Rajasthan: Congress looks at verdict, BJP at narrow margin

Hamza Khan
Outgoing Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje greets newly sworn-in Ashok Gehlot in December, while Deputy CM Sachin Pilot looks on. (Renuka Puri/Archive)

The Rajasthan Assembly elections late last year gave the Congress a very narrow victory - 99 seats out of 200, followed by a 100th after winning a seat where polling had been postponed. Now with Lok Sabha polls approaching, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Deputy CM Sachin Pilot have hit the ground running to implement the Congress manifesto, while the BJP is working on strategies to check a resurgent Congress.

In a state where Lok Sabha elections follow close after Assembly polls, how have voting trends usually been?

Generally, the ruling party has retained the advantage. The last exception was two decades ago, when the Congress won 18 of 25 seats in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, followed by a sweeping 153 of 200 seats in the Assembly elections the same year, but failed to translate these in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, winning just 9 of the 25 seats.

In the last pair of polls, the Congress plummeted to 21 Assembly seats in 2013, its lowest since Independence, followed by the BJP sweeping all 25 Lok Sabha seats in 2014.

What has the Congress been focusing on after coming to power?

On farmers and youth. Within two days of taking oath, Chief Minister Gehlot announced a farm loan waiver up to Rs 2 lakh, compared to the outgoing Vasundhara Raje government's waiver up to Rs 50,000. This will cost the government an estimated Rs 18,000 crore. On February 7, Pilot launched the waiver.

In January, in the presence of Congress president Rahul Gandhi at a farmers' rally in Jaipur, Gehlot announced measures including reconstitution of the Farmers' Commission, pension for small and marginal farmers, and a deadline for installing one lakh electricity connections. On January 31, Gehlot increased the dole to educated unemployed, besides targeting an increase in beneficiaries from 70,000 to 1 lakh. Gehlot has also made promises to other sections - 33% reservation to women in the Assembly, and a decision soon on 10% cent reservation for the economically weaker sections.

How has the BJP been dealing with the Assembly poll defeat?

Although smarting, the BJP has been pointing out that its vote share is only 0.5 percentage points lower than that of the Congress. As the Congress government moved quickly on its poll promises, the BJP has been trying to put up a challenge. About the farm loan waiver, the BJP has been claiming that the Rs 18,000 crore falls short of the actual debt of farmers, which it claims to be Rs 99,995 crore for about 59 lakh farmers. The BJP called a statewide protest on January 28 and courted arrest on February 8.

For the Lok Sabha elections, the party last month appointed conveners, co-conveners and in-charge for all 25 seats. This month, senior party leaders including Union ministers Prakash Javadekar and Arjun Ram Meghwal visited their assigned Lok Sabha seats. The party's youth wing too has lined up several outreach programmes.

What were the big trends and issues in the Assembly polls, and how are they expected to play out in 2019?

Things had started going downhill for BJP in late 2017, beginning with a Left-backed farmer protest in Shekhawati region, besides growing unrest over restrictions around cattle transport. Demonetisation and GST turned away many businesspeople, while unemployment left the youth disenchanted. Again, Rajputs were angry with the BJP over the encounter killing of gangster Anandpal Singh, and the film Padmaavat, while Gurjars were unhappy over two reservation Bills that they found flawed; these were struck down and restrained, respectively, by the High Court. In the Assembly polls, the Congress banked a lot on this disenchantment.

With the Congress in power now, the BJP has been attacking the Congress over the issue of farmers. However, with the new government having moved quickly on distributing loan waiver certificates, the Congress is expected to focus on those issues again. The Congress has also been trying to appropriate issues relating to cows from the BJP; its Assembly election manifesto had promises to this effect.

Are there issues troubling the two parties from within?

Both are pided into factions. At a rally in September, Rahul Gandhi recalled having come across a photo of Pilot driving a motorcycle and Gehlot riding pillion; he was stressing unity. This was, however, followed by quarrels during ticket distribution, which was later cited as a reason why the Congress did not do as well as it had been expected to. Recently, asked about Gurjar reservation at a press conference, Gehlot and Pilot kept passing the mike to each other.

There are power centres within the BJP too. After the defeat, it remains to be seen how strongly Raje can push her choice of candidates. After she was newly appointed party vice president, a statement from her office read that she "will dutifully perform the role of the party Vice President but will not leave Rajasthan. I have said before, my palanquin came to Rajasthan and only the bier will leave from here."

Does either party have a clear advantage?

Both sides will have something to hope for. For the Congress, history works in its favour: Lok Sabha polls in the state have mostly favoured the ruling party, as noted earlier. Morale is high among the party cadre after the Assembly poll victory. Also, after the massive verdict in favour for Narendra Modi and the BJP in 2014, no such wave is visible yet.

The BJP, on the other hand, will be hoping that the pent-up anger among voters was vented in the Assembly polls. Although the Congress tried to leverage this anger, it remains to be seen how well it will work a second time around, given that the BJP was marginally behind the Congress.