Winds of change

Print edition : November 07, 1998

In Rajasthan, a stream of defections from the ruling BJP to the Congress(I) points to the way the wind is blowing in the desert State.

ON November 25, nearly 3 crore voters of Rajasthan will deliver their verdict on the performance of the first Bharatiya Janata Party Government in the State to complete its five-year term. Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat headed two governments earlier, but both were dismissed - in February 1980 and December 1992. Shekhawat has been in power for the past eight years except for a one-year interregnum, when the State was under President's Rule.

Today, the BJP in Rajasthan finds that its support level has reached saturation point. The Congress(I) has regained some of the support it traditionally had among the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the minorities. The virtual elimination of the "third front" in the State, the Janata Dal, has proved counter-productive for the BJP.

The Congress(I) is pinning much hope on the electoral outcome in Rajasthan. A victory here would provide the party - and its president Sonia Gandhi - a launchpad to aim for bigger things at the national level. The results of the Lok Sabha elections in February, when the Cong- ress(I) won 18 of the 25 parliamentary seats, encouraged the party, which had until then considered Shekhawat to be invincible. The BJP won only five seats. The two other seats were won by independents Sheesram Ola and Buta Singh with the support of the Congress(I).

Since then, Ola, a leader from Jhunjhunu district, which has a significant number of people belonging to the Jat community, has returned to the Congress(I). Buta Singh too sought re-entry, but the State-level leadership opposed it. In addition, immediately after the Lok Sabha elections a string of BJP leaders sought entry into the Congress(I). They were mostly Janata Dal or Congress(I) leaders who had defected to the BJP but who wanted to leave the party, sensing a decline in its political fortunes in the State. However, the local leadership of the Congress(I) set itself firmly against any move to let in the "outsiders". Some of the leaders who wished to cross over were known to have been close to Shekhawat, and the local leadership of the Congress(I) was apprehensive that they were "Trojan horses" being planted by the Chief Minister.

Among those who were admitted into the Congress(I) were former BJP Ministers Gangaram Chowdury, Gyan Singh and Shashi Somdutt, and BJP MLAs Dr. Shankar Bhanuda, Gopi Chand Gujjar, Rewat Ram and Moti Lal Jatav. Two other defectors - Bhanwarlal Sharma, who was formerly with the Janata Dal and the BJP, and Mahendra Kumari, a former BJP MP and a member of the Alwar royal family - resolved to work to defeat the BJP. Union Minister Dr. Abrar Ahmed too parted ways with the BJP and was readmitted into the Congress(I). Former Rajya Sabha member of the BJP, Shivcharan Singh Gujjar, resigned from the party and is awaiting admission into the Congress(I). There are quite a few others who are still with the BJP but who are biding their time before crossing over to the Congress(I).

THERE are 200 Assembly constituencies in Rajasthan, and in the February 1998 Lok Sabha elections the BJP "lost" in 144 Assembly segments. The party's political prospects have not improved since then: in addition to the "anti-incumbency factor" that operates at the State level, the party finds itself defending the less-than-impressive record of the Central Government, which it heads.

Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat.-ANU PUSHKARNA

During a recent tour of three regions - Jodhpur, Udaipur and Sreeganganagar - this correspondent spoke to a cross-section of the public and local-level political leaders. There is, even among BJP workers, a perception that the Congress(I) is certain to return to power. The morale of BJP activists was lifted only marginally by the revamp of the State unit and the expansion of the Shekhawat Ministry undertaken after the Lok Sabha elections.

Attempts to whip up jingoistic fervour following the nuclear tests at Pokhran (in Rajasthan) failed when the impact of the sanctions imposed in their wake began to show. The administration's failure to check price rise, which rendered costly even the kanta-roti (onion and roti), the staple food of the poor, has caused much anguish. The Government also faces the criticism that it failed to provide adequate relief to the drought-affected people in over a dozen districts and has failed to address the problem of unemployment.

The BJP is also under pressure from caste groups that feel "slighted". Members of the Jat community, who can influence the electoral outcome in 60 Assembly constituencies, are annoyed because, in their opinion, the Government had in the past overly favoured the Rajput community. The Jat community, which has in recent years supported the Congress(I), is also displeased by the removal of Sahib Singh Verma as Delhi Chief Minister. However, the Rajput community appears to be reconsidering its support to the BJP.

The delay in announcing that Shekhawat would be the party's candidate for Chief Minister undermined his authority, and when it was made, it displeased those who had been waiting in the wings, such as Deputy Chief Minister Harishankar Bhabhra, Public Works Minister Lalit Kishore Chaturvedi, State party president Raghuveer Singh Kaushal and former State party president Ramdas Agarwal. One of Shekhawat's assets is his ability to formulate party strategy in the selection of candidates and putting up "suitable" candidates against the Congress(I) taking caste factor into consideration. However, the very fact that Shekhawat will have a major role in the choice of candidates is resented by Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh activists in Rajasthan.

The Congress(I) has not named its candidate for the chief ministership apparently because projecting one leader would displease the caste formations that other leaders belong to. The names in circulation are those of former State party chief Ashok Gehlot, former Union Minister K. Natwar Singh, former Chief Minister S.C. Mathur, Congress(I) Legislature Party leader Parasram Maderna and former Union Minister Nawal Kishore Sharma.

The Jat community, which stood solidly behind the Congress(I) for long, wants one of its leaders to become Chief Minister; no Jat leader has ever been one in the State. But if the Congress(I) favours a Jat leader, voters belonging to other communities would turn against it.

THE constituents of the United Front - the Janata Dal, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the CPI - hope to contest 120 seats and form a credible "third force" in the Assembly. But aware of the political reality - that in Rajasthan the contest is principally between the BJP and the Congress(I) - these parties wish to avoid splitting non-BJP votes. The CPI(M) will contest a dozen seats, including its traditional strongholds such as Dhod and Sangaria; the CPI will field candidates in over 30 seats. The Janata Dal, which won only six seats in 1993, will contest the rest. The U.F. constituents are focussing their attention on Banswara, Dungarpur, Sawai Madhopur, Sikar, Sreeganganagar, Hanumangarh, Chittorgarh, Alwar and Bharatpur districts. Given their performance in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, their expectations are modest. In that round, the Janata Dal secured 2.31 per cent of the popular vote, the CPI(M) 1.28 per cent, and the CPI 0.62 per cent. The Congress(I) secured 44.45 per cent of the popular vote, and the BJP 41.65 per cent.

The Bahujan Samaj Party, which secured 2.12 per cent of the popular vote in the State in the Lok Sabha elections, is seeking to enter the Assembly for the first time. So are the BJP's allies at the Centre, such as the Akali Dal, the Samata Party and the Haryana Lok Dal of Devi Lal.

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