Armed with free­bies, Ra­jasthan Chief Min­is­ter Ashok Gehlot is fight­ing back against BJP’S resur­gent Va­sund­hara Raje

India Today - - BATTLE GROUND - By Ro­hit Par­i­har

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.


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




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.”


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.”









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