Desert Rolls

Welfarism battles anti-incumbency on the Rajasthan campaign trail

Vasundhara Raje on the Suraaj Sankalp Yatra, part of the BJP’s campaign in Rajasthan ahead of state elections. SANJEV VERMA / HINDUSTAN TIMES / GETTY IMAGE
01 October, 2013

SINCE THE BEGINNING OF APRIL THIS YEAR, two road shows have drawn the people of Rajasthan out on the streets in spite of the intense summer heat. Two modified vans criss-crossed the state, their loudspeakers blaring slogans and songs. They never crossed paths, but both were pre-poll yatras, racing for the finish line—the state’s upcoming assembly elections at the end of the year.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) orange and green bus for their “Suraaj Sankalp Yatra” was the comeback vehicle of their recently appointed state president, former chief minister Vasundhara Raje, back on the streets of Rajasthan. She was doing exactly what she had done in 2003, when she embarked on a “Parivartan Yatra” that helped her win a sweeping majority, and become the first woman chief minister of Rajasthan. The Congress Party, for their part, chose a less colourful white bus to travel the state with their own “Sandesh Yatra”. Although it was announced after the BJP unveiled its roadmap for the Suraaj Sankalp Yatra, the Sandesh Yatra was off the blocks a few days before its rival. Much in keeping with the personality of its leader, the Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot, this road show was less flamboyant and stuck to the basics—listing the government’s achievements, laying foundation stones, appearing at inaugurations, and taking the odd potshot at the opposition.

In 2008, an election the Congress won by the narrowest of margins, there had been no pre-poll yatras. Gehlot, who became chief minister for the second time with the 2008 poll victory, has, over the past few months, rolled out several new social welfare initiatives that should appeal to voters, but he knows that for a third term in office, he will have to overcome his main obstacle—the anti-incumbency factor. Primarily a two-party state, Rajasthan has in the past two decades kept it simple during the polls by voting out the incumbent party. In public perception, it is advantage Raje, and the general impression slowly gaining credence is that the BJP, led by her, will pull off a repeat of its 2003  victory in the state.

However, this may have little to do with what the BJP is doing right, and more to do with the failures that have marred Gehlot’s tenure. Gehlot’s house is divided. A number of the present Congress MLAs are not likely to be reelected, but many will probably still get a chance to fight in the upcoming polls. Moreover, old rivals Gehlot and Congress general secretary CP Joshi already fought publicly over candidate selection at a party meeting held this August to discuss the upcoming elections.

Gehlot’s most vocal critic, Joshi was credited with the 2008 election victory in the state, even though he lost his own seat by one vote. Then the Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee chief, Joshi had once harboured ambitions of becoming chief minister, but was defeated by the arithmetic of caste. A Brahmin, Joshi didn’t fit into the caste alignments which influenced ascension to the job, and Gehlot eventually pipped him to the post, having also ensured that no leader from the powerful Jat community became chief minister (Gehlot is from the backward Mali community). His decisions then isolated Jat leaders like Sisram Ola and Parasram Maderna, and angered the Jat community, which influences the outcome in one quarter of the 200 seats.

Former Congress MP and Jat leader Hari Singh recently declared his support for Raje, which gave the BJP a further toe-hold in the Jat community, typically considered a Congress vote base. Many in the BJP describe it as a turning point, one which will help them capitalise on the growing resentment within the Jat community against the Congress over issues like former minister Mahipal Maderna’s arrest in the Bhanwari Devi murder case, and the party’s continuing failure to project a Jat as the chief minister.

Raje appears to have emerged wiser from similar crises in her past. Just ahead of the 2008 assembly polls, she had a virtual rebellion on her hands, facing dissent and accusations that she was too autocratic. By the end of her tenure as chief minister, she had alienated the RSS, which felt that she had sidelined their leaders such as Gulab Chand Kataria and Ghanshyam Tiwari. Further, in the wake of the Gujjar agitation over reservations in 2008, she lost the support of both the Gujjar and Meena communities. Prominent Meena leaders, including Raje’s former cabinet minister Kirori Lal Meena, felt that she would give them a raw deal on the Gujjar reservation issue and deserted her.

This time, therefore, Raje mellowed her approach. She took a wider consensus on poll planning and all dissidence was put to rest well before the party went into election mode. On the highways of Rajasthan, the BJP has managed to put up a more united front than the Congress, in spite of the fact that Raje has been constantly called an outsider in state politics—or as Gehlot puts it, an “absentee leader”. This even though Raje plays the daughter-in-law card often: married into the Jat family which formerly ruled Dholpur in eastern Rajasthan, she regularly refers to Rajasthan as her sasural.

Wordplay aside, her greatest challenge comes from a slew of newly announced welfare schemes, many directly initiated by Gehlot, that have been the highlight of his five-year tenure. Unfazed by mounting criticism for his poor governance and mishandling of incidents of communal violence, Gehlot has kept his foot on the accelerator and chosen to focus on his welfare schemes instead. Seen as a non-performer until recently, his welfare schemes have given his image a shot in the arm, with even traditional BJP voters grudgingly admitting that he has performed well in the social sector. The old-age pension scheme added two million new pensioners after the Gehlot government relaxed entitlement norms, such as age. According to the Rajasthan Department of Information and Public Relations, every below-poverty-line (BPL) family is getting food grains at Rs 1 per kilo, besides Rs 1,500 for blankets and saris.

“It has worked because it has directly impacted so many people,” said a former Congress MLA from southern Rajasthan. “Everywhere you go, people will talk about [the schemes] but that doesn’t mean they will vote Gehlot back in power. He would be rated poor on overall governance.” Journalist Rajiv Jain, who has tracked Rajasthan politics for more than two decades, said to me: “Voting will end up happening on caste lines, like it traditionally has. There will be minor shifts, and the undecided voter may be impacted by these schemes or the sight of the metro rolling into Jaipur city, but the rest will look at the candidate’s background.”

Raje’s clean sweep at the polls in 2003 was a combination of caste alignments—the “background” that Jain mentioned—and a sustained campaign in Congress-dominated regions. The Gehlot government, which had won 153 seats in the 200-seat assembly in 1998, managed to win only 56 in 2003. The BJP made significant inroads into the traditionally Congress-dominated tribal belts of Udaipur division, which borders Gujarat (the 35 seats spread across the seven districts are known to give the first indications of which way poll results are headed in the state). Much credit was given to the RSS at the time for penetrating the tribal belt—and to the fact that Narendra Modi’s impact in Gujarat had a spillover effect in the region.

This time, Modi, recently declared the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, is expected to have a more direct influence. Many within the party feel that Modi’s participation in the campaign has had a sort of rejuvenating effect on the workers. In spite of some well-publicised differences between the two, Raje is said to be counting on the “Modi factor” to see her through the final leg. “They have always had differences but now they have no choice,” said a BJP leader. “After all, one wants to be the chief minister and the other the prime minister.”

When the final results were announced in 2008, the vote difference between Rajasthan’s two main parties, a narrow three percent, left many gasping. The Congress won 96 seats, and the BJP 79. In nearly 70 seats, the margin of victory had been less than 5,000 votes. Ashok Gehlot, the results showed, held little sway even in his own constituency of Jodhpur: of the three seats in Jodhpur city, Gehlot was the only Congress winner; the other two seats were won by the BJP.

In 2013, the dynamics have been complicated even further. Besides the face-off between Gehlot’s welfarism and the anti-incumbency factor, several factors on the ground make it clear that the Congress has a diverse range of crises, many self-created, to contend with.

For one, the former BJP rebel Kirori Lal Meena, has brought the PA Sangma-led National People’s Party into the election fray and plans to contest all 200 seats. The independent MP from Dausa, who many believed had a role to play in the BJP’s 2008 defeat, is one of the most prominent leaders of the Meena community, which makes up 53 percent of the total scheduled tribe population in the state. Along with the 11 other listed tribes, they constitute 12.6 percent of the electorate. Meena, who was expelled from the Raje government in 2008, had supported the Congress as an independent and helped form the new government later that year, but eventually fell out with them as well. Meena’s wife, Golma Devi, who also won as an independent, had similarly extended her support to Gehlot and was also a minister in his cabinet, but later resigned, saying there was too much corruption in his government.

Both husband and wife, it is clear, will affect the prospects of the Congress and BJP. In what is being referred to as the “Kirori factor”, many see him restructuring traditional voting patterns in Meena-dominated districts of eastern Rajasthan, including Dausa, Sawai Madhopur, Dholpur, Bharatpur and Karauli. Observers say that the impact will be felt in about 20-odd seats in that belt, with a higher likelihood of disadvantaging the Congress.

Workers from both parties also feel that the Gopalgarh riots will influence the voting pattern of the nine percent Muslim population in the state. A small town in Bharatpur district, Gopalgarh saw the Gujjar and Meo Muslim communities clash over a disputed piece of land in September 2011. Ten people died in the clashes and police firing that followed. The Gehlot government faced criticism for the handling of the clashes even from its own party. Congress president Sonia Gandhi sent a five-member fact-finding team of MPs from Delhi to visit Gopalgarh; their report stated that the ten deaths were a result of dire administrative negligence.

Elsewhere, the proposal to construct an oil refinery has fuelled a debate that is providing the BJP with further mileage. The construction of a nine-million-tonne-capacity oil refinery at Pachpadra in Barmer, the country’s biggest on-land oilfield, was doggedly pursued by Gehlot and recently cleared by the UPA government. Now, charges of corruption in land selection for this project and the timing of its clearance have become poll issues, drawing criticism from the BJP and dividing leaders within the Congress itself. As a result, the refinery scheme, once seen as an electoral asset, seems to be rebounding on Gehlot.

Raje’s yatra this summer didn’t exactly create a storm, but it had a smoother ride than the Sandesh Yatra. Besides the fact that Gehlot’s road trip was an afterthought, in response to the BJP’s campaign plans, at no point did it have the appeal of Raje’s cavalcade. Some of Gehlot’s own party workers voiced the opinion at a Congress Pradesh committee meeting that the entire exercise had the feel, one of the attendees told me, of a “government programme and not a party event”.

It remains to be seen what kind of response well-publicised government programmes will draw at the polls—a question that will undoubtedly have currency for many outside Rajasthan. Both the Suraaj Sankalp and the Sandesh yatras focused on local issues, but the campaign leading up to the elections will draw, too, on issues of corruption and the stalled economy that have repeatedly rocked the UPA government in the last few years. Inevitable comparisons  will be drawn to the issues at stake in the upcoming general election. As with the Congress in 2014, the elections will be a tightrope walk for Gehlot.