BJP hopes to return to power on the pledge of good governance even as Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot plays the populist card. Open reports from Rajasthan
Former Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje campaigns in Alwar, November 22, 2023 (Photo: Ashish Sharma)
SITTING ON A CHARPOY, WEARING an oversized grey denim jacket over a T-shirt and floral printed trousers, 14-year-old Payal is immersed in her smartphone. Her father Dharam Das rushes between his cauliflower field and a small shop selling tea, crisps and guavas grown on the farm on the highway from Sawai Madhopur to Jaipur. Payal is oblivious of the din around her. “I was watching a video,” she smiles, shaken out of her absorbing pursuit.
She is a beneficiary of Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s scheme offering smartphones to women. Das is happy that his daughter, a Class 9 student, can also watch maths-class videos on the phone. But a couple of kilometres away Rajesh Sharma, who runs a provision store in the same Assembly seat of Khandar, resents the state government’s scheme saying it is keeping girls engrossed in their phones. While Das belongs to the Mali community, the same as Gehlot, Sharma is a Brahmin. He lashes out at the Gehlot government, disapproving its “freebies”, as an old farmer, Kaalu, with a long white moustache, listens quietly. Kaalu gets a monthly pension of ₹750 under the Gehlot government’s Vridhjan Krishak Samman Pension scheme for farmers (men over 58 and women over 55) who do not have a regular source of income, but rues that the chief minister has not visited the place. Also from the Mali community, he refuses to divulge his political preference, whispering “vote apni marzi ka hona chahiye (vote should be of one’s own choice)”. Barring 2013, when the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Jitendra Singh Gothwal won Khandar, a Scheduled Caste (SC) reserved constituency, Congress’ Ashok Bairwa has held the seat since 1998. Gothwal is in the race again to take on the incumbent MLA.
At dhabas in rural areas of Rajasthan, it takes just a nudge to turn the conversation to politics, over kulhads of hot sugary tea. Opinion is often polarised, unambiguous and unshakeable, yet not acrimonious. It veers around livelihood issues like water, electricity, roads, healthcare, and is tinged with political affiliations. “Gehlot ne kaam to kiya hai (Gehlot has worked),” is a common refrain, but some accuse his government of ramping up its performance as elections neared, and praise policies and measures of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre and BJP’s erstwhile Vasundhara Raje regime. Those backing Congress reel out Gehlot’s welfare schemes that have benefited them even though most of them are uncertain about or oblivious to the party’s caste survey promise, a tactic intended to counter BJP’s Hindu consolidation. With the Other Backward Classes (OBC) population roughly estimated at 35-40 per cent in the state, Congress and BJP are leaving no stone unturned to reach out to this influential segment. In a state where deep-seated caste affiliations hold sway, particularly in rural areas, certain sections among OBCs have shifted their allegiance from one to the other party in the state’s bipolar politics and this can impact the results.
In a state known for alternating between Congress and BJP, Gehlot has mounted a determined campaign to break the trend through a plethora of welfare schemes fully reflected in the party manifesto released on November 21 that lists “seven guarantees” that promise a ₹10,000 annual honorarium for women, cooking gas at ₹500 a cylinder, a return to the Old Pension Scheme (OPS) and an increase in health insurance under the Chiranjeevi scheme from ₹25 lakh to ₹50 lakh. Congress’ campaign is dominated by Gehlot and, although he has arrived at a truce with rival and former Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot, frictions remain. BJP has sought to play on these faultlines, wooing specific caste groups like the Gujjars who backed Congress in 2018, swayed by the prospects of Pilot who was then state party chief. BJP has also sought to counter Congress’ welfarist promises and schemes by targeting the state government over law and order, safety of women, alleged indulgence of religious extremism, and sought to leverage its ‘nationalist’ credentials. While doing so, BJP has taken a risk by firmly refusing to project former Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje as the party’s face, choosing instead to field a clutch of Union ministers and younger MPs in the Assembly polls. The animated election talk in the state’s interiors provides a peek into how these narratives are playing out at the constituency level amid frenetic campaigning.
“There is a road here now and a hospital, but most of the work was done in the last one year,” says Mahavir, who runs a tea stall in Deoli-Uniara, one of the four seats of Tonk district. BJP has fielded Vijay Bainsla, son of Gujjar leader Kirori Singh Bainsla, who was instrumental in getting the Most Backward Class (MBC) tag for the community. Bainsla’s candidature is aimed at countering Pilot, who is contesting from Tonk where Gujjars form the second-largest community after Muslims. In the last Assembly election, none of BJP’s Gujjar candidates won—in a state where the community is estimated to constitute around 6 per cent of the population. In Deoli-Uniara, Congress MLA Harishchandra Meena, who is contesting again, had defeated BJP’s Rajinder Gujjar who had won in 2013. Meanwhile, Jats, classified as OBCs in Rajasthan and a dominant agricultural community, are also being wooed by Hanuman Beniwal’s Rashtriya Loktantrik Party (RLP) in Deoli-Uniara, one of the 81 of 200 seats where it has put up candidates. Last time, BJP won only the Malpura seat of Tonk district which, under the British, was the lone princely state of Rajasthan with a Muslim ruling dynasty. BJP has made Ramesh Bidhuri, a Gujjar leader and South Delhi MP, as its poll in-charge in Tonk.
In a state known for alternating between Congress and BJP, Ashok Gehlot has mounted a determined campaign to break the trend through a plethora of welfare schemes fully reflected in the party manifesto released on November 21 that lists ‘seven guarantees’
As Dharam Raj crushes baati, a Rajasthani staple made with wheat, and pours steaming dal over it for a customer at his dhaba at Soyla village in Tonk, he praises the Gehlot government’s Chiranjeevi scheme, a cashless health insurance cover, and free electricity up to 100 units. Outside his dhaba sipping tea, Mukesh, a Jat farmer, upset with Congress for not providing a tubewell, favours BJP. This time BJP has denied a ticket to Yunus Khan, the party’s only Muslim candidate whom Pilot had defeated. Khan, a Raje confidant, is fighting as an independent from Deedwana, which he has won twice. In Tonk, BJP has fielded Ajit Singh Mehta, a former MLA who is making it a local-versus-outsider battle against Pilot. In the neighbouring Sawai Madhopur seat, epicentre of the Gujjar quota agitation, BJP has put up its Rajya Sabha MP Kirodi Lal Meena to take on Congress MLA Danish Abrar. But Asha Meena, whom BJP denied a ticket, is fighting as an independent. Some predict she could split the votes of the tribal community while others say Abrar, seen to have the backing of Muslims and SCs, could lose the Gujjar vote to BJP. The Gehlot-Pilot feud may have ebbed in public but continues to haunt Abrar, a Pilot loyalist who has drawn the community’s ire for not supporting the leader in his rebellion against Gehlot in 2020.
The Gehlot-Pilot power tussle figured in Prime Minister Modi’s speech at a rally in Churu, where he used cricket terminology while referring to infighting within Congress. Modi has held a series of rallies in the state where BJP won 24 of the 25 Lok Sabha seats, with one seat going to then partner RLP, in 2019, and all 25 in 2014. For BJP, Modi is the only face of the Assembly elections this time, triggering speculation about the names of leaders who could be chief minister if Raje is to be replaced should the party win.
RAJE’S SILENCE IS TELLING. STILL SEEN AS BJP’S tallest leader in the state, the royal-turned-politician has not been named the party’s chief ministerial nominee. A two-time chief minister, five-time MP and five-time MLA, Raje is campaigning and addressing gatherings, but has determinedly avoided the media glare, refusing to give soundbites and interviews. She did spend a day in Jaipur, addressing a couple of gatherings of her supporters, before plunging into her campaign in Jhalrapatan, her traditional seat, and other places. As she reaches Bagru, an Assembly segment in Jaipur district, for a programme organised for BJP candidate Kailash Verma, party workers swarm her, showering petals, taking selfies, wanting a closer glimpse of the ‘maharani’ of Dholpur, a title gained following her marriage into the Dholpur Jat dynasty. The Jats, who backed Congress till 1998, shifted allegiance to BJP in 2003 when Raje was named chief ministerial candidate. “I thought I will start with Jaipur,” she tells the gathering. Self-assured, yet guarded, she treads cautiously. Raje reels out her government’s achievements and lashes out at the Gehlot regime, accusing it of abandoning projects and leaving promises unfulfilled, including the one to waive farm loans from nationalised banks within 10 days of assuming office. She holds this promise—since unfulfilled—to be one of the factors responsible for BJP’s defeat in 2018.
Party workers at the gathering acknowledge Raje is undoubtedly BJP’s most well-known face. But the BJP leadership’s strategy of projecting a collective leadership has prevailed. “With so many eligible leaders, there’s no dearth of candidates for the chief minister’s post,” says Nivedita of BJP’s Rajasthan media cell.
On Rajasthan’s complex political draughtboard, where ‘royals’ seek to bond with people, another royal, Diya Kumari, one of the seven BJP MPs in the fray, is campaigning in Jaipur’s Vidhyadhar Nagar constituency. Wearing a light pink floral sari in chiffon, a trend characteristic of women from royal families since the time of her step-grandmother Gayatri Devi, she addresses small gatherings, her voice cracking because of a sore throat. As she waits while people take photographs, she answers a few questions. “I have learnt so many things from my grandparents. They were down to earth, humble and believed in selfless service,” she says. Asked what she learnt from Raje, Diya says, “She is experienced and a senior leader. She brought me into the party.” But the unease is palpable, perhaps rooted in Raje government officials sealing the gates of Diya Kumari’s family-owned Rajmahal Palace hotel in an anti-encroachment drive. The decision to field her from Vidhayadhar Nagar came at the cost of five-time BJP MLA Narpat Singh Rajvi, a Raje loyalist and son-in-law of the late Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. Local BJP cadres say there was anti-incumbency against Rajvi. The seat is considered a safe one for BJP with Brahmins, Baniyas and Rajputs in the voter mix. With 10 small gatherings on her itinerary, Diya rushes to the next one. “If I live in a palace, it’s not a sin. My office will be in Vidhyadhar Nagar. My father served the nation and got the Mahavir Chakra. I am proud of being the daughter of Jaipur,” she says in her brief address. The daughter of Bhawani Singh, the last Maharaja of Jaipur, who was the stepson of Gayatri Devi, her return from her Rajsamand Lok Sabha seat to fight the state elections had triggered speculation that Diya, 52, was being groomed to replace Raje, who is now 70.
Congress’ campaign is dominated by Gehlot and, although he has arrived at a truce with rival Pilot, frictions remain. BJP has sought to play on these faultlines, wooing specific caste groups like the Gujjars who backed Congress in 2018
Just outside a café at Vidhyadhar Nagar, a group of professionals is candid about its political affiliations. They praise Modi’s policies and claim that more development took place during Raje’s term and are unhappy about schemes left incomplete by the Gehlot government. The youngsters want a new face at the helm, pointing out that it has been either Gehlot or Raje for long. “We have a collective leadership,” says former Union minister and BJP MP Rajyavardhan Rathore, contesting from the Jhotwara seat, the state’s largest Assembly segment with over four lakh voters. It falls in the Jaipur Rural Lok Sabha constituency from where Rathore is an MP. His task is to win back the seat from Congress which had wrested it from BJP in 2018 after a decade.
It’s past 11PM by the time Rathore, an Olympic medallist, reaches his party office after campaigning through the day. “It’s a huge responsibility because duties as an MLA involve detail and execution of government schemes. My political knowledge would have been incomplete without this,” he says. He still has a string of meetings with party workers lined up, the last one scheduled for 1.30AM.
Congress has fielded a 33-year-old student leader, Abhishek Choudhary, to take on the two-time MP, in a seat which has the highest number of first-time voters. “It’s a new face. We don’t know him, while Rathore is an MP here,” says Ramesh Kumar, a Congress supporter, who runs a dhaba in Jhotwara. In 2018, BJP won only six—Vidhyadhar Nagar, Amber, Chomu, Malviya Nagar, Sanganer, and Phulera—of the 19 Assembly segments of Jaipur district.
In Amber, Satish Poonia, the BJP MLA and former state party chief, has pledged that he will start having dinner and wearing safa only after BJP wins this election. Before him, BJP had won the seat only twice—including once by party veteran Shekhawat in 1985. Poonia, a Jat will be taking on Congress’ Prashant Sharma, a Brahmin, in a seat dominated by Jats, Brahmins and Rajputs. Asked if the absence of a face was a disadvantage for BJP, he says there is no set formula: “A generational change is always welcome.” Seen as a Raje detractor, Poonia, who was replaced with CP Joshi as state party president, says his differences with the former chief minister were “circumstantial”.
Another royal, Diya Kumari, one of the seven BJP MPs in the fray, is campaigning in Jaipur’s Vidhyadhar Nagar constituency. The decision to field her came at the cost of five-time BJP MLA Narpat Singh Rajvi, a Raje loyalist
Addressing a group of dairy workers at Dadar village, he says, “After losing by 329 votes in 2013, I decided to make development my only agenda.” He castigates the Gehlot government about corruption, law and order, and unemployment, and praises the previous Raje government. His rival, the son of three-time MLA Sahdev Sharma, talks of “communal harmony” as he banks on the Gehlot government’s schemes to take on Poonia. While BJP candidates are taking up issues like examination paper leaks, the Kanhaiya Lal murder, Congress’ ‘disrespect’ for Sanatana Dharma, corruption, etc their rivals flag Congress’ seven guarantees and the Gehlot government’s welfare schemes.
“Gehlot ne bhi logon ke dilon mein jagah bana li hai (Gehlot has also taken a place in people’s hearts),” says Rajendra Prasad, a fruitseller from Jaipur’s Shahpura seat where BJP and Congress have been winning in alternate elections. He, however, refuses to predict whether Gehlot will return, saying Rajasthan is known to vote for change every five years. People see it as a fait accompli, almost proud of the trend. While there is no resounding anti-incumbency against Gehlot, a magician’s son hoping to break the trend, there is anger at some Congress MLAs who have been given tickets.
IN URBAN RAJASTHAN, CASTE DIVISIONS ARE LESS obvious. In some seats caste is overshadowed by religious polarisation. Congress’ attempts to counter this with the promise of a caste survey, just ahead of polls, has not had the desired impact. In the Hawa Mahal seat of Jaipur, BJP’s saffron clad 47-year-old Balmukund Acharya is visiting abandoned temples while his rival, Congress city president RR Tiwari, 70, is hoping to get the backing of Muslims, an influential section in the constituency. Tiwari’s calculations, however, may have gone awry with Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) putting up Muslim candidates. A similar polarisation could influence the election in the Walled City’s Kishanpole seat where Congress MLA Amin Kagzi is taking on BJP’s Chandra Manohar Batwara. A resident of the area, Batwara is also playing the Hindu card.
In Alwar’s Tijara seat, BJP has fielded its Alwar MP Mahant Balaknath whose billboards are dominated by the image of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Balaknath, a Yadav, is relying on Hindu consolidation in a constituency where Yadavs and Muslims are on opposite sides of the political aisle. Around 50 mahants from the Baba Masthanath Mutt reached Tijara to support Balaknath. “He has no family, so he will dedicate himself to working for the people,” says Bohar Singh, a farmer, in Jalalpur village. Other Gujjar farmers standing with him agree, as they criticise the Gehlot government. In adjoining Majra Peepli village, Vakil Khan, a Muslim farmer, says the Congress government has provided a road, a wall for the cemetery, and mobile phones for girls. Congress’ Imran Khan, who was with the Bahujan Samaj Pary (BSP) earlier, is hoping to capture the Muslim and Dalit votes.
Vasundhara Raje’s silence is telling. She is campaigning and addressing gatherings, but has avoided the media glare. Self-assured, yet guarded, Raje treads cautiously. She reels out her government’s achievements and lashes out at the Gehlot regime, accusing it of abandoning projects
BJP, which had lost a chunk of Rajput support in 2018, has fielded Vishvaraj Singh Mewar, a descendant of Maharana Pratap, from Nathdwara where Congress MLA and former Union Minister CP Joshi, who has won the seat five times, is in the fray. The royal scion is banking on his family’s connect with the people of Mewar, a seat dominated by Rajputs and Brahmins.
Both Congress and BJP have been competing to offer freebies and welfare schemes. BJP’s promises include two-wheelers for women, financial aid of ₹12,000 annually for farmers, a special investigation team to probe the paper leaks, and a higher minimum support price (MSP) for wheat. “Congress’ biggest advantage is its seven guarantees and the Gehlot government’s welfare schemes. On the paper leaks, we have taken action. Why did the Centre not make a law?” asks Congress state chief Govind Singh Dotasra, who is contesting Sikar’s Lachhmangarh seat where BJP has fielded former Union Minister Subhash Maharia who had joined Congress in 2016 but returned to BJP this May.
Cracking the poll matrix of a large state like Rajasthan is challenging but it clear that the contest has been well and truly joined.