RAJE HAS A BIG FIGHT ON HER HANDS
WITH A YOUNG AND UNTAINTED SACHIN PILOT AT ITS HELM, THE CONGRESS SEEMS TO BE PRESSING HOME ITS ADVANTAGE
Since 2003, Rajasthan has witnessed a straight contest between the Congress and the BJP with Ashok Gehlot and Vasundhara Raje taking turns to run the state. The story of the upcoming polls in December seems no different, though there may be a twist. The state BJP is grappling with infighting and Raje’s own tussle with party president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On the Congress front, there is a significant difference this time with Sachin Pilot, as the Pradesh Congress Committee president, throwing a challenge at both Raje and Gehlot.
Pilot is being seen as someone who has rejuvenated the party and Congressmen alienated during Gehlot’s three decades at the helm of the party in the state, thus raising hopes of it making a crucial comeback after a disastrous performance in the last assembly polls when it got 21 seats in the 200-member assembly and the general elections when it failed to win even one out of the 25 seats. Also, Pilot’s strategy of highlighting the Raje government’s failures in key areas seems to be more effective than Gehlot’s preferred strategy of ‘personal’ attacks on the CM.
All this has apparently made Gehlot and his loyalists nervous. And sensing groupism within the party, Congress president Rahul Gandhi has asked Pilot to ensure that he takes Gehlot along, at least publicly. As the Congress puts up a united front, the talking point in the state is, who will be the next CM—Gehlot or Pilot—implying that the party may win this election.
For the BJP, Raje and Shah have been campaigning separately. Though state BJP president Madan Lal Saini describes this as a strategy and also optimum use of resources, Pilot says it is infighting that has forced them to do so. The friction with the top brass has been visible throughout Raje’s tenure. There’s a perception in the state unit that the high command has forced her to be in a ‘switch-off mode’, though she has undertaken extensive tours twice, crisscrossing the entire state. Raje has done it a third time now through her 40-day Suraj Gaurav Yatra. Shah, on the other hand, is busy holding meetings at the block level, receiving feedback from party workers, and telling them that instead of sulking, they must go all-out to ensure the BJP wins.
The first signs of an anti-Raje lobby within the party, out to sabotage her by talking about her inefficient rule, was evident when the BJP lost three of the four bypolls in September 2014 in the seats that fell vacant after four MLAs moved to parliamentary seats. “People could not have turned against the ruling party within a few weeks for no reason,” says a senior BJP minister, adding that Raje has to now face Pilot, the non-controversial new face, as well as her opponents within the party.
“Raje has rarely been at her usual best in interacting with workers, but confined herself mostly to meetings to implement policies and programmes, working 16 hours a day,” says a bureaucrat, who has been observing her since 2003. At every election rally, Raje lists her achievements and presents a few beneficiaries of her schemes on the stage. Simultaneously, the government has been holding rallies, including one addressed by PM Modi on July 7 in Jaipur that highlighted the government’s achievements like recruiting 40,000 teachers and giving promotions to 6,000 constables.
The party and the government have planned more such rallies for farmers and Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, having waived their Rs 50,000 debt.
PM Modi will revisit the state soon to mark the conclusion of Raje’s Gaurav Yatra that has primarily focused on the rural constituencies and will also launch the party’s campaign in urban areas.
To make matters worse for Raje, the state government is also dealing with issues such as conflicts between the upper castes and Dalits over the amendments to the SC/ST Atrocities Act and recession for which traders have been blaming Modi’s economic policies. The Congress has been highlighting all these issues in its election campaigns. And the BJP harping on the Congress’s misrule of 50 years has few takers in the state because Pilot is a new face and because the BJP has been in power for 18 of the past 28 years in Rajasthan.
The disillusionment of voters with both the Congress and the BJP is apparent given the fact that in 2008 the Independents and others garnered 15 per cent votes, and in 2013, NOTA scored more than the winning margins in 11 seats. This also means that the Congress cannot be sure of getting antiincumbency votes. Such a situation has made both the parties look at key issues and the caste arithmetic. The Congress has accused Raje of ignoring civic infrastructure, farmers and youth unemployment. The party is also approaching a section of Rajputs, including Manvendra Singh, son of Jaswant Singh, who has recently quit the BJP.
On the other hand, the BJP high command is working hard to retain the Rajput votes. Raje has also appointed a considerable number of Jat officers in important posts to win over the community. Clearly, the battle of strategies is on in Rajasthan.
BATTLEDRESS Vasundhara Raje during her Suraj Gaurav Yatra in Alwar district on September 21