The verdicts of the Rajasthan assembly elections in both 2013 and 2018 were fairly self-evident to those observers who travelled across the state during the campaigning period. In 2013, there was only one name to be heard, be it in rustic pockets or swish lakeside soirees, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made an unprecedented sweep of the state: Narendra Modi.
Similarly, in late 2018, most residents this writer spoke to in multiple districts openly said that, while they were firmly with Modi for the 2019 general elections, they sadly felt that a change was required in Rajasthan. Ominously for the BJP, these districts included the ones of southern Rajasthan in Udaipur division, which has traditionally been the bellwether area of the state. As a result, 2018 saw the return of the Congress and Ashok Gehlot.
But 2023 has been rather different for a number of reasons.
First, there was a high degree of uncertainty, with both ground reports and opinion poll surveys indicating a close contest between the BJP and the Congress. In some polls, the vote share difference between the two main parties was less than the margin of error, and in the end, that actually turned out to be the case.
The BJP won the majority with 115 seats and 42 per cent of the popular vote, gaining 42 seats and three per cent vote share. But the Congress, although it lost 32 seats, gained 0.5 per cent. The implication is that the BJP failed to win back the bulk of the votes it lost to the Congress in 2018.
Second, both parties were hampered by a lack of unified leadership. If the BJP went in to the polls without a Chief Ministerial face, the Congress party’s image was dented and bruised by an unending fracas between Gehlot and his bête noire, Sachin Pilot. As a result, more of the heavy lifting had to be done by star campaigners who pulled in the crowds, and grassroots cadres who got the voter to the ballot box. This is where the BJP’s organizational machinery kicked in to do the trick, albeit by a small margin.
Three, the vote swings of 2023, too, were out of character for Rajasthan. The bulk of the BJP’s gains were from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) who lost over half the vote they held in the state, and ‘Others’, while the Congress actually benefited in places from the BJP’s rebel factor. This is a novel phenomenon because, in the past, verdicts were mainly decided by the transfer of votes between the Congress and the BJP.
Four, although the BJP has always been the more naturally resilient party in the state, it got hit where it hurts in 2023. As of polling day, the BJP had 28 firewall seats which it had won in 2008, 2013, and 2018 (compared to the Congress who only had five). But this time, the BJP lost 9 of these 28 seats, of which eight went to the Congress. In comparison, the Congress lost only one of five, and that too, to an independent.
Five, the BJP has failed to win well in the Jat-dominated east of the state, as it did when it received a popular mandate in the past. A similar deviation from past trends is seen for the Congress as well, who, instead of losing as expected, did well in the north and in southern Ajmer division. The broad implication is that old social coalitions have unravelled, with the BJP failing to capitalize on these changes, and the Congress staving of a greater debacle by successfully stitching together pure identity coalitions in pockets.
A case in point is the southern tribal belt consisting of 25 reserved seats, where a local tribal party did significant damage to the prospects of both national parties. As a result, although the BJP won 12 and gained 6 seats, while the Congress won 10 gaining 3, the ‘Others’ vote went up in 17 of these 25 seats, and the local tribal party won three.
Six, and perhaps as a result of the factors assessed above, the most startling change from past trends is that Jaipur division has replaced Udaipur as the bellwether region of Rajasthan. Both the national parties not only won the largest number of seats from here, but also made the biggest gains as well.
26 of the BJP’s 115 wins and 22 of its 71 gains are from Jaipur. Similarly, 24 of the Congress’s 69 wins and 11 of its 34 gains are also from here.
There is more, and these aspects will be brought out in subsequent articles through detailed analyses of win margins, vote swings, tranche studies, and maps, but this much is clear:
The 2023 assembly elections in Rajasthan were a feeble victory for the BJP, and an unexpected sparing of the blushes for the Congress. The verdict may not affect the 2024 general elections greatly, with the BJP still poised to sweep the state, but from a provincial perspective, it needs to sort its leadership issues out swiftly, and nurture a fresh generation of leaders spanning multiple communities, if it is to confidently face the next assembly elections.
Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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