Deserted until Thursday, the Congress headquarters in Jaipur came alive just after midnight on Thursday when supporters burst firecrackers following the party’s announcement of candidates in 152 of the 200 seats for the Rajasthan Assembly polls.
The last time Rajasthan returned an incumbent government to power was in 1993. Congress supporters are already smelling a win. The ticket distribution, while delayed, has galvanised supporters with all top leaders, including Ashok Gehlot, Sachin Pilot, C P Joshi and Girija Vyas, contesting the election. The leadership question, postponed until after the election results, is likely to help supporters bury their differences temporarily.
Shoulders in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) camp have begun to drop. The team of BJP chief Amit Shah, Union ministers Prakash Javadekar and Gajendra Shekhawat, and General Secretary (organisation) Chandrashekhar, had hoped they could replace at least a third of all sitting candidates to beat anti-incumbency. Of the 162 candidates announced by the BJP until now, 41 are new but mostly on the few seats the BJP had lost in the 2013 Assembly polls.
That they could not replace more has much to do with an eye on the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The BJP leadership does not want to upset Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje. An angry Raje could hurt BJP’s ambition of repeating its 2014 performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. In 2014, the party had swept Rajasthan, winning all the 25 seats on offer.
However, the past year has had the BJP leadership worried. The party suffered massive defeats in Ajmer and Alwar Lok Sabha bypolls held earlier this year. This week, BJP’s sitting Dausa Lok Sabha member Harish Meena quit to join the Congress and is now the party’s Assembly candidate from the Deoli-Uniara constituency. People are upset that the Raje government did not fulfil its promises of solving the water crisis. Farmers are upset that only a quarter of their produce is being purchased on minimum support price (MSP), and there is general anger among the youth over absence of jobs.
It has now become important for the BJP that it does not suffer a humiliating defeat, as that might affect its prospects in the Lok Sabha polls. So far, the party’s feedback has been that of anti-incumbency against the Raje government, even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to be popular. “Rani terikhairnahin, Moditujhsebairnahin” — if this slogan grated the ears of the BJP leadership when it first became popular during Ajmer and Alwar Lok Sabha bypolls in January, BJP’s central leaders are finding new meaning to it now. It loosely translates to “Queen (Vasundhara Raje) we will not spare you, but we have no complaints with Modi”.
Rajasthan has been a swing state in the Lok Sabha as well. In 2004, the BJP won 21 of the 25 seats and the Congress four. In 2009, Congress won 20 and BJP 4. And in 2014, BJP won all 25. A loss of even half the Lok Sabha seats in 2019 would hurt Modi and Shah’s ambitions.
The Congress is alert to this. While its state unit campaigns for the Assembly polls, Congress strategists have asked teams to fan out across the state to gauge the public mood about central government schemes, particularly crop insurance. The tall promises that the BJP made to solve the water crisis in the state and ensure minimum support price are now coming to haunt it.
However, it believes Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s campaigning in the state, which will begin from November 21, and the Sangh Parivar’s Ram temple movement, which is set to reach a crescendo on the poll eve here on December 6 — the anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition — might help it blunt the edge the Congress currently seems to have. Rajasthan goes to polls on December 7.