Hindustan Times (Delhi)
January battle to define December war
IN RAJASTHAN Both Cong and BJP agree the Ajmer bypoll result will define the mood for state polls later in the year
AJMER: Ramswarup Lamba, 30, is escorted from his car to the stage, and after the customary wave and introduction, handed over the microphone.
The BJP candidate for the Ajmer Lok Sabha seat fumbles a little before reminding the audience — comprising primarily of Jats, his own community — of the contribution of his father, Sanwar Lal Jat. “He brought water to the villages of Ajmer. I ask for votes as tribute to Sanwar Lal ji.” In a five-minute speech, Lamba repeats this a few more times, before he is lifted off, back to the car, for the next public meeting in another village of Nasirabad assembly segment of Ajmer seat.
Jat’s death has necessitated a fresh contest in the seat. Whoever wins will only get to sit in the Lok Sabha for a little more than a year. And then, depending on whether his party rewards him with a ticket again, he will have to return to the bazaars and villages to contest elections in 2019. It will also make no difference to power equations in Delhi. Conventional wisdom would suggest this election should matter little. Yet, the stakes could not be higher.
By-elections in both Ajmer and Alwar, on January 29, have come to acquire enormous political significance because of their timing and because of what they mean for the state leadership. Both BJP and Congress, led by chief minister Vasundhara Raje and state chief Sachin Pilot respectively, have made it their own election — staking personal prestige, campaigning day in and day out, and spending weeks in constituencies. Both camps agree the outcome will define the mood for the December state assembly polls. It will also, internally, shape power equations within their own parties at a time when Raje and Pilot both face challengers. On the ground in Ajmer, which has more than 1.8 million voters, the primary pivot around which the election is being fought is caste.
HIGH STAKES BATTLE
Pilot likes driving his own car on the campaign trail. After speak- ing to a largely Muslim gathering in Hathaundi village — he criticises the Raje government for the economic downturn, agrarian distress, and closing down government schools and privatising education, and mocks the Modi government for failing to deliver ₹15 lakh in each account — Pilot hops back in his car.
He begins with a reminder: out of five assembly by-polls in the state so far, the BJP has lost three.“every election is important. But given how close it is to the assembly election, it would be foolish to say the outcome will have no impact on the political mood of the state. It will set the tone for assembly polls,” he says.
But if it is so crucial, why is he not contesting himself? After all, Pilot represented Ajmer in the Lok Sabha as an MP in 2014 (he lost). “I left the decision to the Congress president. I have to make sure we win all three seats (Ajmer and Alwar parliamentary constituencies, and Mandalgarh assembly seat). The party may have felt I should continue to focus on the state.”
The BJP’S leaders say Pilot got cold feet because he feared losing; others speculate that had he won, it would have meant ceding space in state politics to Ashok Gehlot, who is still eyeing the position of chief minister. But Pilot rejects these theories. He says that he is completely invested in the election. “I have always done what the party has asked me to. This is my election. I am fighting it. In Ajmer, by the end of the campaign, I would have visited more than 1,200 of the 1,580 villages, addressing 35 meetings every day. I have worked as hard in Alwar. I have told the Congress president we will win all three seats and have to deliver.”
If the Congress sees the bypolls here as a possible mark of revival, for Vasundhara Raje, it is crucial to consolidate her own position — she has many critics within the Sangh and her own party — and consolidate the position of BJP as the dominant force in the state. In by-polls, the incumbent is generally understood to have an advantage; a loss will send alarm bells ringing. She has spent, in different phases, over a fortnight in the Ajmer constituency.
BP Saraswat, Ajmer district president of BJP, knows how crucial these polls are. “Congress had made the Dholpur assembly by election a prestige battle last year. In a seat in which we had come third in 2013, we won decisively. Pilot then disappeared for a while. This election is important too. But they will suffer the same fate.” And what if BJP loses? “If we win, the cadre will get a boost. And if we lose, there is no doubt it means the cadre will have to work harder for 2018.”
The Congress is banking on two things: anti-incumbency against the Raje government; and Pilot’s development record in Ajmer as MP. The BJP is hoping several things go its way: its organisation (it has set up committees in all 1,907 booths); Jat’s work and sympathy vote for his son; and the Raje government’s schemes.
Beneath the rhetoric, both parties know that the make or break variable is caste. And in one of those characteristic qualities of Indian politics, both sides are playing the caste card while accusing the other of doing so.
Pilot says, “Raje has called specific caste-centric meetings. It must be the first time someone holding a constitutional office has so blatantly engaged in caste politics.” Saraswat hits back, “Why did Pilot choose Dausa and then Ajmer as his constituency? Only because of one factor: Gujjar presence. It is fine for him to play caste politics but for our leader to engage in dialogue is wrong.”
This is what the demographics and the respective party calculations look like. There are over 2 lakh Jat voters, and the BJP is expecting an almost complete consolidation of the community behind their Jat candidate.
There are close to 1.25 lakh Brahman voters, a traditional BJP base, but the Congress has put up a Brahman candidate, Raghu Sharma, to break into this vote and is confident of winning over half the community. There are close to 1.75 lakh Rajputs, another traditional BJP constituency, but the party is jittery since Rajput community leaders have conveyed their unhappiness at what they see as BJP’S indecisiveness over banning the film, Padmaavat, and an alleged encounter killing of a Rajput gangster, Anandpal. A BJP leader who did not want to be named admits, “Our traditional base is affected. But remember we won by 1.7 lakh votes last time. Our margin may reduce substantially but we will still make it.”
The BJP is continuing to rely on Sindhi voters — they number almost a lakh in Ajmer city — and the Bania vote. The Congress hopes to make a dent among these trading communities because of the troubles traders faced on the heels of the implementation of GST. But BJP dismisses reports of anger in the community on the back of the assembly election results in Gujarat in December 2016. The BJP is also hoping to win a slice of the Gujjar vote, although the Congress hopes that Pilot’s Gujjar identity will safeguard this segment.
In turn, the Congress is relying on 2 lakh Muslim voters and around 3 lakh SC votes. A Congress leader admits, “BJP had made inroads into Dalit vote. We won zero out of 34 reserved seats last time. But BJP’S upper caste character is getting exposed and we hope to win them back.”
Ajmer will vote on this interplay of larger state-level factors — popularity or resentment against the Raje government — and local dynamics such as candidates’ allure and caste configuration. But its outcome will send a message to both national parties.