In a departure from his caller tune till a few months ago, Congress Rajasthan president and Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot has shifted to the Hanuman Chalisa. The gesture is symbolic of how the Congress is playing catch-up in the narrative being driven by the BJP in the state.
In the past couple of days, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has addressed four rallies in Rajasthan, his speeches focused on Pakistan and attacks on Congress governments for placing “vote bank over national security”. Despite the Election Commission advisory against invoking the defence forces during campaigning, Modi has continued to talk about the Army.
Pilot insists “this sort of rhetoric” won’t cut any ice, and that “people will vote on issues that matter to them in daily life”. Addressing a rally in Banswara Tuesday, Congress president Rahul Gandhi talked about Rafale and his party’s minimum income guarantee promise.
But the message from the ground is not too happy for the Congress. For the last two decades in Rajasthan, the ruling party has always won most of the state’s 25 seats in the Lok Sabha. This time, the contest will be close, and the BJP may even buck the trend.
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Early last year, in what were the first inklings of a Congress turnaround in Rajasthan — the party had lost all 25 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 and won 21 seats against the BJP’s 163 in the 2013 Assembly elections — the Congress had swept the Alwar and Ajmer Lok Sabha bypolls (winning all the 16 Assembly constituencies therein), as well as a Mandalgarh Assembly by-election held simultaneously.
But with the Congress plagued by factionalism, the BJP had fast caught up. The eventual vote difference between the two parties in the December Assembly elections — held nine months after the bypolls — was just 0.5 per cent. A shocker given the perceived unpopularity of outgoing CM Vasundhara Raje. The Congress tally in Alwar and Ajmer had itself come down to five Assembly segments from 16.
Five months on, the Congress remains a divided house. Party sources admit that in many places weak candidates have got tickets due to the turf war between the Gehlot and Pilot factions, with Gehlot having the upper hand. The price may not be as heavy as the Assembly polls though for the Congress.
Congress can only go up from zero
Compared to its worst-ever performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Congress will indeed make gains, but faces a strong BJP. It also goes into Lok Sabha polls with the pain of having squandered gains to allow BJP to make it neck-and-neck in the December Assembly elections
While the BJP is set to retain its grip in crucial areas such as Mewar, pockets of Marwar and Hadoti region (together these have 10 Lok Sabha seats; out of 72 Assembly seats here, the Congress had won 33 in December), the Congress hopes to make gains in Sikar, Jodhpur, Barmer, Dausa and Karauli (5 Lok Sabha seats; the Congress had won 27 out of 34 constituencies here in the state elections). In east Rajasthan, with four Lok Sabha seats, the Congress appears to have the support of Scheduled Caste voters dissatisfied with the BJP.
Gehlot, who wrested chief ministership from Pilot after a bitter and long-drawn tussle, will be hoping that his flurry of welfare schemes — farm loan waiver, increase in unemployment allowance and old age and disability pension, free water and pension for farmers — will bring farmers back to the Congress fold.
He will also hope the Gujjar anger over Pilot being denied the top post doesn’t translate into them heading back to the BJP. The Gujjars have been angry with the BJP since quota protests led to deaths under the Raje regime.
The BJP’s caste calculation is focused on wooing the Jats, who have traditionally been Congress supporters. This is also driven by the Rajputs turning away from the party in Raje’s time. Traditionally, Jats and Rajputs support opposing parties in the state. This time, Jat leader Hanuman Beniwal’s Rashtriya Loktantrik Party has tied up with the BJP.
The BJP confidence is reflected in its choice of candidates. In largely how it approached the Assembly elections — when it had retained scores of its MLAs — the BJP has repeated 16 of its sitting MPs, and dropped six. (Of the remaining three seats, Dausa and Ajmer are vacant while Alwar is held by the Congress.)
There have been some murmurs of dissent. Claiming that Union MoS Arjun Ram Meghwal, fielded from Bikaner, was working against the BJP and dividing people along caste lines, seven-time MLA Devi Singh Bhati resigned from the party and is campaigning against Meghwal.
The BJP logic is that a vote for the party is essentially a vote for Modi, with the candidates merely a medium. In his rallies, the PM has been emphasising that “when you press on lotus (in the EVM), the vote will go to my account”, without a mention of the party candidates.
The BJP further believes it could bridge its narrow December gap with the Congress now that Raje, who many party leaders were against, is largely not in the picture. Two Raje antagonists, Beniwal (Nagaur) and Diya Kumari (Rajsamand), have got BJP tickets.