How BJP’s aggressive campaign exploited Congress’ weaknesses to secure decisive victory in Rajasthan

Energetic and forceful campaign, focus on corruption and communal issues propel BJP to victory while infighting and delayed response cripple Congress.

Published : Dec 09, 2023 21:24 IST - 10 MINS READ

BJP workers in Ahmedabad, jubilant about the saffron success in Rajasthan.

BJP workers in Ahmedabad, jubilant about the saffron success in Rajasthan. | Photo Credit: PTI

An aggressive BJP campaign led by Narendra Modi around issues of corruption, law and order, women’s safety, and minority appeasement ensured a decisive victory for the party in Rajasthan.

On the other end, the incumbent Congress’s defensive and delayed campaign, poor candidate selection, open infighting, inferior organisational structure, and overcentralisation of decision-making in Gehlot’s hands led to a thumping defeat.

Of the three States in the Hindi heartland that went to the polls in November, Rajasthan was the one State that the BJP was confident of winning back. And it did, securing clear-cut victories in 115 of the 199 seats in the November 25 election. Voting for the Karanpur seat in Sri Ganganagar district was “adjourned” following the death of Congress candidate Gurmeet Singh Koonar. The polling to the seat will be held on January 5, 2024, with counting on January 8.

The Congress, led by Ashok Gehlot, had to be content with 69 seats, 31 less than its 2018 score card. The Bharat Adivasi Party (BAP) got three seats, and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) won two. The Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), a Congress ally, and the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party (RLP) got one seat each, while eight seats went to independents.

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The BJP exploited the killing of Kanhaiya Lal, a tailor in Udaipur, in June 2022, playing up the communal overtones against the Congress even though the Gehlot government arrested those responsible and compensated the tailor’s family. The case was taken over by the National Investigation Agency. The Prime Minister referred to the incident during his campaign in Udaipur and Chittorgarh. In the six districts in Udaipur division, the BJP won 16 of the 28 seats.

What about vote shares?

In direct contests, 81.22 per cent of votes went to the BJP and the Congress, and 17.82 per cent to the other parties. The BJP vote share rose by 2.92 per cent from 38.77 per cent in 2018 to 41.69 per cent in this election. The Congress vote share showed a tiny gain of 0.23 per cent, from 39.3 per cent in 2018 to 39.53 per cent this time.

Among the other parties, the RLP secured 2.39 per cent of the vote share followed by the BSP with 1.82 per cent and the Left parties with 1.01 per cent. For the BSP, it has been a steady decline since 2008 when six of its candidates were elected and it had a vote share of 7.6 per cent. In 2018, it had a vote share of 4.03 per cent and six seats.

BJP workers in Kolkata rejoice with firecrackers over the election wins.

BJP workers in Kolkata rejoice with firecrackers over the election wins. | Photo Credit: PTI

The voting percentage was 74.62 per cent, marginally higher than the 74.24 in 2018. That, in itself, was not sufficient to indicate that a great wave of change was in the offing, even though higher voting percentages usually indicate change. A closer look at voting percentages show that more than 80 per cent voting took place in 38 seats, the highest in Pokaran (Jaisalmer) at 87.79 per cent and the lowest (61.24 per cent) in the reserved seat of Ahore in Jalore district. There were 114 seats with voting between 70 and 80 per cent and 44 with voting between 60 and 70 per cent.

Impressive showing from BAP

The BAP, a breakaway front of the Bharatiya Tribal Party (which won two seats in 2018 in southern Rajasthan), triumphed in three seats in its debut. Although BAP chief Mohanlal Roat lost to the BJP from Sagwara, its candidates were third in almost two dozen seats and a few finished as runners-up. Unlike the BJP, which did not field a single Muslim candidate, four Muslims were elected from the Congress. Of the total 34 Scheduled Caste (SC) seats, the BJP won 22 (doubling its 2018 tally) while the Congress settled for 11, eight less than its 2018 score. Of the 25 ST seats, the BJP won 12, the Congress won 10, and the BAP scored three.

In 2018, the Congress was able to form the government with the support of independents and BSP legislators. In 2020 and 2022, the State unit nearly imploded following two rebellions: one by former Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot and the other by legislators close to Gehlot. The latter was engineered to ensure that Gehlot stayed on as Chief Minister and was not moved to the Centre as All India Congress Committee president, a post for which he had emerged as the consensus candidate and front runner. Gehlot and his men had their way and he continued as Chief Minister. Pilot stewed silently after being short-changed on the promise made by a section of the Delhi command that he would be made Chief Minister. The government came to the brink of collapse, and Gehlot did not do himself any favours by attacking Pilot publicly.

Rife with internal strife

In 2023, it was a Congress filled with internal strife that contested the election. Gehlot was also warned that the discord would alienate Pilot’s Gujjar community, which had voted for the Congress in good numbers in 2018. The party did not perform as well in segments of eastern Rajasthan as it had in 2018 (when it got 27 out of 28 seats in a dominant Gujjar, Yadav, and Meena belt). But there was also scepticism about projecting Pilot as the face of the party. “Why would the party alienate the Jats and the Meenas by promoting a Gujjar face? The party has to think who is most acceptable to all,” said a Congress leader who did not want to be named.

Also Read | BJP secures dominant 3-2 victory in Assembly elections, amplifies Congress’ 2024 challenges

Yet, the Congress was unusually confident of getting a simple majority and retaining its hold for a second successive term on the basis of its welfare measures. Its campaign was hinged on its successful health insurance and social security programmes. Gehlot also declared seven guarantees, including a Minimum Support Price for farmers. When the party finally hit its stride, it campaigned aggressively, but perhaps it was too little too late.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot submits his resignation to State Governor Kalraj Mishra in Jaipur on December 3.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot submits his resignation to State Governor Kalraj Mishra in Jaipur on December 3. | Photo Credit: ANI

Sources said that one of the Congress campaign’s drawbacks was that the “good work” done through welfare schemes did not reach the grassroots voter. Anti-incumbency at the local level played a role. In contrast, the BJP’s well-oiled cadre were active and present among voters, including doing a lot of door-to-door campaigning.

A bitterly divided house

The BJP too was a bitterly divided house. The only difference was that it was not out in the open. For some reason, the BJP central command chose to ignore popular leaders like Vasundhara Raje. The concept of “collective leadership” was floated to justify her sidelining. Initially, Raje was excluded from several crucial election committees but was finally accommodated. Had that accommodation not been done, it is possible that the BJP would not have made it to the 115 mark. Some of her supporters did not get the ticket; some contested as independents and won.

The party fielded seven MPs, much to the chagrin of local leaders. Of the seven, only four could win. Devji Patel from Sanchore lost to a BJP rebel, while Narendra Kumar from Mandawa and Bhagirath Choudhary from Kishangarh lost to Congress candidates. Both Patel and Choudhary came a poor third, losing by huge margins. Rajendra Rathore, a former Raje loyalist and front runner for the Chief Minister’s post, also lost from Taranagar. Raje won from Jhalrapatan by 53,193 votes as did Rajsamand MP Diya Kumari, who contested from Vidyadhar Nagar in Jaipur district. Kumari won by 71,368 votes.

Congress heavyweights defeated

A total of 20 women were elected; eight from the Congress, 10 from the BJP, and two independents, both BJP rebels. Many Congress heavyweights were defeated, including Assembly Speaker C.P. Joshi (Nathdwara), Gehlot confidante Sanyam Lodha (Sirohi), Congress spokesperson Gourav Vallabh (Udaipur), Ram Lal Jat (Mandal), Babulal Nagar (Dudu), and women legislators Mamta Bhupesh (Sikrai), Divya Maderna (Osian), Krishna Poonia (Sadulpur), and Archana Sharma (Malviya Nagar).

Both Ram Lal Jat and Babulal Nagar are known to be great Congress mobilisers, and sources said their defeats were surprising. Insiders said the Congress tally could have been better had it entered into seat-sharing alliances with like-minded parties like the BAP, the Left parties, and the Aazad Samaj Party (Kanshi Ram).

Congress sources said that Gehlot had the maximum say in ticket distribution but still had to make some adjustments influenced by the central command. His trusted lieutenant Mahesh Joshi was not renominated from the Hawa Mahal seat in Jaipur district. The Congress ended up losing that seat narrowly.

  • BJP wins decisive victory: The BJP won 115 seats in the 199-seat Rajasthan Assembly, securing a clear majority and ending the Congress’s five-year rule.
  • Factors contributing to BJP’s victory: Aggressive campaign focusing on corruption, law and order, and women’s safety; strong organisational network; effective use of social media; and benefit from Modi government’s popularity.
  • Factors contributing to Congress’s defeat: Delayed and lacklustre campaign; internal strife and factionalism; missteps in candidate selection; and failure to counter the BJP’s campaign narrative.

The BJP contested alone in all 200 seats and chose not to join hands with any of its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) allies, whereas the Congress had an understanding with the RLD only for the Bharatpur seat. The BJP’s NDA allies, the Jannayak Janta Party and the Shiv Sena, contested alone and drew a blank.

Its campaign hinged on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with a strong focus on Central government schemes, including the extension of free rice distribution for another five years, and women’s safety. The announcement came during the election campaign and might have been a violation of the Model Code of Conduct, and the opposition parties did raise it with the Election Commission but to no avail.

The BJP attacked the Congress for dynastic politics, corruption, the paper leak controversy, and appeasement politics. There were also Enforcement Directorate raids on Pradesh Congress chief Govind Singh Dotasra, a candidate from Lachhmangarh, and on Vaibhav Gehlot, son of Ashok Gehlot, apparently used to colour voter perception against the Congress and its chief campaigner. Dotasra went on to win from Lachhmangarh in the Shekhawati belt (Sikar, Jhunjhun, and Churu) where the Congress performed relatively better compared with Marwar (west Rajasthan) and Mewar (south Rajasthan).

Developments of note

Some interesting developments in this election include the BAP’s rise, the BSP’s decline, and the growth of the Aazad Samaj Party (Kanshi Ram). Also, parties like the RLP were seen as having cut into the votes of both the BJP and the Congress. RLP chief Hanuman Beniwal won from Khinwsar with a slim margin of 2,059 votes, and the candidates he put forward did cut into the votes of both major parties. Beniwal, a former BJP MP, floated his own outfit after the 2018 Assembly election, following differences with Raje. Although he rails against both the Congress and the BJP, the possibility of him returning to the BJP cannot be ruled out.

The BJP’s Vasundhara Raje Scindia arrives at the party office after her victory from Jhalrapatan in the Rajasthan Assembly election on December 3.

The BJP’s Vasundhara Raje Scindia arrives at the party office after her victory from Jhalrapatan in the Rajasthan Assembly election on December 3. | Photo Credit: PTI

The Congress faced many factors that put it at a disadvantage. First, it battled anti-incumbency against sitting legislators, most of whom it had renominated to mitigate rebellion. Second, it had to contend with open divisions within its rank and file.

“In trying to save the government, we didn’t pay attention to the party,” said a Congress insider. Sources said that the advisers to the Gandhi scions were not connected to the ground reality in the State. In fact, within a day of the declaration of the results, Lokesh Sharma, Gehlot’s Officer on Special Duty, lashed out publicly and criticised his boss’ style of functioning. The outburst bewildered everyone, but insiders said this was an example of Gehlot choosing the “wrong people” for the job.

The Rajasthan election outcome could resonate in the 2024 Lok Sabha election. The Congress, it is learnt, has decided to begin early preparations for April. As for the BJP, getting its “collective leadership” to think collectively will be a challenge in the months to come.

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