Factional feuds and shifting alliances shape the battle for Rajasthan Assembly

While BJP faces challenges within its own ranks, Congress struggles to keep the crucial Gujjar community on board.

Published : Nov 27, 2023 09:43 IST - 8 MINS READ

Villagers show their ink-marked fingers after casting votes for the Rajasthan Assembly election in Ajmer on November 25, 2023

Villagers show their ink-marked fingers after casting votes for the Rajasthan Assembly election in Ajmer on November 25, 2023 | Photo Credit: PTI

The trend of rising voter turnouts in both General and State Assembly elections in India continued in Rajasthan on November 25, mirroring the pattern observed in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Mizoram, which held their elections on November 7 and 17.

In Rajasthan, the voter turnout stood at 75.45 per cent, marginally higher than the 74.71 per cent recorded in 2018. The final voting percentage may increase slightly following by-polls in Karanpur, Sriganganagar district, where polling was postponed due to the death of the incumbent Congress MLA, Gurmeet Singh Kooner.

Voting took place in 199 of the 200 seats, with a total of 1,862 candidates in the fray. Following recent trends, voting percentages among women are expected to be high, possibly surpassing those of men in some constituencies. In 2018, the female voter turnout was 74.66 per cent.

The election was unique in more than one way. For the first time, home voting facilities were introduced for senior citizens aged 80 and above, and persons with disabilities. According to the Election Commission of India (ECI), 61,000 voters cast their votes from their homes. The high-decibel campaign revolved around appeasement politics, corruption, welfare schemes of the State and the centre, women’s safety, and the demand for a caste census.

The campaign was not without its share of drama. In the midst of the campaign, the Enforcement Directorate conducted raids against Congress leaders, including Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s son Vaibhav Gehlot and Pradesh Congress Committee chief Govind Dotasara, who was also a candidate in this election. In a third instance, the Rajasthan High Court intervened and restored the right to campaign of Mewaram Jain, the Congress candidate from Barmer, after he was issued an ED summons.

Also Read | Ashok Gehlot: ‘They have ED; I have seven guarantees’

Overall, the contest resembled a gladiatorial battle between Modi and 72-year-old Gehlot. Contrary to expectations, the BJP did not project any one candidate as the chief ministerial face. Unlike previous elections, where there was always clarity beforehand on who the BJP Chief Minister would be, this time, there was none. There are more than a dozen Chief Minister aspirants in the fray, including Rajsamand MP Diya Kumari, who was asked to contest from Vallabhnagar in Jaipur district.

The Raje puzzle

Among the probables is two-time Chief Minister 70-year-old Vasundhara Raje herself, who led the BJP to a resounding victory in 2013 and who was expected to lead the party once again. She fell out of favour, with some party insiders attributing it to her not being “RSS” enough. This interpretation can be contested as Raje has been unwaveringly with the Sangh, unlike her brother, the late Madhavrao Scindia, who remained with the Congress till his demise in 2001.

Raje has also been successively elected to the Assembly since 1984. She has served as Union minister under NDA governments and was elected five times to the Lok Sabha. In 2018, she could not ensure a victory for the BJP, but the party did not fare all that badly. This was despite the hard-handed quelling of two protests for reservations led by the Gujjar community that resulted in the deaths of 72 persons during her regime. Interestingly, despite the wave of discontent against the BJP, the Congress struggled for a simple majority.

Raje’s falling out of favour happened gradually between 2018 and 2023. Even though it is said that she retains her charisma and hold among her supporters, the equations between her and the central command had faltered. But even her critics in the opposition maintain that Raje was the only leader in the party who still had an all-State presence and that she was the only one capable of pulling off a victory.

But today Raje is not seen as the only alternative by her party. Other possible contenders for the Chief Minister title include Alwar MP Mahant Balaknath Yogi, who was asked to contest from Tijara in a highly polarising campaign. Balaknath, known as the “Adityanath Yogi” of Rajasthan, is from the Yadav community and has a strong presence in the Mewat regions of Alwar and Bharatpur.

In an interview to a news portal, Balaknath compared the Tijara contest to an India-Pakistan match. He is one of the leading faces of the campaign against minority appeasement and will face Imran Khan of the Congress. Other CM hopefuls from the BJP include party president C.P. Joshi, deputy leader of the Opposition and former party chief Satish Poonia, and union ministers Gajendra Singh Shekhawat and Arjun Ram Meghwal. The BJP central command floated the concept of a “collective leadership”, but it was not convincing. It was seen as an attempt to set right the factions within the party.

With Raje sidelined, it became evident that the high-octane campaign would be led by PM Modi from the front. The lack of projection of candidates was so much so that in some places, like Nagaur, where the PM had a public rally, the name of the candidate itself was not mentioned.

The BJP’s State leadership has been in a fractious state for some time now. Whether this will be enough reason for the Congress to make a comeback is doubtful, as factional fights within the Congress have also been very apparent.

There is a theory that the absence of a CM face, as in the case of the BJP, could either result in a consolidation of the myriad vote banks represented by the multiple contenders or it could simply boomerang, with the votes getting fractured as each contender makes a claim to the throne.

Voters show their ID cards as they stand in a queue to cast their vote for the Rajasthan Assembly elections in Ajmer on November 25.

Voters show their ID cards as they stand in a queue to cast their vote for the Rajasthan Assembly elections in Ajmer on November 25. | Photo Credit: ANI

The BJP re-nominated 59 of the 70 sitting legislators it had, while the Congress, which faces the risk of anti-incumbency, re-nominated as many as 97 sitting MLAs. Clearly, both parties have tried hard to mitigate the ‘rebel’ factor by nominating a large number of their sitting MLAs.

Sources said that the infighting in the BJP and the over-reliance on the PM were drawbacks for the BJP. There were close to 20 to 25 seats where rebels were expected to make an impact for either party. In Sheo constituency in Barmer district, there were as many as three BJP rebels in the fray.

Despite the Congress party’s incumbency in Rajasthan, the BJP senses an opportunity to gain ground in the upcoming elections. This is due to a perceived anti-incumbency sentiment against the re-nominated Congress MLAs, which could cost the party dearly.

The Congress maintains that there is no anti-incumbency against Gehlot. However, signs of desperation emerged when the party released its manifesto just three days before polling day. The manifesto included promises such as a Minimum Support Price for farmers based on the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations and a doubling of the annual health insurance coverage from 25 to 50 lakhs under the Chiranjeevi health insurance scheme.

Sources within the Congress have acknowledged that the party’s existing welfare schemes have not effectively reached the grassroots level, and that the campaign surrounding these issues has been lacking. “We have addressed much of the government’s anti-incumbency at the State level, but the same cannot be said for the local level,” admitted a Congress strategist. He expressed confidence in the support of government employees, citing the Old Pension Scheme and other administrative policies that have endeared the Gehlot government to them.

Also Read | Congress focus on renewable energy in Rajasthan faces backlash on ground

However, the Congress faces challenges within its own ranks. At least a dozen sitting Congress ministers are facing rebellions from within the party. This prompted AICC in charge for Rajasthan, Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa, to issue a letter urging all Congress rebels to “mend their ways and toe the party line”.

The Gujjar game

There is also concern that the Congress could lose support from the Gujjar community in two to three dozen seats due to its failure to project Sachin Pilot as a potential Chief Minister candidate. However, Congress leaders argue that the Gujjar community in Eastern Rajasthan has traditionally voted for the BJP, and their return to the BJP would not significantly impact the Congress. They point out that the community has voted for the Congress beyond Ajmer and westwards. Additionally, the Gujjar community still bears the scars of the Raje regime and may not easily forget the loss of lives during that time.

“If the community had voted for the Congress last time because of the possibility that Pilot may be CM, then we should have crossed 135 seats. But that didn’t happen. After 1998, we have never been able to cross the threshold comfortably,” said a Congress source. Despite these challenges, Congress leaders recognise that every community’s support matters in a closely contested election. Gehlot has made efforts to project unity with Pilot, sharing a video of Pilot appealing for votes just before the polls and reportedly tweeting: “Hum saath hain, saath hee rahenge. (We are together; we will always be together)“.

The Congress is contesting on 199 seats, leaving one seat for its ally, Rashtriya Lok Dal. The BJP is contesting on all 200 seats. Other parties in the fray include the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India, Azad Samaj Party, Bharat Adivasi Party, AIMIM, and the Aam Aadmi Party.

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