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