STAY­ING THE COURSE

PM MODI’S EN­TRY INTO THE POLL CAM­PAIGN WAS AL­WAYS GO­ING TO BE TRICKY FOR THE CON­GRESS. BUT STATE CHIEF SACHIN PI­LOT SEEMS TO HAVE HIS BASES COV­ERED

India Today - - ASSEMBLY POLLS RAJASTHAN - By Ro­hit Par­i­har

It was the 10th an­niver­sary of the 26/11 Mum­bai ter­ror at­tack, and Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi was tar­get­ing the Con­gress for “play­ing pol­i­tics with ter­ror­ism” by rais­ing doubts over the sur­gi­cal strikes against Pak­istan. Modi then moved on to the Maoists who had “killed sol­diers from Ra­jasthan” while in­sin­u­at­ing that, yes, the Con­gress was sup­port­ing them.

It’s no sur­prise then that the BJP’s cam­paigner-inchief has raised the pitch to yet an­other new level. A day ear­lier, at a rally in Al­war, Modi ag­gres­sively courted con­tro­versy by ask­ing the judges of the Supreme Court not to fear “threats of im­peach­ment” in de­cid­ing the Ram tem­ple is­sue. Here, too, he blamed the Con­gress for want­ing the case hear­ing post­poned. To re­mind the Ra­jputs how the Con­gress had ill-treated them, he raked up erst­while Al­war ex-royal Pratap Singh’s death un­der mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances dur­ing the Emer­gency. Then he turned to the lat­est episode, where vet­eran Con­gress leader C.P. Joshi, at a cam­paign meet­ing in Nathd­wara, had ques­tioned the le­git­i­macy of peo­ple from the lower

castes like Modi and Uma Bharti talk­ing about the Ram tem­ple and “dharma”, which the for­mer Union min­is­ter felt was a pre­rog­a­tive of the Brah­mins. The BJP is fight­ing hard to re­tain its OBC vote-bank, and Modi re­called how Ra­jiv Gandhi in Par­lia­ment had al­legedly op­posed the Man­dal Com­mis­sion. In the same breath, the PM also de­manded to know why the Con­gress had never con­ferred the Bharat Ratna on B.R. Ambed­kar and why it had ill-treated vet­eran Brah­min leader from the state, the late Naval Kishore Sharma, whose son Brij Kishore has been de­nied a ticket this time. Modi con­cluded with an­other pointed barb—this time aimed at Rahul Gandhi, who he al­leged had made Con­gress lead­ers ques­tion the PM’s parent­age and abuse his mother. With just one speech, Modi suc­ceeded in bring­ing up new is­sues in Ra­jasthan where the fight so far has been over whether Chief Min­is­ter Va­sund­hara Raje’s gov­ern­ment has per­formed or not.

The PM’s ora­tory again showed why he is such a game-changer in any elec­tion. By the end, chants of “Modi, Modi” rent the air as an ex­cited crowd swelled around. This was only the first of his 10 ral­lies in the state, but it showed why the Con­gress dreads plan­ning a counter for him. Of course, Ra­jasthan Con­gress pres­i­dent Sachin Pi­lot flatly de­nies fear­ing any re­ver­sal. “This is a wrong con­clu­sion,’’ he says, “Modi or no Modi, peo­ple have made up their mind to vote for us and against the BJP’s mis­rule.” On the sur­face, it does ap­pear so, but peo­ple in the state have rarely voted the way poll pun­dits have pre­dicted.

“Peo­ple in Ra­jasthan ex­press their frus­tra­tion at an in­ac­ces­si­ble gov­ern­ment by chang­ing it,’’ says San­deep Bak­shi, po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst and chan­cel­lor of Jaipur Na­tional Univer­sity. Con­gress pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi has cer­tainly had a bet­ter im­pact than his last out­ing here in 2013. His call­ing out Modi as a “chowki­dar turned chor” in the Rafale deal did cre­ate a buzz early on. But he is no match for a sea­soned cam­paigner like Modi. Which is why the Con­gress strat­egy has been to step up the at­tacks on Raje, not let minds stray from the core is­sue of anti-in­cum­bency.

The state goes to the polls on De­cem­ber 7 and the Con­gress’s end-game rests on weak­en­ing Raje’s image to such an ex­tent that even Modi can­not see her through. So Pi­lot sounds more and more ag­gres­sive as he calls for in­ves­ti­gat­ing cor­rup­tion in Raje’s pet projects while again re­mind­ing the peo­ple that even with the BJP in power at the state and Cen­tre, jobs have been hard to come by and the farm­ers are in dis­tress. Pi­lot rarely gets per­sonal with Raje in con­trast to the style of his arch-ri­val in the party, for­mer chief min­is­ter Ashok Gehlot. No ad­dress by the lat­ter is com­plete with­out at­tack­ing Raje’s erst­while royal back­ground, the rea­son for her “ar­ro­gance”. This strat­egy is of­ten counter-pro­duc­tive, gen­er­at­ing sym­pa­thy for Raje , a sin­gle woman who has now served two terms as chief min­is­ter in what is a markedly pa­tri­ar­chal state. In­deed, the BJP has used the same stick to beat the Con­gress lead­ers with, cit­ing the in­sults on Modi’s hum­ble back­ground and other in­dis­cre­tions. Raje is on point when she says, “Only the BJP lets com­mon work­ers like Modi be­come PM and Madan Lal Saini state pres­i­dent.”

Pi­lot avoids get­ting dragged into such is­sues, given that he has no per­sonal ri­valry with Raje (un­like Gehlot who lost to her twice). “We have suc­ceeded in con­vinc­ing the peo­ple that the is­sue is the mis­rule and be­trayal by both the BJP and Raje,’’ Pi­lot says, mak­ing it clear that this fo­cus will con­tinue. It is cru­cial that this line suc­ceeds, be­cause ticket dis­tri­bu­tion in the Con­gress has been messy. A tus­sle be­tween Pi­lot, Gehlot and Leader of the Op­po­si­tion Ramesh­war Duddi has cre­ated a mess that kept delaying seat al­lot­ments (in­deed, some names were changed at the eleventh hour fol­low­ing Duddi’s threat that he would not con­test). And while Pi­lot says the chief min­is­ter is­sue will be de­cided af­ter the re­sults, Gehlot keeps on rais­ing it. In Jodh­pur, he named six con­tenders, ex­clud­ing him­self, a state­ment which Raje now ex­ten­sively uses to say how half-a-dozen Con­gress lead­ers are al­ready fight­ing to be chief min­is­ter.

Pi­lot, on Rahul’s ad­vice, has taken a cal­cu­lated risk in in­fus­ing fresh blood into the party. One in five of his can­di­dates is un­der 40. The party has en­tered into a mini al­liance—with the RLD, NCP and RJD—and has set aside five seats for it and also fielded 15 Mus­lim can­di­dates. The BJP’s only Mus­lim can­di­date, se­nior min­is­ter Yunus Khan, takes on Pi­lot in Tonk, a for­mer Mus­lim princely state. But in the course of keep­ing the Mus­lim vote in mind, the Con­gress has had to keep its Rajput can­di­dates down to 13—against 27 from the BJP—which will make it dif­fi­cult for it to get the Rajput vote en bloc. This has been made dou­bly dif­fi­cult with the en­try of Yogi Adityanath, the BJP’s Ut­tar Pradesh CM and also a Rajput, into the cam­paign. He will ad­dress 11 ral­lies and there is a lot of cu­rios­ity among the youth about him.

Pi­lot, though, is un­fazed. “Such is­sues are ir­rel­e­vant when there is a wave cut­ting across ev­ery caste, re­li­gion and class. Can you name one per­son who is sat­is­fied with Raje’s gov­ern­ment?” he asks. It’s a bat­tle of nerves now, and who blinks first re­mains to be seen.

RO­HIT JAIN PARAS

THAT’S A WAVE Ra­jasthan Con­gress chief Sachin Pi­lot (in white) with sup­port­ers in Jaipur

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