Rajasthan, which is known the world over for its palaces, havelis and landscape, is these days gleaming in all the shades that keen electoral contests offer. With the state due to go to the polls on December 7 to elect members to the 15th assembly, arch-rivals Congress and BJP are leaving no stone unturned to woo the electorate.
A resurgent Congress under Rahul Gandhi is trying to break the notion of invincibility that has been built around the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo. Simultaneously, Congress state unit head Sachin Pilot, who was handed the reins after the party suffered a humiliating defeat in 2013, has built the unit from scratch to take on BJP’s well-oiled machinery. With two-time former chief minister Ashok Gehlot being given due respect by the Congress, he too has been putting his weight behind the party’s campaign.
While BJP is clear that Vasundhara Raje would be the chief minister for the third time if it is voted to power, Congress has not announced a decision on the CM face yet to prevent any ruptures within the ranks.
However, the events of the last five years have given the Congress a lot of ammunition to go after the BJP government.
Congress accuses Raje regime of misgovernance
The Congress recently released a charge sheet against the Raje government. It accused the regime of failing to address the farmers’ grievances and unemployment. In fact, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was campaigning in Alwar recently, former Congress Union minister Jitendra Singh sat on a protest a little distance away against the suicide of four youths who killed themselves as they were “tired of unemployment”.
The grand old party has also charged that over 100 farmers have committed suicide in the state during the Raje rule and most of them in regions near her Jhalrapatan constituency. Pilot has also accused the state government of causing “losses to people” due to misgovernance.
Farmers’ distress a big issue
In Rajasthan, which had a population of 686 million as per the 2011 Census, about 75.13% of the population is rural. The Congress is hoping that the way farmers’ anger with Centre’s policies pulled things its way in Gujarat earlier this year, the same would happen in the upcoming Rajasthan polls too.
Also, when farmers in Madhya Pradesh launched an agitation in Mandsaur, it quickly spread to Rajasthan. Realising that this could prove to be a game-changer, Raje had in September announced a major Rs 600 billion farm loan waiver. Farm loans of up to Rs 50,000 have been waived for nearly 3 million farmers and cooperative loans of Rs 800 billion have been released, Raje has claimed. Party leaders also insist that power tariffs have not been raised for farmers.
But Congress is hoping for a Gujarat-like impact due to the agrarian distress. It had almost brought down the Rupani government in that state. Pilot has accused the Raje government of not providing farmers with price protection for 90% of the produce.
Closure of small business has led to large-scale unemployment
The manner in which cash got sucked out of the system following demonetisation adversely impacted a large number of small business. It also led to job losses and prevented the creation of new jobs in the private sector. The Congress has accused Raje of failing to fulfil her promise of providing 1.5 million jobs. It has claimed that BJP was unable to implement most of the 600-odd small and big announcements it made.
The ruling party has, however, denied the charge. It claimed to have met 630 of the 665 promises it made. Further, the party has now promised to create 50 lakh jobs in the private sector and 30,000 jobs in the government sector – which itself shows it failed to deliver on the earlier promise. It has also announced an “unemployment allowance” for youngsters whereby “up to Rs 5,000 per month will be given to educated youths above the age of 21 years”. This is another indicator of how unemployment is a major concern for the government.
Hate crimes on the rise
Under the BJP government, Rajasthan also witnessed a spurt in hate crimes. It has earned the dubious distinction of being ranked third across the country in such crimes by an international human rights advocacy group earlier this year.
Many believe the protection accorded to some sections of the society by the BJP government has resulted in more attacks on Dalits and Muslims in the state. The attacks on Pehlu Khan, Umar Khan and Zakir Khan by vigilante groups and the alleged police inaction in these cases have only hurt Rajasthan’s image, which comprises 9% Muslims.
BJP leaders in the state have also been engaging in openly divisive agenda. One of them, Jaswant Yadav, has been accused of telling a rally, “If you are a Hindu, vote for the BJP. Muslims will go with the Congress.” Earlier this year, a party MLA in a Facebook post had cautioned that Muslims are having more children to outnumber Hindus and take over the country. Such averments have made the atmosphere uneasy for the minority community in the state.
To top it all, home minister and senior party leader Gulab Chand Kataria had defended lynching of cattle traders, saying people who kill cows were as much to blame as vigilantes.
‘Many gains in education and health, but women’s security a matter of concern’
Rajasthan on a whole has done better economically and the state also claims to have made progress in some fields. At the release of the party manifesto, Raje said education standards have risen sharply. The state which ranked 27 earlier has now climbed to the number 2 spot in the country. To prevent girls from dropping out, the state was also offering them meals, regular health check-ups, laptops and a Rs 50,000 grant on passing out of school.
With a number of heinous crimes against women being reported, women’s safety is also a key issue in these elections. While a law on sexual harassment and rape that makes the assault of minors punishable with death has been passed, it remains to be seen if it alone would suffice in reducing crime against women.
Caste politics has changed
There are nine major regions in Rajasthan – Ajmer State, Dhundhar, Gorwar, Hadoti, Mewar, Mewat, Marwar, Shekhawati and Vagad. When Rajasthan was formed over seven stages through the amalgamation of princely states, it initially witnessed caste-based voting for certain parties. Jats, due to their hostility towards the dominant and ruling Rajputs, would generally vote for the Congress. Conversely, Rajputs used to vote for other parties.
But that changed in the 90s when Congress chose Gehlot, who belonged to the Mali community, ahead of Jat leader Paras Ram Maderna to be the CM.
Now the caste struggles are often related to issues of reservation. In 2008, the resistance of Meenas towards the demand of Jats that they too be included in the Scheduled Tribe list had led to a lot of resistance and violence. Meenas felt this would dilute the quota for them. The anger had also led to the ouster of BJP from power in the polls held that year.
Incidentally, both these communities comprise about 10% of the population each. This time BJP has sought to quell similar unrest by giving Jats of certain areas reservation under the other backward class (OBC) category.
Other parties hold little sway in Rajasthan
Of the 14 assembly elections held in Rajasthan so far, Congress has won nine and BJP three on its own. In 1977, when the Janta Party government was elected or in 1990 when a Janata Dal-BJP combine came to power in the state, either BJP or its erstwhile form of Jan Sangh participated in the government. In the distant past, the Swatantra Party used to be a significant force, but for the last four decades, it has been a direct fight between the Congress and BJP.
There are about 30 smaller parties which are in the fray this time too. These include the Bahujan Samaj Party, whose MLAs had helped Gehlot in 2008 to cross the majority mark, and the Aam Aadmi Party, which after showing promise in Delhi and Punjab was expected to do well in the Hindi belt.
However, from opinion polls, it seems all these players may end up with only a handful of seats. They would only be significant, along with the independents, in the event of a close result.
Rajputs angry with Raje
Rajputs, who are a dominant group, have traditionally been supporters of BJP. They account for about 12% of the total population. But this time, the community is also angry with the Raje government for various reasons and this may impact the outcome of the polls. These include her denial of Lok Sabha ticket to Jaswant Singh in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. His son Manvendra Singh has now joined the Congress and would be contesting opposite Raje from Jhalrapatan. Raje had also irked Rajputs by opposing Gajendra Singh Shekhawat’s appointment as state BJP chief. The Rajmahal land controversy and a couple of encounters also dented her reputation among the community.
Another aspect going against Raje is that her government has been linked to corrupt practices. She was personally accused of supporting fugitive cricket mogul Lal Modi. Her government has come under attack for not rescinding a controversial mining lease in the Aravali hills despite opposing it earlier. The CM’s decision to protect judges and bureaucrats from scrutiny also raised many eyebrows.
Raje would be hoping that BJP’s record victory margin in the 2013 polls would not be dented too badly. The party had secured 45.17%votes, which was significantly higher than Congress’s 33.07%. But it should also be remembered that BJP was then riding the Modi wave, which, many political pundits believe, has since waned.