Assembly Elections - Rajasthan

No clear favourite

Print edition : November 29, 2013

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi with Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot at a party rally at Kherli in Alwar district on October 23. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

THE BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi with Rajasthan BJP president Vasundhara Raje at an election rally in Udaipur on October 26. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

K.L. Meena, Member of Parliament, with his wife Golma Devi in Jaipur on April 6. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

The inability of the Ashok Gehlot-led Congress government in Rajasthan to address the issues of spiralling prices and agricultural decline and the BJP’s failure to present itself as a better alternative leave the electorate with little choice.

THE constitution and composition of the 14th Assembly in Rajasthan, which will be determined by the outcome of the elections on December 1, will be keenly watched for more than one reason. Being one of the larger States that go to the polls this year, Rajasthan’s election results are bound to have a bearing on the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The party that forms the next government will hold the key to the outcome in the 25 Lok Sabha seats in the State, too. Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has carved an electoral niche for himself by leading the Congress to victory in two previous elections. In an apparent wave, the Congress under his leadership wrested 150 seats in the 1998 Assembly elections, and it won 96 seats in 2008, falling short of a majority in the 200-member Assembly. Gehlot formed the government with the help of six legislators of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)—who subsequently joined the Congress—and some independents. The BJP, incidentally, did not fare all that badly; it won 78 seats but many felt that but for the dissensions in the party, the outcome would have been starkly different.

Gehlot may not be lucky a third time. While several pre-election surveys have ruled out a victory for the Congress this time, interestingly, they have also revealed that there is no great antipathy towards him and that the public perception of him is as favourable as that of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) State president and former Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia.

The possibility of a hung Assembly after the coming elections cannot be ruled out. While voter loyalty has swung like a pendulum between the two parties, the steady rise in the vote share of independents in the past one decade or so points to increasing voter preference for non-Congress, non-BJP candidates.

Even though the electoral spoils have been shared, by and large, equally by the two parties, neither of them has been able to secure a 50 per cent vote share independently. In 1990, despite winning 33.64 per cent of the votes, the Congress seat tally fell short of a majority, and the BJP, with a 25.25 per cent vote share, formed the government with the help of the Janata Dal.

In the 10th Vidhan Sabha elections in 1993, the BJP won 96 seats, but its worst performance was in 1998, when it won a mere 33 seats. While the Congress has never been able to repeat its massive victory of 1998, the predictions are that the BJP too will not be able to repeat its performance of 2003, when, under the leadership of Vasundhara Raje, it wrested 120 seats, reducing the Congress’ tally to 56.

Others in the fray

The performances of the Rajasthan Loktantrik Morcha (RLM)—a five-party non-BJP, non-Congress formation comprising the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M); the Communist Party of India; the Samajwadi Party; the Janata Dal (United), or the JD(U); and the Janata Dal (Secular)—on the one hand, and the National People’s Party (NPP), floated by the former Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma and steered by the independent Member of Parliament from Dausa K.L. Meena, on the other, are going to be keenly watched.

Meena, a BJP Minister who left the party in 2008, is known for his ability to mobilise votes. Interestingly, his wife, Golma Devi, who was a Minister in the Gehlot government, has been made the NPP’s State president. Meena has attacked the BJP and the Congress stridently. He has also appealed to the Gujjars to join hands with members of his Meena community. This appeal is significant because, in the prolonged agitation by the Gujjar community seeking the Scheduled Tribe status during Vasundhara Raje’s tenure, there were a series of violent clashes between it and the Meenas, leading to several deaths. The Meena community, which is a Scheduled Tribe, feared that it would lose out in the reservations pie if the Gujjars were added to the S.T. list. These agitations created a virtual schism between the communities. The Gujjar agitation has since dissipated and its leadership disintegrated. The Gujjars’ demand, though, remains, with both the BJP and the Congress breaking their promises to them. K.L. Meena has now held out the olive branch to the Gujjars by promising to fulfil their demand. He had played an active role in the Parivartan Yatras led by Vasundhara Raje to assuage the feelings of the two communities. He wields influence in at least 10 constituencies.

The RLM, which was initially a four-party formation, got an unexpected boost when the JD(U), after breaking ranks with the BJP, joined it. It hopes to emerge as a credible alternative to the Congress and the BJP.

Farmers’ woes

The CPI(M) has three legislators in the Assembly and hopes that its consistent mobilisation of farmers over the past several years will help it increase its tally this time. The party is a force to reckon with in the Shekhawati belt, especially in Sikar and Ganganagar, where its agitations have ensured a lot of benefits to the agricultural community.

“We succeeded in getting a total compensation of about Rs.229 crore for farmers in four tehsils where crops were destroyed and claims under the crop insurance were not met,” said CPI(M) State secretary Vasudev. Similarly, the Kisan Sabha, the party’s farmers’ organisation, held agitations that stalled the government’s move to increase power tariffs, which was a big relief to 16 lakh users of tubewells.

The Congress government’s welfare schemes offering free medicines, free saris or pensions may have offered some relief to farmers but the effects of these measures have been offset on the whole by the spiralling prices of food. Farmers are unhappy about the high costs of agricultural inputs and the government’s reluctance to pay even the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for produce such as groundnuts.

“The farmer gets Rs.4 a kilogram for the kanda (onion), which then goes into storage and is sold to the consumer at Rs.100 a kg. The farmer naturally feels cheated. Similarly, the MSP for groundnuts was Rs.4,000 a quintal and the government has reduced it to Rs.3,500 a quintal,” said Amra Ram, CPI(M) legislator from Danta Ramgarh. Amra Ram defeated former Congress president Narayan Singh in the last elections. Farmers, he said, hold the Congress governments at the Centre and the State responsible for the current mess.

Ministers and murders

The involvement of senior Congress leaders and Ministers in cases of murders and encounters has dented the image of Gehlot and the party to a large extent. Two Cabinet Ministers and one legislator were found guilty of rape and murder. The BJP, too, has not been free of such murkiness. In July, Gulab Chand Kataria, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajasthan Assembly and former Home Minister, got anticipatory bail in the infamous Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case. Kataria has been given the party ticket to contest from Udaipur.

The BJP has become active as an opposition party only in the past few months, especially after Vasundhara Raje was made the State president. Factionalism continues to plague the party although it is believed that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) has become active in mobilising the cadre from below.

There were as many as 352 incidents of communal violence during Gehlot’s regime, the worst being the clash over disputed land in Gopalgarh in Bharatpur district, where 10 members of the minority community were killed last year. Administrative ineptness could have led to an escalation of tension, but there have been attempts to polarise the electorate in areas with significant minority populations. As the minorities will be able to tilt the balance in a dozen or more constituencies, the election remains an open race.