Battleground Rajasthan (1): BJP battling two strong trends, state elections to have implications on its bid for 2019

The assembly elections in Rajasthan are due in November 2018 along with Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.

While the Indian National Congress (INC) is hoping for a comeback on the basis of the strong trend of incumbent government being thrown out every five years, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is looking to reverse the trend in the light of Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s social welfare schemes and Narendra Modi’s popularity.

These elections are touted as semi-finals to the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. Rajasthan sends 25 MPs to Parliament and accounts for just over 8 per cent of BJP’s strength in the lower house. Any loss in the state would send a wrong message to the voters just before the Lok Sabha polls.

The first non-Congress government in Rajasthan was formed by the Janata Party in 1977 after the Emergency, in line with the government formation at the Centre and in many other states. However, with the disintegration of the Janata Party, Congress stormed back to power in 1980. The dominance of Congress in Rajasthan was broken by the BJP in 1990 under the leadership of Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who ruled the state till 1998. Since then, power has alternated between the Congress and BJP in the state. The contest over the past two decades has been bipolar in nature. Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has emerged as the third largest party with pockets of influence.

The big question is, will the trend continue in this election? Will the people of the state overthrow the Raje government or will the Modi effect and BJP’s dominance in the Indian political scene help the party to sustain power?

The Anti-Incumbency Factor

Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje is not the favourite among a section of the people and the party. She was elected to power in 2003 and was ousted in 2008, with the people replacing her with Ashok Gehlot. Her win in 2013, many believe, is attributed to the Modi wave, which had swept the country leading to the ousting of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government the following year. The anti-incumbency factor had played a critical role in her last tenure and could, this time too.

Kirodi Lal Meena’s Re-entry

The return of MLA Kirodi Lal Meena in March 2018 is seen as a shot in the arm for the BJP ahead of the assembly elections.

Meena, a five-term MLA and two-time MP, is an influential leader and his community (accounting for 7 per cent of state’s population) has a significant presence in 28 assembly seats in 11 districts of eastern Rajasthan. He had left the BJP in 2008 after differences with Raje and formed the National People’s Party (NPP).

Immediately after the by-poll setback, both sides patched up enabling his gharwapsi. In 2013, NPP bagged 4.3 per cent vote share and emerged as the third largest force ahead of the BSP.

By-Poll Losses Suggest A Losing Combat

In the by-polls held in January 2018 in Mandalgarh (assembly), Ajmer and Alwar (Lok Sabha) Congress defeated BJP convincingly.

All these seats were earlier held by the BJP, and with big margins. This has boosted the morale of the Congress cadre just before the 2018 state slections and 2019 general elections. What is worrisome for the BJP is that both Ajmer and Alwar are big urban centres of the state with a good middle class population, which is BJP’s traditional vote bank.

It is a sign of the growing urban apathy of the middle class towards the BJP.

Raje’s Popularity Among Women And The Modi Factor

Vasundhara Raje is fairly popular among the women. Modi enjoys huge popularity in Rajasthan.

Vasundhara is Rajasthan’s first woman Chief Minister and is credited with turning around the social and economic status of women in the state. Introduction of death penalty for rape of minors below 12 years of age has earned the Raje government acclaim.

In 2014, 43 per cent of the BJP voters as per CSDS survey said they would not have voted for the BJP if Narendra Modi had not been the prime ministerial candidate, though the national average is only 27 per cent.

Ashok Gehlot And Sachin Pilot Factor

The two popular faces of the Congress in the state are Ashok Gehlot, the former CM of Rajasthan, who has played a crucial role in the Congress party’s good performance in Gujarat and government formation in Karnataka; and Sachin Pilot, who is running the campaign with much zest and vigour. Pilot is the man accredited with the by-poll wins in the state. Pilot has been travelling across the state to boost the morale of the Congress workers – ‘Matka Phod’ programme, protest against the hike in fuel prices and ‘Mera Booth, Mera Gaurav’ programme – to name a few.

Both Sides Suffering From Factionalism

There are reports of a tug of war between BJP president Amit Shah and CM Vasundhara Raje. It took more than two months for the party to find a replacement for Ashok Parmani, who quit as BJP state unit president in April 2018. BJP appointed Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh man Madanlal Saini as the BJP unit president after hectic parleys on 30 June 2018. In the past too, there have been rumours of Raje threatening to split the party when efforts were made to move her to the centre and replace her as CM. Recently, Ghanshyam Tiwari, a prominent Brahmin leader of the state, quit the BJP due to differences with Raje and formed his own party. Brahmins comprise a sizeable chunk of state’s population (7 per cent) and could hurt BJP’s prospects.

Contenders to the Chief Minister’s post from the Congress are too many and it is evident that the party does not want to aggravate the palpable factionalism by declaring a CM face. The senior leadership of the Congress has decided to go to the polls without announcing a chief ministerial candidate on a combined leadership basis like in Gujarat. The Pilot versus Gehlot tussle is out there in the open. Gehlot is reportedly upset at being sidelined from state politics.

To sum up, a fascinating contest is on the cards in Rajasthan. In all the Lok Sabha elections held in the state after 1998, the party (which had won in the Vidhan Sabha elections held just a few months earlier) managed to win all of it. Hence retaining Rajasthan is very important for Modi’s 2019 plans.

(This article was first published in Swarajya.)

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