Congress Caught Between A Rock And A Hard Place In Rajasthan

Kamalpreet Singh Gill

Apr 23, 2018, 01:22 PM | Updated 01:22 PM IST

Senior Congress leader Ashok Gehlot, Rajasthan Congress president Sachin Pilot and Congress president Rahul Gandhi during a public meeting in Hanumangarh. (Himanshu Vyas/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)
Senior Congress leader Ashok Gehlot, Rajasthan Congress president Sachin Pilot and Congress president Rahul Gandhi during a public meeting in Hanumangarh. (Himanshu Vyas/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)
  • A setback in Rajasthan would only push the Congress further into a pit of political irrelevance where it has been languishing since 2013.
  • BJP, on the other hand,  led by Vasundhara Raje has an impressive report card to show.
  • The 1998 assembly elections in Rajasthan should me made mandatory reading in all political science, sociology and political journalism courses in India. That year, the Congress rode to power despite there being a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre, by executing a masterstroke of caste-based political manoeuvring. It did so by exploiting the oldest and deepest grievance of the single-largest caste group in Rajasthan.

    Despite making up roughly 12 per cent of the state’s population, the land-owning Jat peasantry had never seen a member of their own community in the chief minister’s chair and this was an emotive issue with the community. Jats had always voted for the Congress, not the least because their traditional rivals, Rajputs had always been staunch BJP supporters. Given their numerical dominance and their often notorious tendency to vote as a single block for a candidate either from their community or one allied to them, continued Jat support had been crucial for Congress to maintain its vice-like grip over Rajasthan politics.

    What was different about 1998 was that for the first time in history, Jats were confident that they would finally see one of their own in the chief minister’s chair. Given the fact that they played a decisive role in 60 out of the 200 assembly seats in the state, Jats had always felt that the denial of the top-most post in the state to them was serious injustice. In part, this was also because until then, the community had not been able to produce a single leader with statewide appeal cutting across Rajasthan’s notorious caste barriers. In 1998, Jats finally had their man in Paras Ram Maderna – a towering leader from Jodhpur with a statewide appeal – and the word on the street was that if the Congress came to power a Jat would finally sit in the chief minister’s chair after 50 long years.

    Buoyed by the sentiment, Jats came out to vote en masse and as a bloc. That year, a record 42 Jats were elected in the 200-member assembly with the Congress getting a massive 153 seats, leaving a 45-year-old BJP general secretary by the name of Narendra Modi wondering why even the Pokhran nuclear tests of 1998 did not translate into votes for the BJP.

    What followed, however, was one of the biggest volte faces in the state’s history. Paras Ram Maderna was sidelined. Ashok Gehlot of the Mali community was chosen by the Congress to become the chief minister of Rajasthan in 1998.

    The move outraged the Jats, who felt that they had been back-stabbed by a party to which they had given their undying loyalty for more than 50 years. To make matters worse, Gehlot, himself from Other Backward Class (OBC), scuttled Jat demands for inclusion into the OBC list during a statewide agitation in 1999. The caste equations in Rajasthan were set for a violent and long overdue change.

    Five years later, with a ‘Jat bahu’ Vasundhara Raje (Vasundhara Raje Scindia, a Maratha, married into the royal family of Bharatpur, an erstwhile princely state ruled by Jats) as the CM candidate, the BJP rode to power with a clear majority for the first time in the state’s history, claiming 120 seats. The Congress was reduced to a mere 56 seats – its worst-ever performance in the state – such was the whiplash of anti-Congress sentiment.

    What the 1998 elections did – whether for good or for bad – was break the traditional caste-based alignments in favour of rival political parties that had dictated Rajasthani politics until then, and as many have argued, held the state back in a time warp. In Rajasthan, more than in any other part of the country, caste had always been the primary driving factor in politics. Post-1998, Jats realised that the Congress was no friend of theirs, and in a historic break, indicated their willingness to shift their allegiance to the BJP, bringing about the spectacular downfall of the Congress in the next elections. Other communities including Dalits and tribals were to follow suit in the coming decades, paving the way for BJP’s historic landslide victory of 2013 when it won 82 per cent of the seats in the state assembly.

    The message that reverberated across the state after 1998 was loud and clear – the Congress is no friend of the weak and the oppressed whose cause it claims to champion, and that there is now a viable alternative political option – the BJP.

    The 2018 Rajasthan By-Elections

    If the Congress can no longer count on its traditional caste vote banks, things haven’t remained so simple for the BJP either. In 2018, by-elections held in the state including the key Alwar and Ajmer constituencies, the BJP had to face defeat. The reason, once again was simple caste-based arithmetic. The Padmaavat issue had loomed large over the state in the lead up to the elections. Lokendra Singh Kalvi, son of an erstwhile union minister and prominent Rajput leader Kalyan Singh Kalvi, managed to sew together myriad Rajput grievances under the banner of his Karni Sena and mobilised the Rajput community in large numbers against the incumbent BJP government, which the Rajputs had unflinchingly backed in the past.

    In addition, media induced paranoia over issues such as cow vigilantism was a major issue in Alwar and Ajmer, where Muslims have sizeable numbers. In Ajmer constituency, Muslims are the single-largest community numbering 2.75 lakhs. Jats come in a close second at 2.5 lakh with an equal number of Rajputs. A combination of Muslim and Rajput votes made Ajmer a cakewalk for the Congress.

    For Rajputs, Padmaavat wasn’t the only grievance that the Congress and Karni Sena were able to exploit to wean them away from the BJP. The encounter in 2017 of a dreaded gangster Anandpal Singh belonging to the Rajput community had brought caste tensions to boiling point. Anandpal Singh had earned a Robin Hood-like image among Rajputs for what was perceived to be his courage in standing up to increasing Jat dominance in the state. When he was shot dead by the Rajasthan police in July last year, the community was quick to perceive it as yet another act of injustice meted out to it. It mattered little that Anandpal Singh had six murder charges against his name and was the state’s most-wanted criminal.

    Rajput grievances against the BJP in fact go back to the 2014 general elections, when veteran BJP leader and Rajput mascot Jaswant Singh was unceremoniously dumped by the party on his own home turf in Barmer and his seat given to Col Sonaram Chaudhary, a Jat, and newcomer to boot. The move was perceived as an insult by many in the Rajput community.

    The X-Factor – The Marxist Bastion Of Shekhawati

    With the traditional caste equations not following their time-tested patterns, electoral politics in Rajasthan has become more complex and unpredictable. Complicating matters further is the Marxist stronghold of Shekhawati.

    Shekhawati is the arid north western region of Rajasthan famous for its intricate paintings and colourful havelis. The region has had a long history of peasant agitations dating back to the British times. Post Independence, the All India Kisan Sabha, the farmer wing of Communist Party of India (Marxist) managed to establish a strong presence in the region with Amra Ram emerging as the most prominent leader of the Marxists at the moment.

    Under his leadership, the Sikar Kisan Andolan was launched in September 2017. Farmers blocked all major highways in the districts of Sikar, Bikaner, Ganganagar and Nagaur bringing life in the state to a virtual standstill. Internet and telecom services had to be suspended to prevent violence from flaring up during the agitation. As the entire state machinery was brought to its knees, the government was forced to impose Section 144. Eventually, in a symbolic victory for the CPI(M), all the demands of the farmers were accepted.

    As the recent farmer protests in Maharashtra demonstrated, Marxists have shown great acumen in organising farmers. Even though this has rarely translated into large-scale electoral success, the Left with its handful of seats acts as a useful ally to the Congress, especially making a difference when the electoral race is a close one.

    In 2008, the CPI(M) won three assembly seats from the region only to be wiped out in 2013. However, 2013 was an exception that cannot be expected to replicate every time. Riding on the Narendra Modi wave, the BJP won 82 per cent of the assembly seats that year, even steamrolling over the ‘red island’ of Shekhawati. This time, the Marxists under Amra Ram look better organised and could lay claim to upto five seats from the region, in effect acting as the B-team of the Congress in what is expected to be a much more evenly contested affair than 2013.

    Gehlot Vs Pilot

    Within the Congress, a bitter two-way struggle has opened up between Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot for the post of the party’s chief ministerial candidate with neither outcome promising to be very bright for the party’s prospects. On the face of it, the tussle appears to be a no brainer. Old warhorse Gehlot has been the chief minister of the state on two previous occasions and enjoys a wide mass support base. Whereas the only legislative experience the 40-year-old Sachin Pilot has is the one five-year term he served as an MP from Ajmer from 2009 to 2014 before losing his seat to the BJP’s candidate Sanwar Lal Jat in the 2014 elections.

    However, Sachin Pilot, the son of former union minister and Gandhi family confidante Rajesh Pilot, has a much deeper power base through his connections and deep roots into the Congress machinery. Not only is he close to Rahul Gandhi, he is also married to Sarah Abdullah, the daughter of former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah and the sister of Omar Abdullah. The triumvirate of Sachin Pilot, Rahul Gandhi and Jyotiraditya Scindia are viewed as the young core of the Congress that is expected to take it through its next generation of political battles. Within this cozy club of Oxbridge and Ivy League-educated political scions, old blood like Gehlot who worked their way up, the long hard way, are seen as complete misfits.

    While Pilot has tried to underplay reports of any conflict between him and Gehlot, he has also cleverly avoided any explicit acceptance of Gehlot as the potential chief ministerial candidate. Gehlot on the other hand has been curt and dismissive of the young Pilot, advising him to be patient and wait for his turn in the queue like everyone else. Whatever skills his expensive education at St Stephens and Wharton might have imparted to Pilot, waiting in queues until his hair begins to fall out doesn’t seem to be one.

    Gehlot’s recent promotion as the new All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary requiring constant presence in New Delhi is seen by some as a ploy to keep him away from Jaipur and give a free run to the young Pilot in Rajasthan – a decision being attributed to Rahul Gandhi himself, as part of his grand strategy of slowly replacing the old guard of the party with his own coterie of ‘political brats’. A Wharton MBA as a chief minister might seem like a great sell on social media with the English-speaking urban elite even if Rajasthan’s rural masses might not care for it much. In the bigger scheme of things, however, this would be a terrible strategy as given its current situation, the Congress is in no position to take undue risks. A setback in Rajasthan would only push the party further into the pit of political irrelevance where it has been languishing since BJP began its meteoric rise by claiming Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh in the 2013 assembly elections.

    At the same time, Gehlot’s dismal past performance doesn’t leave the Congress much of a choice. In the aftermath of the party’s defeat in 2013, there were already dissenting voices claiming that Gehlot’s ineptitude was to blame for the Congress’ defeat. In his last term, Gehlot was also involved in a series of high-profile corruption cases including the sale of Jaipur’s iconic Jal Mahal to two of his close aides at throwaway prices that was eventually struck down by the Rajasthan High Court. In choosing between Pilot and Gehlot, Congress is caught between a rock and a hard place.

    The Road To Jaipur: Will Development Be Enough To Help BJP Create History?

    If there is one pattern that has repeated itself without fail in every election is Rajasthan, it is that of anti-incumbency. The state has never returned the same leader to the chief minister’s post in succession, even during the period of overwhelming Congress dominance in the state.

    That said, the Vasundhara Raje-led BJP government has an impressive report card to show. Soon after coming to power, the government launched the Bhamashah Swasthya Bima Yojana, providing health insurance and cashless treatment to the poor. A similarly named Bhamashah Yojana aimed at providing direct cash and non-cash benefits to women from poor background has been the personal dream project of Chief Minister Raje. She had announced the scheme during her previous tenure in 2003 but it was discontinued by the subsequent Congress government. In 2014, Raje announced the recommencement of the scheme aimed at providing financial independence to women from financially-weak backgrounds. Till date more than 1 crore families have been enrolled under the scheme, which allows women to become decision-makers in their families. At the same time, Rajasthan has done exceedingly well in adopting and acquiring benefits from the various schemes launched by the central government such as Ujjwala Gas Yojana aimed at providing clean cooking fuel to safeguard the health of women and children. All this compares starkly to the Congress regime under Gehlot in which little materialised on the ground despite big promises being made.

    Despite this, BJP cannot afford to be complacent. The recent nationwide protests around the SC/ST Act have shown that Congress may attempt to tinker once again with the caste fault lines, even though the various Dalit and tribal groupings of Rajasthan have shown a clear preference for BJP’s development-led agenda. Nothing underscores the overwhelming Dalit and tribal support for the BJP in Rajasthan than the fact that out of the 59 reserved seats for SC/ST in Rajasthan, 50 are represented by the BJP in the current assembly.

    In the 2013 assembly elections, Congress was reduced to 21 seats in a house of 200 – its worst performance ever. To bounce back from the verge of getting wiped out to getting a majority will be a near impossible task for the Congress, its by-election victories notwithstanding. To make things worse for the Congress, it doesn’t have any real issues or grievances to exploit. Like what happened in 1998, it is reduced once again to tinkering with caste equations. In its desperate attempts to bury the ghosts of 1998, Congress even inducted Leela Maderna, the daughter-in-law of Paras Ram Maderna – the man it famously betrayed in 1998 – into the party in 2015, making her the Pradesh Congress Committee general secretary. However, a lot of water has flowed down the Luni river since then and traditional caste groupings are beginning to lose their hold over the state’s politics.

    Rajasthan is the largest state in India by area. It is undeniable that the result of the assembly elections will have a huge impact on the 2019 general elections. If the BJP, through its developmental agenda succeeds in blunting the potency of caste driven politics in Rajasthan, nothing can stop it from defying history and returning an incumbent to the chief minister’s office.

    Kamalpreet Singh Gill is a regular contributor to Swarajya. His areas of interest include history, politics, and strategic affairs. He tweets at @KPSinghtweets.

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