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.
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.