Under a programme called the ‘Labharthi Jan Samvad’, the BJP government in Rajasthan is reaching out to, and mobilising for the election, those who have benefited from its programmes and schemes. By all accounts, however, the BJP’s real labharthi, or beneficiary, could be its main political opponent, the Congress.
In a way, this is not surprising. Though Rajasthan has a third force, and this time that space is populated with more players than before, it is effectively a bipolar state which has not re-elected an incumbent in the last 25 years. That is, disenchantment with the BJP inevitably equals support for the Congress.
Yet, travelling in Rajasthan ahead of polls, the extent to which the Congress is the receptacle — not agent — of the momentum for change in this election, is still striking. Across the six districts The Indian Express travelled to — Jaipur, Sikar, Jhunjhunu, Nagaur, Jodhpur and Udaipur — there was visible voter anger and discontent with the BJP government, but support for the Congress was only by implication, and on the rebound.
This is not just because the Modi wave had reduced Congress presence in the legislative assembly to only 21 MLAs in 2013. The Congress doesn’t even seem to be trying to set the agenda on the ground. Its leaders’ best argument: BJP governments, in Rajasthan and in Delhi, have failed to deliver.
In Jaipur, Rajiv Arora, vice-president of the state Congress, claims that the Rajasthan poll is “the most important election for revival of the Congress, a semi-final, before 2019”. But ask him about Congress issues, and he talks of the BJP: “Both Jats and Rajputs are angry with the BJP. Till a year ago, anti-incumbency was only working against Vasundhara Raje, now it is also singeing Modi.”
“Congress issues? We have so many”, says Congress MLA from Laxmangarh, Govind Singh Dotasra. “BJP’s promises to the unemployed have amounted to zero. For farmers, zero. On corruption, zero. Law and order, fail.”
This political vacuum, despite the Congress or rather because of it, has been sensed by players in the Third Force. “It was I who targeted Vasundhara Raje in the assembly and on the street. Congress toh mili hui thi Madam ke saath (Congress was colluding with Raje),” says Hanuman Beniwal, BJP rebel and independent MLA from Khinwsar who fashions himself as a Jat farmer leader and launched the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party in the run-up to this election.
Beniwal lists the agitations he has led against the Raje government, beginning with a 42 day-dharna from December 2013 to February 2014 outside Nagaur collectorate to regularise electricity connections in the “dark zone”. He has had 12 FIRs against him in the last five years alone, he says, and throws a challenge: “Fighter kaun hai (so who is the fighter now)?”
Ghanshyam Tiwari, the other BJP breakaway to have floated his own outfit, the Bharat Vahini Party, whose main agenda is a quota for the upper-caste poor, also claims to have played the role of the real Opposition. “I left the BJP because of the undeclared Emergency. There are only orders, no voices, under Modi-Shah and in the Raje regime. The Sangh has been captured”, he says.
Beniwal and Tiwari posture against the BJP, but are ideologically still tied to it — Tiwari even calls himself the “mool (real) BJP”. On the other end, the BJP’s Opposition is made up of the Left, which is not represented in the assembly but which supported and sustained an agitation that forced the Raje government to take note of farmer distress in Sikar, September 2017.
If the Congress seems to be the missing middle of the Opposition on bijli-sadak-paani, it is even more elusive and evasive on another set of issues.
In April 2017, Pehlu Khan was lynched in Alwar by a mob that accused him of smuggling cows, one among several incidents of cow-related violence and hate crime that have drawn the nation’s attention to Rajasthan in the last few years. “But we are trying not to let religion come to the fore. They (BJP) want to take us into the polarising issues. It is a trap we refuse to walk into,” says Arora of the state Congress.
On instances of intolerance and violence against the Muslim minority, however, it is not just Congress unwillingness to play the BJP game that is on show — but also its opposite. That is, the Congress is also trying to beat the BJP by doing a BJP.
In Jaipur, meet Pratap Singh Khachariyawas, former BJP youth wing leader and nephew of the late BJP stalwart, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who joined the Congress in 2004 and is its Jaipur district president. “I started the gau raksha aandolan (cow protection campaign) here two years ago after cows died at the Hingonia gaushala. I ran a campaign against the demolition of temples to make way for the Metro.”
In village Daulatpura in district Sikar, Congress MLA Govind Singh Dotasra says: “Gai, mandir, aastha hai Congress ki. Inki god li hai kya gai (Cow-temple are matters of faith for the Congress, does the BJP own the cow)?” Congress is the real “gau bhakt”, says Subhash Maharia, three-time BJP MP, and former Union minister, who joined the Congress in 2016. Asked about the lynching of Pehlu Khan, Maharia abruptly terminates the conversation, gets up and leaves.
The Congress’s “soft Hindutva” has left the field open for the BJP’s “hard Hindutva” in ideas and arenas in between elections, says Prof Rajiv Gupta, retired head of the Department of Sociology, University of Rajasthan. “Three years ago, they disrupted a seminar on Premchand, called it ‘Naxalvadi’. In books of the Rajasthan Madhyamik Shiksha Board, a new history is being written. The medieval period is dismissed as a time when India was controlled by invaders, there is a jump from ancient times to the age of Modi. The freedom struggle is played down and so is Godse’s murder of Gandhi.”
Those who speak for the Congress speak of it not as an ideological counter to the ruling BJP, or as a party with a plan for the future. Instead, there is nostalgia for a time when prices were not so high and government was less in pursuit of high-tech solutionism. Many remember the Congress chief minister who had made medicines free in government hospitals and conveyed an impression of approachability.
Ashok Gehlot, routed by the Modi wave in 2013 despite his government’s popular and populist schemes, is now remembered for them. On Gehlot, the refrain also is: “Jaan pehchaan hai, phire ghoomein hain (he is familiar with the people and landscapes)”. “Neeche se utha aadmi samajhta hai (one who has risen from below, understands)”, says Bhagirath, who runs a tempo in Sikar.
In a party divided between two leaders — the Congress has not declared a CM candidate, but both Gehlot and Sachin Pilot are in the fray — it is not yet clear if experience will triumph over youth or vice versa. Among the people, however, Gehlot would appear to have the edge.
And Rahul Gandhi remains the leader with a disadvantage. Ask about the Congress president, and across castes and classes, even in a deeply feudal state, those who do not dismiss him or damn him with faint praise (“he is learning, it is just that he is not able to find the words for what he wants to say”), say: “We have not seen him perform. He has not been tested by office or responsibility.”
If the Congress benefits by keeping the spotlight on the BJP’s chief minister, therefore, the BJP profits from portraying it as a contest between Rahul and Modi. At the same time, even as the winds blow against the BJP, the narrative is not really in the hands of the Congress.
In Jaipur, a senior Congress leader gives a small but telling example. “When TV channels come to me for a sound bite, I sit here in my office and speak with this wall in the background.” He gestures to the wall in question, which has framed pictures, portraits, a shelf full of trophies. “There is no hand (Congress symbol) in the frame. But there is a lotus in the backdrop every time a BJP leader appears on screen”.
And Mukesh Lodha, RSS swayamsevak and BJP district secretary in Jodhpur, counts 46 RSS branches/units active for the “Hindu samaj” — they include Seva Bharti (working among slum dwellers and the poor), Sudarshan Seva Sansthan (performs marriages among the poor), Vidya Bharati (RSS’s educational wing), Seema Jan Kalyan (for Hindus on the border), Hindu Jagran Match (campaigning against “love jihad”). “Every Thursday, there is a baithak (get-together) at the Sangh office. Does the Congress have anything to match this?”