At an event hosted by a media group on September 24, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi remarked that the party was confident of winning Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Telangana, but it would be a close call in Rajasthan. This was interpreted as a subtle message to the party’s leadership in Rajasthan to get its act together. In the 200-member House, the Congress has 108 members, the Bharatiya Janata Party 70, the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party 3, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) 3, the Bharatiya Tribal Party 2, the Rashtriya Lok Dal 1, and Independents 13.
On September 23, Gandhi inaugurated a new site for the office of the Pradesh Congress Committee in Jaipur. At the Mansarovar grounds, a popular site for public meetings, women party workers were mobilised from in and around Jaipur, and women’s issues and the Women’s Reservation Bill formed the core of the speeches.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a whirlwind tour of Rajasthan on September 25, where he addressed booth-level party workers. It also marked the conclusion of the four Parivartan Sankalp Yatras, spread over 19 days and covering all 200 constituencies. Modi has made nine visits to the State in the past one year. The personal interest he is showing in the State probably has to do with the rift in the State unit that is making news. Observers say the party is split vertically down to the rank and file. The Parivartan Yatras were also meant to unite these factions.
In the years past, former Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje led all the Parivartan Yatras, drawing huge crowds, especially women. But this time she did not do so and even preferred to stay out of the Jhalawar and Kota legs of the yatra. Raje represents Jhalawar in the Assembly and her son, Dushyant Singh, is the MP from Jhalawar-Baran.
In 2013, Raje led the party to a big win: 163 of the 200 seats. But in 2018 the party’s tally was reduced to 70, and since then things have not worked out in her favour. In fact, this time the atmospherics in the party headquarters on Sardar Patel Marg in Jaipur is rather muted. The irony was not lost on anyone. A party that has been going to town on the importance of women in politics had effectively shown to its most significant leader in the State, a woman, the door. While there is unanimity on the point that Raje is the only leader who can pull off a victory for the BJP, she herself does not seem to care about the central leadership.
Raje’s stature within the party does not sit well with many leaders at the Centre or in the State. “Nigalte nahi ban raha hai aur ugaltey bhi nahi ban raha hai,” quipped a party insider. It simply means that the BJP can neither accept her nor reject her completely. Raje has been kept out of the leadership of all the election committees. On September 24, however, she participated in a core committee meeting and made it a point to tweet about it.
Chief Minister aspirants
The BJP has been at pains to project the concept of a “combined leadership” in Rajasthan. Apart from Raje, there are close to a dozen Chief Minister aspirants: State BJP chief C.P. Joshi; former party chiefs Satish Poonia and O.P. Mathur; State-in-charge Arun Singh; Leader of the Opposition Rajendra Rathore; Union Ministers Arjun Ram Meghwal, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, and Ashwini Vaishnaw; Alwar MP Mahant Balaknath; former Home Minister and Assam Governor Gulab Chand Kataria; and Lok Sabha member Diya Kumari.
Poonia, a core committee member, does not think that too many chief ministerial aspirants is a problem. “I see the so-called leadership crisis as an advantage. The aala kamaan [top leadership] will finally decide,” he said.
Raje, he emphasised, had led the Parivartan Yatras in 2003 and 2013. “We won 120 seats in 2003 and 163 in 2013. This time due to paucity of time, we divided the State into four zones and allocated responsibility to different leaders,” said Poonia, dismissing the notion that Raje had been ignored.
In March, Poonia himself, MLA from Amber constituency, was removed as State BJP chief. State presidents of the party have been changed on the basis of caste equations and internal factionalism. He was replaced by the low-key C.P. Joshi, who was the parliamentarian from Chittorgarh. Joshi began his political career with the National Students’ Union of India, the student wing of the Congress, whereas Poonia has always been with the Sangh Parivar.
Several others too feel sidelined in the party. Kailash Meghwal, former Speaker and sitting MLA from Shahpura, was issued a show cause notice for accusing Union Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal of corruption. Kailash Meghwal was Minister in Bhairon Singh Shekhawat’s government in 1991 and rarely lost an election. His victory margins were legendary. Considered a Raje loyalist, Kailash Meghwal was not expected to get the ticket this time. Observers attribute his outbursts against Arjun Ram Meghwal to this. Union Water Resources Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat described him and the sitting MLA from Soorsagar, 85-year-old Suryakanta Vyas, as senile. An annoyed Vyas declared she would contest again.
BJP’s campaign focus
The BJP’s campaign will focus on women’s reservation, law and order, and crimes against women, apart from tushtikaran, or appeasement, of minorities. BJP leaders and Modi himself have time and again referred to the murder in June 2022 of the Udaipur tailor Kanhaiya Lal, who had allegedly made blasphemous remarks against Prophet Muhammad. They claim that Kanhaiya was not given protection despite threats to his life.
Members of the minority community are equally displeased with the government. Mohammad Hasan, a retired professor of geography at Jodhpur University, said that while Gehlot announced a generous compensation and government jobs for Kanhaiya’s kin, he did not show the same generosity with the two youths from Ghatmika village in Bharatpur who were killed by cow vigilantes. Despite this he believed that the minorities would back the Congress.
Pointing to the resentment against the government, Poonia listed out its failures: “The Congress promised farm loan waivers and employment but did nothing. There were question paper leaks [of recruitment examinations]. Law and order is a big issue. Appeasement of minorities is a core issue. There is penetration of the [banned] Popular Front of India.”
He also highlighted the government’s ban on Ram Navami rallies and the clamping of Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (prohibiting the assembly of more than three people) during the Hindu New Year while permission was given for other rallies. Poonia believes that Central schemes like Jan Dhan, Jan Jeevan Mission, Ujjwala, and Kisan Samman Nidhi, and ideological issues like Article 370 and Ram Mandir will work to the BJP’s advantage.
Opinion is divided on whether the Congress can do something that has not been done since 1998: return to power for a second straight time. One view is that the government, under the leadership of three-time Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, will make a comeback solely on the basis of its welfare schemes, especially the Chiranjeevi Health Insurance Scheme (which offers coverage of up to Rs.25 lakh), Annapurna food kits, enhancement of old-age pension, gas cylinder subsidy, free electricity up to 100 units, revival of the Old Pension Scheme, and the scheme to provide free mobile phones to young women and single women.
Joshi counters this while speaking to Frontline and says that the Congress has failed on every front. “The development in Rajasthan is mainly because of Modi and Central resources. If the Central government’s Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana had not been there, there would have been no Chiranjeevi scheme. The State government has spent little from its resources. Show me one person who has got Rs.25 lakh from the scheme. The free mobile scheme is a scam, meant to benefit only one company,” he said.
The government has persistently demanded national project status for the Eastern Rajasthan Canal Project (ERCP), which is expected to benefit at least 13 districts. It has become a political issue today. Even though the detailed project report (DPR) was submitted to the Central government in 2017, when Raje was at the helm, the Centre declined it national project status citing certain criteria.
For the Congress, winning eastern Rajasthan, where the Bharatpur division alone has 47 Assembly seats, is paramount. In 2018, the Congress won the majority of the Scheduled Tribe and Scheduled Caste seats here. It is banking once again on the dominant Meena community to bail it out, and the ERCP is its trump card. A lot will depend on the ticket distribution, said a former media adviser to the Chief Minister.
- The BJP faces internal divisions, with more than a dozen Chief Minister aspirants, while the Congress strives hard to retain power amidst challenges.
- The BJP’s focus is on women’s reservation, law and order, crimes against women, and minority appeasement. The Congress focusses its campaign on welfare schemes.
- The BJP is trying to project a combined leadership idea. Congress, too, faces challenges with leaders like Sachin Pilot who has rebelled in the past.
The Congress, too, is a divided house. After the Congress victory in 2018, Sachin Pilot was made Deputy Chief Minister even though he believed he had a claim to the top post. He rebelled, organising protests against his own government. There were rumours that Pilot would move over to the BJP. The BJP denied all rumours of having a role in instigating Pilot. Insiders say that the Congress government could have fallen just as it did in Madhya Pradesh, but Raje herself was not sufficiently interested. The Congress central leadership salvaged the situation and later inducted Pilot into the Congress Working Committee.
Matters rested there until July this year, when Rajendra Singh Gudha, a Minister and Gehlot’s confidant, accused the Chief Minister’s Office of corruption. Formerly with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Gudha had joined the Congress along with six BSP legislators, giving the government a comfortable majority. In 2008 as well, when he first contested on the BSP ticket, he threw his weight behind Gehlot. For this he was rewarded and made a Minister.
In July, however, he changed tack and questioned the government for its stance on Manipur, atrocities against women, and corruption in the Rajasthan Cricket Association (RCA). He brought out a “red diary” that he said detailed the corruption. The RCA is headed by Gehlot’s son, Vaibhav. More recently, one more big name from the Congress, Jyoti Mirdha, scion of the Mirdha family and former Lok Sabha MP from Nagaur, left the party. She joined the BJP.
Meanwhile, the voters are still undecided; some believe that the government’s benefits have reached them, while a section of the farmers is unhappy that crop insurance claims have not been met sufficiently. In Churu district, an agitation by the All India Kisan Sabha has been on for four months now. Then there are allegations of corruption too.
Kaluram Yadav, who wants to join the police, alleged that “ghaplas” (fraud) are involved in filling government vacancies. He has a vote in Jaipur (Rural) and says he will vote for the BJP although his parents will support the Congress. His sister has benefited from the Chiranjeevi scheme and says she will vote Congress.
A mason who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that he did not have a Chiranjeevi “card” as he did not get time off from his work. The government organised Mehngai Rahat Camps, where people could register for various benefits. But many could not do so because they could not spare time from their daily wage jobs.
Sanjay Madho, a State secretariat member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said that western Rajasthan was notorious for atrocities against Dalits and that the Congress was indifferent in such instances. “Gehlot meets only those who matter,” he said. A member of the Daman Pratirodh Andolan (Anti-oppression campaign), a front of 40 organisations, Madho said that last year a Scheduled Caste youth, Jitender Meghwal, in Pali was murdered for sporting a moustache. The Chief Minister, Madho said, never went to Pali. “Even today Dalits cannot drive scooters in Rajput-dominated areas. They have to switch off the engine and push them manually,” he said. Political will is crucial to address such issues.
For the BJP, winning Rajasthan will be a referendum on Modi’s performance, while for the Congress, the survival of the party itself in the State may depend on the election outcome.