Em­pire Strikes Back

In 2017, the mar­ginal vic­tory of the BJP in the assem­bly y polls in Gu­jarat was a sig­nal that all was not well for the party.

Southasia - - FRONT PAGE - By S.G. Ji­la­nee The writer is a se­nior po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst and for­mer edi­tor of SouthAsia.

It was in the home of Prime Min­is­ter, Naren­dra Modi that the rul­ing BJP barely made it to the assem­bly in the 2017 bye-polls - a clear sign of the ero­sion of pop­u­lar sup­port. Now a clearer ver­dict has come from Ra­jasthan.

In a clear set­back to the BJP, the Congress regis­tered an im­pres­sive vic­tory in three re­cent bye-elec­tions in Ra­jasthan, where it wrested the Al­war and Ajmer Lok Sabha seats and the Man­dal­garh Assem­bly seat from the rul­ing BJP. What lends sig­nif­i­cance to the event is that the Congress won not by a few votes but a thump­ing ma­jor­ity that not only sent adren­a­line gush­ing through the sys­tem of its work­ers but also acted as morale booster for other op­po­si­tion par­ties.

In Al­war, Karan Singh Ya­dav of the Congress de­feated the BJP’s Jaswant Ya­dav by a mar­gin of 1,96,496 votes, while Congress can­di­date Raghu Sharma de­feated his BJP ri­val Ram­swarup Lamba in Ajmer by 84,414 votes.

In the Man­dal­garh Assem­bly con­stituency, the Congress’s Vivek Dhakar trounced the BJP’s Shakti Singh Hada by 12,976 votes. The party’s vic­tory in the by-elec­tions, touted as the “semi-fi­nals,” is be­ing in­ter­preted as a “peo­ple’s ver­dict” against the Va­sund­hara Raje gov­ern­ment’s “fail­ure and ar­ro­gance.”

Congress pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi hailed the party’s im­pres­sive show and called the out­come a “re­jec­tion” of the BJP by the peo­ple. “Well done Ra­jasthan Congress! Proud of each and ev­ery one of you. This is a re­jec­tion of the BJP by the peo­ple of Ra­jasthan,” he tweeted.

Hun­dreds of Congress work­ers burst fire­crack­ers and dis­trib­uted sweets out­side the Pradesh Congress Com­mit­tee head­quar­ters in Jaipur as the trends be­came clear.

State Congress pres­i­dent Sachin Pi­lot, who stayed in Ajmer and criss­crossed the three con­stituen­cies dur­ing elec­tion­eer­ing, was car­ried in­side the build­ing on the shoul­ders of ju­bi­lant party work­ers.

Soon af­ter the tri­umph, Mr. Pi­lot de­manded Chief Min­is­ter Raje’s res­ig­na­tion on moral grounds. “The peo­ple have saved democ­racy by re­ject­ing the BJP's pol­icy of caste po­lar­iza­tion. Be­sides prov­ing peo­ple’s faith in the Congress, this man­date is also against the Cen­tre’s de­mon­e­ti­za­tion, GST im­ple­men­ta­tion and eco­nomic slow­down,” Mr. Pi­lot said at a press con­fer­ence in Jaipur.

If Gu­jarat showed the Congress was alive and kick­ing, Ra­jasthan has shown it can get the bet­ter of the Bharatiya Janata Party. How­ever, though the Congress vic­tory in Ra­jasthan was not un­ex­pected, con­sid­er­ing the wide­spread un­hap­pi­ness that had been build­ing up against the Va­sund­hara Raje regime, yet, the mag­ni­tude of the vic­tory has come as a sur­prise both to the BJP and to the Congress. They see it as a wave in favour of the Congress, cut­ting across castes as well as the ur­ban-ru­ral di­vide. The party saw a turn­around of around four lakh votes in the Al­war Lok Sabha con­stituency and a jump of 25% in Ajmer, where its state chief Sachin Pi­lot had lost by 2.5 lakh votes in 2014. This and the fact that it won big in all 17 assem­bly seg­ments – eight each in Al­war and Ajmer par­lia­men­tary con­stituen­cies and one in Man­dal­garh – shows that it was a “vote of aakrosh”, or anger, against the Raje gov­ern­ment.

Specif­i­cally, the vic­tory can be at­trib­uted to two fac­tors. One, the style of func­tion­ing of the chief min­is­ter that had an­gered peo­ple. Two, the clear lead­er­ship of the Congress. Pi­lot was ap­pointed the state Congress chief in 2014, a few months be­fore the gen­eral elec­tion that brought Naren­dra Modi to power. He up­rooted him­self from Delhi and made Jaipur his home and base, vis­it­ing Delhi over the week­ends to see his chil­dren. His party col­leagues say Pi­lot has logged at least three lakh kilo­me­tres trav­el­ling up and down the state over the last four years, re­build­ing the party’s sup­port base, which had been dec­i­mated when Raje won the 2013 elec­tion by a three-fourths ma­jor­ity.

Slowly, the Congress un­der Pi­lot be­gan to notch up vic­to­ries, in stu­dent elec­tions and in polls to gram pan­chay­ats and mu­nic­i­pal cor­po­ra­tions. Nor­mally, bye-polls are won by the rul­ing party. But the Congress has bucked the trend to win six of the eight bye-polls held in the state in the last four years. In the process, the Ra­jasthan Congress has set a tem­plate for the party to fol­low in other states: en­trust the lead­er­ship to peo­ple com­mit­ted to work­ing hard on the ground to re­con­nect with the vot­ers.

How­ever, as the bye-elec­tions have made the pop­u­lar mood clear, much will now de­pend on the unity of Ra­jasthan Congress lead­ers – Pi­lot, CP Joshi and for­mer chief min­is­ter Ashok Gehlot, who still en­joys good­will – demon­strat­ing in the com­ing weeks to cash on pop­u­lar sen­ti­ment in their favour in the up­com­ing Assem­bly elec­tion.

The Congress vic­tory in Ra­jasthan prom­ises a wider im­pact. Ac­cord­ing to some an­a­lysts it may be a game

changer for the op­po­si­tion, which is strug­gling to keep its head above wa­ter. It has given heart not only to the Congress, but to oth­ers as well, which may change the po­lit­i­cal map.

In the 2019 gen­eral elec­tions, large states will hold the key. If the Sa­ma­jwadi Party of Akhilesh Ya­dav and the Bahu­jan Sa­maj Party of Mayawati team up in the 80-seat Ut­tar Pradesh ( though for the mo­ment both have ruled it out and the BJP will do its ut­most to pre­vent this from hap­pen­ing), and the Congress and the Na­tion­al­ist Congress Party join hands in Ma­ha­rash­tra (48 seats), with the pos­si­bil­ity of a tacit un­der­stand­ing with the Shiv Sena, the BJP would find it tough in both states.

In Tamil Nadu (39 seats) and West Ben­gal ( 42 seats), it is MK Stalin and Ma­mata Ban­er­jee, re­spec­tively, who are in the lead role, with or with­out al­lies. Ban­er­jee con­tin­ues to hold her ground in West Ben­gal as demon­strated in the re­cent by-polls, though the BJP is emerg­ing as its clos­est op­po­si­tion in the state.

The other large state is Bi­har ( 40 seats). Ni­tish Ku­mar’s de­ci­sion to break from the grand al­liance stitched ahead of the Assem­bly elec­tions in 2015 and align­ing with the BJP has gar­nered Lalu Prasad Ya­dav sym­pa­thy among the Ya­davs and Mus­lims as also some most back­ward castes that used to be his sup­port­ers but had moved away. Al­lied with the Congress, Ya­dav, though serv­ing a jail term for his role in the fod­der scam, may not be the also-ran some ex­pect him to be.

With its vic­tory in Ra­jasthan, the Congress has lit the torch. But it must sus­tain the tempo to win the gen­eral elec­tions, due next year.

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