientist. The BJP, which is considered a traders’ party, has never been able to project a credible farmers’ leader; Beniwal is expected to fill this vacuum.

Tiwari’s party is expected to prevent the upper-caste votes from going to the Congress, especially in the context of the resentment among the upper castes against the Central government’s flip-flop on the Supreme Court order on the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. An encounter killing of a member of the Rajput community too had alienated most of the upper castes from the BJP.

Both Dalits and upper-caste groups blame the government for the police repression following the Bharat bandh called by Dalits on April 2, which resulted in widespread violence. In many places, Dalits were not allowed to protest even as upper-caste groups went about holding demonstrations and taking out processions. In Sawai Madhopur, the house of a former Minister of the Congress was burnt, but the party did not protest for fear of antagonising the upper castes.

Left-led third front

A third front option is also in in the fray. Known as the Rashtriya Loktantrik Manch, it is led by farmers’ leader Amra Ram, four-time legislator of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The constituents of the Manch include the three Left parties—the CPI(M), the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)—the Samajwadi Party and the Janata Dal (Secular). The All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) and the CPI(M) have led massive farmers’ agitations in the State.

A 13-day agitation in the Shekhawati region led by the AIKS under Amra Ram’s leadership was a significant farmers’ protest that woke the BJP up from its slumber. The AIKS managed to get the government to waive loans of up to Rs.50,000 for farmers. Similarly, the Left parties were in the forefront of agitations against the lynching of cattle traders in the State. Ravinder Shukla, State secretariat member of the CPI(M), said the protests by transport workers and employees in October demanding timely payment of salaries and pensions also received support from the people. “For 22 days, no bus of Rajasthan roadways was allowed to ply. There was full support from the transport employees and workers,” he said.

Yet another agitation by the AIKS resulted in the government revoking the hike in electricity tariffs that it effected in the very first year of governance.

Apart from some identity-based regional parties, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) are the other parties contesting in all the 200 seats. The BSP hopes to cash in on the repression of Dalits during their protests against the dilution of the S.Cs and the S.Ts (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The AAP is also planning to contest in all the seats, said spokesperson Devinder Shastri, a former journalist.

Congress and infighting

The Congress, despite the political advantage it has in the present scenario, has been bogged down by squabbles between two of its prominent leaders, former Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Pradesh Congress president Sachin Pilot, over chief ministership. “No one has the time to talk about the manifesto as the main challenge is to settle the rift between the two leaders and their supporters. We might form the government only because the BJP is losing,” said a party worker. In an attempt to diffuse the inner-party tension, the party announced that both Gehlot and Pilot would be contesting the elections. “If we project either one of them as the leader, we stand to lose the caste base of the other,” said a party worker. While Gehlot, by virtue of being Chief Minister two times, has considerable acceptability across communities, Pilot is credited for having steered the Congress for five years as the State president and commands respect within the organisation.

The BJP government has been trying hard to project its achievements by organising “Laabharthi yojanas”, or programmes showcasing the beneficiaries of its schemes. It is learnt that people were compelled to attend these programmes and, in some cases, made to take “selfies” to prove their presence. Several top-ranking leaders, including Chief Ministers of BJP-ruled States and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are expected to campaign in the State after November 22, the last date for the withdrawal of nominations.

Despite the high-decibel campaign, it will not be easy for the BJP to hold on to the 163 seats it won last time. Whether it will get decimated is a matter of speculation.

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