Caste-based politics and inner-party divisions may work against the BJP in Congress(I)-ruled Rajasthan.
WHEN the Congress(I) came to power in Rajasthan after the 1998 Assembly elections with a comfortable majority, it probably did not realise that five years later it might find itself in a position of relative advantage as compared to the main Opposition party the Bharatiya Janata Party. The Ashok Gehlot government seems to be better placed to win the Assembly elections, to be held on December 1.
The Assembly elections are being held in the backdrop of four years of severe drought. The Gehlot government was compelled to get its act together, more so in the past one year when sustained efforts were made to mitigate the effects of drought. The government also successfully projected the picture of an unhelpful Central government. Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi made periodic visits to the State, ostensibly to inspect drought relief works, and spoke about the Centre's unfriendly attitude towards Rajasthan. That there was a genuine problem in the foodgrain supply from the Centre was clear, for the supplies from the Food Corporation of India (FCI) were inadequate to meet the projected requirements of the State. On the administrative front, the government decided to make public accountability a serious affair, especially after a lot of pressure was brought to bear on it by farmers' organisations and non-government groups in the State.
Gehlot won plaudits for reining in Pravin Togadia, the international general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), who was in the State to take part in the trishul deeksha programme. Togadia was arrested in Ajmer following a trishul deeksha programme in May. On the face of it, it appeared to be a sensible decision, given the fact that such programmes had a strong potential for causing communal trouble. But it was also true that the Gehlot government could have sent a strict message when similar activities were initiated a few years ago in Bhilwara district causing a lot of tension there. The impression in some sections is that the Gehlot government does react, but only after a situation is allowed to build up.
Such misgivings are not unfounded as the recent incidents in Jhalawar district prove. In Aklera of Jhalawar district, the Bajrang Dal targeted a place of worship belonging to a minority community. "Without any provocation whatsoever, some communal forces vandalised the homes and structures of members of the minority community. They have vitiated the atmosphere," Gehlot said. Jhalawar is one of the strongholds of the BJP and the Lok Sabha constituency of Vasundhara Raje Scindia. However, the rehabilitation of the families who fled Aklera has been tardy and it was also learnt that most of the accused were still at large. He said that there have been deliberate attempts to disrupt communal harmony in the State. When asked about taking steps to prevent communal tension, Gehlot told Frontline that his government had appointed Community Liasion Groups in the districts to maintain communal amity.
Asked about the contentious issue of reservation for the poor among the upper castes, Gehlot said he had written to the Prime Minister proposing 14 per cent reservation for the economically backward among all castes. "We supported the Karpoori Thakur formula in the early 1990s. We are just reiterating out old position. We will put pressure on the Centre to act on it even after the elections," said Gehlot.
THE State BJP has remained a divided house for much of the last five years. Despite being the main Opposition party, it was unable to project itself as having compelled the government to take ameliorative steps in the drought years. The effective management of drought will be one of the central issues in the forthcoming elections. Ashok Gehlot told Frontline: "We can say that the BJP has proved to be a completely incompetent Opposition party. In the last five years, not once did they forcefully raise the issue of hardship caused by drought. None of their top leaders in the Centre even bothered to visit the State when it was in its worst crisis. While we project the issue of vikaas (development), the BJP is trying to make this an election issue."
Adding to the BJP's woes is the unhappiness in the party over the selection of State party president Vasundhararaje Scindia as the chief ministerial candidate. The activities of the Social Justice Front (SJF), an organisation that has been at the forefront of the movement to secure reservation for the economically backward among the upper castes, has also caused a lot of worries for the BJP, especially because the SJF owes its genesis to a section of the BJP State leadership.
Spearheaded by a BJP legislator, Devi Singh Bhati, and Lokendra Singh Kalvi, the SJF repeatedly disrupted the meetings of the Parivartan Yatra led by Vasundhararaje Scindia this year. Bhati was expelled from the BJP in September and the SJF has decided to put up candidates in at least 150 constituencies. The SJF's agitation was mainly triggered by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government's decision to give reservation to Jats by placing them in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category. The SJF has been primarily lobbying for the interests of the Rajput community. Sections of the Brahmin community too have organised themselves demanding affirmative action in favour the poor among them.
Above all, the BJP is worried about the discontent with the NDA government at the Centre. The absence of the BJP stalwart Bhairon Singh Shekhawat from the State's politics after he became Vice-President may also affect the BJP. There was no leadership tussle as long as he was in the State. Vasundhararaje Scindia, who is regarded as his nominee, does not enjoy the political stature that he does.
The elections will be largely a contest between the Congress(I) and the BJP though the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Janata Dal (United), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Samajwadi Party and the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) may be in fray in some constituencies. While the CPI(M) is contesting in 18 seats, the INLD is contesting alone without an alliance with the BJP, its NDA ally. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) are yet to reveal their intentions. As no third front has emerged, most of the secular parties will have a broad understanding on seats and approach the electorate with an anti-communal agenda. Observers point out that those classified as "others" may play a role in government formation in the event of either major party failing to secure a simple majority.
This speculation is not unfounded as there appears to be no wave - in favour of either Gehlot or the BJP - at the moment. While most surveys have projected a Congress(I) government in Rajasthan, Gehlot says he would rather repose more faith in the final verdict. The Congress(I) will mainly have to reckon with the factor of anti-incumbency as far as the sitting Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) are concerned. In the 200-member Assembly, the party has 155 legislators and the BJP 33. It is clear that both parties will have to do a lot of work to contain dissent as some sitting legislators will have to be dropped.
A close aide of Gehlot said: "The margins which can cause a defeat or a victory are not very large. Even 5,000 votes can make a lot of difference. It is important to ensure that the votes do not get divided in too many factions. Those who have been assured of renomination have been told to start campaigning. As for those seats where there are doubts or where there has been some problem with the image of the candidate, it will be resolved in a few days." He added that the local factor and the image of the candidate will be crucial factors. As for the image of the outgoing Chief Minister, the BJP had failed to rake up anything against Gehlot. "Overall, there are no corruption charges or character blemishes. He has managed to retain his dominance as the only Congress(I) leader in the State," said Hari Ram Chauhan, a veteran CPI(M) leader.
But this is not to say that there is no discontent. The unemployed are frustrated and the State government recognises the problem. When the Gehlot government came to power, retirement benefits were curtailed. It reinforced a ban on fresh recruitments to government jobs, brought in by the previous BJP-led government. About 6,000 factories were closed, and the condition of small-scale industries was bad. As far as the economic policy of the government was concerned, it was very much on the lines of the liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation policies followed by the Centre. While the government may have acted decisively in dealing with communal elements especially after there were threats to "repeat a Gujarat in Rajasthan", there were decisions of appeasement too, which did not go unnoticed. The influential Jain community was given minority status and the move drew a lot of criticism. Congress(I) Ministers, in a bid to seek caste support, also participated in the meetings of the SJF and aligned themselves with the issues it raised.
Recently, the Cabinet passed a resolution seeking the inclusion of the Rajasthani language in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution. Gehlot also wrote to the Prime Minister requesting him to take it up in the coming Parliament session. He remarked that it was an "emotive issue".
The campaigns have begun, and both Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Congress(I) president addressed separate rallies in Jaipur. It was learnt that Sonia Gandhi would lead the campaign in constituencies considered BJP strongholds. Large sections of the electorate will prefer to vote on issues of governance and development unless emotive, jingoistic and narrow considerations dominate the electoral discourse. The issues of livelihood are a serious matter, and populist slogans such as the one seeking reservation for upper castes will only widen the schism between caste groups. The electorate had voted out the BJP government in 1998 mainly because it was fed up of corruption, lawlessness and rising prices and unemployment. Given the low expectations of the majority of the people, for whom staying alive is a struggle, the choice between the BJP and the Congress(I) is after all a limited one.