On the ground, circumstances were seldom as propitious for the Congress as they are now in Rajasthan, two days before the state votes on November 7. Agrarian distress has taken its toll in the countryside, with farmers, including the better-off ones, complaining that they did not get the minimum support price or MSP for their produce because the state government was willing to pick up just one crop, groundnut. Giridhar Saini, who farms his 80 bigha (approximately 50 acres) of land in Laxmangarh village on the Bikaner highway, has ploughed his savings into the fruit business because he found the returns from bajra and moong dal, paltry. “I raised a bumper moong crop this season but there are no takers for moong because the market is glutted with imported dal. Why did the government do this to me?”asked Saini. Compounding his woes was the bitter aftertaste of “note bandi”. “I had land to sell. Before demonetisation, it was worth Rs 5 lakh. I made a mistake by not selling it then. I needed money for my daughter’s marriage but no buyer would give more than Rs 2 lakh because they had deposited most of the liquid cash they had in banks. In desperation, I sold my land for Rs 3 lakh less than the original price,” said Saini.
At Lalsi village in the Sikar district, Ram Niwas Meel, a Jat farmer, said he was an inveterate Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporter ever since he came of voting age. “This time, I will not vote the BJP. I get only five hours of electricity in short phases and little returns on the channa, garlic, onions and wheat that I grow,” said Meel, adding, “We farmers who are used to planning for the future five years in advance now live from hand to mouth.”
At the Congress’s office in Sikar town, the hub of the Shekhawati region, the functionaries and workers were hopeful that Rajendra Pareek, its candidate who won four elections in the past but lost in 2013 to the BJP’s Ratan Lal Jaldhari, will make the cut this time. Dinesh Singh Jakhar, the district secretary, said, “We have recovered the 36 caste formula that usually sees us through. Our main pillars are the Rajput, Jat, Meena, Brahmin and Dalit,” adding that recently the Shri Rajput Karni Sena—a caste outfit that made news when its protests against the release of the film Padmavaat turned violent—had issued a diktat to the Rajputs to set aside their traditional antagonism towards the Jats and vote against the BJP.
However, the mismatch between the Congress’s optimism on the ground and the organisational flaws was discernible in Jaipur. Central and state strategists and managers seemed palpably nervous over the ability of the Congress’s election machinery to maintain the traction it gained over the BJP before the polling schedule was announced and candidates were selected.
“We looked at hitting a target of 140 (out of 200) seats. We have scaled down our expectations to 120 or 125,” a source admitted. The reason was while the Congress and the BJP’s candidates’ shortlists provoked large-scale rebellion, the BJP deftly doused the fire after its central leaders got around the rebels and minimised the potential harm they could inflict. “We dragged our feet, thinking the dissidents would themselves back off,” the source said. On the last count, the Congress’s estimation was four or five of the 23 rebels could seriously dent its prospects in the Alwar and Bharatpur seats.
The Congress expelled 28 of them including former ministers Mahadev Singh Khandela and Babu Lal Nagar and Alok Beniwal, the son of Kamla Beniwal, the former Gujarat Governor. It has identified four seats—Khandela, Dudi, Kishangarh and Sirohi—that seemed headed for a triangular contest in its view.
General secretaries Ghulam Nabi Azad and Mukul Wasnik are camping in Rajasthan to try and cut the Congress’s possible losses in addition to a third general secretary, Avinash Pande, who is the central minder. The Congress mobilised a contingent of central and regional leaders to look after the seven zones that the state has been divided into. They include Kuldeep Bishnoi (Haryana), Sunil Jakhar (Punjab), Rajeev Shukla, Sanjay Singh (Uttar Pradesh) and Madhusudan Mistry (Gujarat).
On ground zero, there was little concern over who would be the Congress’ chief minister in case it came to power. The toss-up between veteran Ashok Gehlot and young Sachin Pilot, which the BJP played up as serious rivalry in its campaign, was somewhat below the popular radar. Om Prakash Kichad, a Jat farmer of Amarpura in rural Jaipur, said, “Yes, we keep seeing discussions on whether it will be Gehlot or Pilot. Right now it doesn’t matter to me because my goal is to uproot the BJP government.”
However, in Jaipur’s power cabals, the Pilot-Gehlot issue was as much of a pre-occupation as the margin by which the Congress could prospectively beat the BJP or whether the BJP and the Congress would be perilously close to one another.
Seasoned political observers in the state capital maintained that early on, the Congress president Rahul Gandhi figured out that Gehlot’s pre-eminence in the party’s schema cannot be wished away. “I felt that Rahul would instinctively prefer Sachin but he has to think of the Lok Sabha polls and the role Gehlot will play in winning seats. It’s important for him to keep Gehlot in good humour,” an observer said, adding, “If Pilot looks one step ahead of him, Gehlot looks four or five steps ahead. He knows every party functionary in each district, tehsil, block. So when the candidates were being selected, if Sachin proposed a name for a constituency, Gehlot would bring up two other names and say, let us get inputs from all the local leaders and see what they say in their reports. That way he managed to get a majority of his nominees in.”
The oft circulated theory was that in case the Congress got a bare majority, a little over the half-way mark at 100, Gehlot would leverage his position to get the top job. Conversely, if the Congress went way ahead of 100, Pilot’s stars might sparkle. Gehlot’s social origin from the backward Mali caste has been cited in his favour as opposed to Pilot being a Gujjar. “The Mali caste is too small to upset the caste balance so Gehlot is always acceptable to all the castes. The Gujjars are resented by the Jat, Rajput and Meena castes as also the Muslims,” a Congress source said.