RISING AGAINST THE RANI
Armed with freebies, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot is fighting back against BJP’S resurgent Vasundhara Raje
Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot spent the better part of his tenure trying to cope with his government’s lapses and his partymen’s indiscretions. The rest was spent chasing shadows of BJP’S likely chief ministerial candidate Vasundhara Raje. Not anymore.
Having belatedly started a recovery mission to make amends for his government’s mistakes, he rolled out a populist budget, tossing freebies estimated at Rs 5,000 crore, in the hope of reaping rich dividends in the polls on December 1. “Maine sab kuch kar diya. Aap humare mai baap hain. Hum aur bhi bahut kuch karenge (I’ve done what I could. You’re our masters. We’ll do a lot more),” he says. He and the Congress party may yet reap the benefits of this largesse.
Congress is desperate not to lose the state, and party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi is leaving nothing to chance. Closeted in Haryana’s State Guest House in Delhi, it took the candidate selection committee chairman Ajay Maken and his team about 50 hours to sift through over 4,000 longlisted aspirants. Gehlot claims the final list of 300 probables will run through Rahul’s sieve. The committee also included AICC General Secretary in charge of the state Gurudas Kamat and RPCC chief Chandrabhan Singh. Many who make it will be picks of the party’s block-and district-level committees. Two-time losers and those who lost heavily in 2008 were weeded out. “You can hope for a ticket only if you figure in the six surveys Rahul got done,” Gehlot told ticket seekers on October 12. Rahul has evidently done much trawling for names and faces for these polls. He addressed two rallies in September and will speak at two more on October 23. Sonia Gandhi will also address a rally in Jaipur, before the party gets its campaign off the ground in mid-November.
Rahul’s Rajasthan strategy focuses on two aspects. The first involves the party’s MLAS, on whom he has been collecting an extensive feedback. This has forced Congress to put off releasing its final list of contestants to November 5, when the polls will be notified. The second is surveys that show strong anti-incumbency against the government. The projection is that in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Congress may lose 15 of the 20 seats it had won in 2009. Rajasthan has 25 Lok Sabha seats, and its voters have often replicated its Assembly voting preferences in General Elections.
The party began salvage operations in January this year, holding the AICC session in the state to bring it in focus. A month later, Rahul began drawing up a plan to retain Rajasthan. At the meeting of PCC chiefs in Delhi, he told Chandrabhan to leverage Rajasthan’s social sector achievements. “This was the only way to counter antiincumbency,” says Chandrabhan, who had earlier said in public that his party would be humbled in the next polls.
Gehlot took the cue, and doubling as finance minister, rolled out an unabashedly populist budget in March. Lowering the criteria for old-age pension, his scheme snared 3.6 million new beneficiaries who stood to gain an additional Rs 500 to Rs 750 as pension a month, making a dent of Rs 1,500 crore in the state treasury. He allotted Rs 550 crore to pay Rs 1,500 each to three million poor to buy saris and blankets. Meritorious students in state-run institutions were promised laptops and tablets; women stood to gain a 30 per cent fare cut in state-run buses costing Rs 100 crore; and pilgrims were given concessional tariffs worth Rs 50 crore. This was backed by high-decibel pan-India advertising worth at least Rs 200 crore.
It hasn’t all been a smooth ride. So far, only about half of the 30 million money orders have reached the pensioners. About a fourth of the poor are yet to get their Rs 1,500 dole. Students complain they were given poor quality tablets, while officials crib that where cash was given, many spent it elsewhere.
But Congress is confident its schemes will rein in the anti-incumbency. “The situation is changing, people are becoming happy,” Rahul said in a pep talk to senior leaders when he visited the state in May. No matter that Congress’s hope of bagging 101 seats for a simple majority in the Assembly is still a tough call, given that it had managed 96 in 2008 (which later grew to 102). This included 15 it had won with razor-thin margins. Gehlot’s clean image of 2008 also needs an overhaul, with corruption charges against him and his family. It hasn’t helped that he is seen as a poor administrator who failed to build much infrastructure, or that he is blamed for neglecting education in state-run schools, many of which are closing down.
FREE MEDICINES WIN VOTES
One of Gehlot’s best hopes is the offer of free medicines and better maternity benefits in government hospitals. Unlike his other sops, this is into its second year now, costing the state Rs 160 crore annually and the Centre Rs 140 crore. The brainchild of IAS officer Samit Sharma, it involves cutting costs with cheap generic medicines and increasing distribution. Sharma says this has reduced the state’s medical bill by a fifth, and pushed up patient arrivals at state hospitals. The government says a quarter million patients a year get most prescribed medicines for free, and 137 million have benefited from the scheme so far, double the state’s population, indicating that in theory, every state resident has been covered. The OPD at Jaipur’s
THE GOVERNMENTHAS NO IDEA HOWTO IMPLEMENT,
SUSTAIN OR COMPLETE SCHEMES AND HAS GOT LESS
AID FROM DELHI,” ALLEGES VASUNDHARA RAJE.
Sawai Man Singh Hospital, which also launched free laboratory tests, is expected to beat Delhi’s AIIMS in patient load, with over 25 lakh people visiting a year. BJP claims the figures are fudged, while Raje alleges the drugs are of poor quality. “The government is distributing poison in the name of free medicines,” she said on October 10.
Gehlot is also banking on the votes of half a million Below Poverty Line families, who have got one-time aid to build a room through a scheme funded jointly by the state and Centre under the Rs 550 crore Indira Awaas and Mukhyamantri Awaas Yojnas.
Gehlot has made it a point to monitor his flagship schemes on a daily basis. Once every two months, he holds reviews via video conferencing, but depends heavily on his Chief Secretary C.K. Mathew and other bureaucrats for their implementation. Most schemes show some shortfalls, such as unavailability of doctors in the health schemes, but as Gehlot counters, “There will always be some shortcomings when such a huge welfare scheme is implemented.”
POPULIST PUSH WORRIES BJP
He is also leaning on the nearly-completed first phase of Jaipur’s Metro Rail to boost his pitch. But another showpiece, a Rs 37,000-crore refinery project in Barmer whose foundation stone was laid by Sonia Gandhi in September, is courting flak. His government funded the project and provided free land worth about Rs 200 crore, but will only get a fifth of the profit. It put the state finances under further stress and caused RBI to warn of a repayment crisis from the accumulated losses of Rs 70,000 crore in the state’s power sector. BJP scoffs at Gehlot’s schemes. “The government has no idea of how to implement, sustain or complete such projects, and has got less aid from Delhi than it should have,” alleges Raje, while BJP spokesperson Jyoti Kiran accuses Gehlot of creating huge liabilities.
But the sops have made things difficult for BJP. Rahul had cajoled Gehlot to launch a yatra in March to counter Raje’s Suraj Sankalp yatra. It travelled across 170 Assembly segments in six months. Gehlot wanted it closer to the polls, but is pleased now that BJP finds it difficult to tell voters that Congress’s schemes are poll stunts.
Congress is also hoping to consolidate a perceived feelgood factor for its manifesto, being drawn by a committee headed by Urban Development Minister Shanti Dhariwal. It includes promises of free laptops and jobs for meritorious students, grace marks for girl students to help them get jobs, cheap power for agriculture, tax-free seeds and farm equipment, and fluoride treatment plants.
But for Congress, the state’s demographic challenges remain. There is rancour among various caste and religious groups, which may swell. The arrest of Jat leader Mahipal Maderna and Bishnoi leader Malkhan Singh for murder of Bhanwari Devi has angered these communities. Gujjars are upset that Gehlot failed to grant them 5 per cent OBC quota. Muslims complain of lack of justice in the CBI probe into the Gopalgarh firing of September 2011 that killed 10 Meos.
Many Hindus are unhappy with Asaram Bapu’s arrest for rape, while Gehlot’s favourite, ex-minister Babulal Nagar, also accused of rape, is still a free man. An expected rise in dissidence after candidates are selected is another worry. Rahul had warned that dissidents would be sternly dealt with. Even Chandrabhan has avoided any run-ins with Gehlot after he took over as state chief in June 2011, and the high command has kept Gehlot’s rivals C.P. Joshi, Sachin Pilot and Jitendra Singh, out of his way, by not giving any of them a role in the polls.
There is another conundrum: Congress had won in 1998 and 2008 when Gehlot was not projected as chief minister, but lost badly in 2003 when he was. Gehlot now says winnability will determine selection of the chief ministerial candidate. “Gehlot is clever. He speaks very little in party meetings,” says a senior party leader. “But he knows if Congress wins, he can sneak into pole position again.”
RAHUL GANDHI (FIFTH FROM LEFT) AND ASHOK GEHLOT (SIXTH FROM
LEFT) WITH OTHER CONGRESS LEADERS
VASUNDHARA RAJE AT A
POLL RALLY IN JAIPUR