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Rajasthan rarely returns incumbent govts to power; can Raje buck the trend?

Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje | Photo: PTI
Not since 1993, when Rajasthan electorate voted to bring back the Bhairon Singh Shekhawat-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government after nearly a year-long central rule, has the border state repeated a government.

As Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje prepares her party for the forthcoming Assembly polls in the state, she faces not just the 25-year trend of the state’s electorate throwing out the incumbent government but also a galvanised Congress and significant anger at her government's performance among several sections of the people of the state.

With elections to the state Assembly less than four months away, Raje is in need of a miracle. While she would hope for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma and BJP chief Amit Shah’s famed election management to work one more time, all isn't well between her and Shah. After a protracted tug of war, Raje recently succeeded in getting the BJP chief to appoint Madanlal Saini as the party’s state unit chief.

The Assembly election in Rajasthan is scheduled for November-December, as are the polls to Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram Assemblies. If the stakes are high for Raje, they are higher for Modi and Shah. The BJP had won a massive win in Rajasthan in the 2013 Assembly polls, which was credited to the 'Modi wave' and had followed it up by sweeping all the 25 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. 

A defeat in Rajasthan could, at least theoretically, affect BJP's seats tally in the state in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Moreover, in the past two years, Modi and Shah have made nearly all Assembly polls a referendum on the Modi government’s performance. Despite her differences with her party's top leadership, Raje would probably expect Modi and Shah to pull out all stops in her state to ensure a win.

But the omens for the BJP are not good. There has been a spate of farmer protests in the past two years, led initially by Communist Party of India (Marxist)-affiliated All India Kisan Sabha’s Amra Ram and Pema Ram, and subsequently by Congress state unit chief Sachin Pilot. The Congress has performed creditably in panchayat and civic elections. Earlier this year, the BJP lost the Ajmer and Alwar Lok Sabha bypolls. More than the losses, the huge margins of defeat in the two seats were telling. In some of the polling booths, BJP received votes in single digits.

Dalits are upset with the BJP because of the violence perpetrated against the community by upper castes. Even the home of a Dalit legislator belonging to the BJP was not spared. If in the past the BJP made shrewd use of the cleavage between the dominant and poorer Dalit communities, that seems less likely to work in the forthcoming elections. There have also been cases of mob lynching of Muslims. The Gujjar community is upset at not being given reservation. The tribal communities are unhappy at the poor implementation of the Forest Rights Act.

If the BJP had hoped for the Congress infighting, with Pilot and former chief minister Ashok Gehlot at two ends, to work for it, the fissures in the Congress’ top leaders in Madhya Pradesh are indeed wider than those in Rajasthan. Earlier this month, Gehlot and Pilot shared the stage and even hugged each other at a party event in Jaipur which was also attended by Congress President Rahul Gandhi. The Congress has decided it will showcase its collective leadership, leaving aside the question of its putative chief minister for until after the elections. 

With conditions electorally suitable, the Congress is also unwilling to have any seat arrangements with either the Bahujan Samaj Party or the Samajwadi Party – both of which have small pockets of influence. “Nearly every community, with the possible exception of her own, is upset with the Raje government. These communities, however, do not trust each other. What the Congress needs is a leader who can make them bury their differences to unitedly defeat the Raje government,” said a Congress leader from the state who did not want to be named.

The Raje government is also facing a sustained campaign from activist groups pointing at her sundry failures. Dalit leaders like Prakash Ambedkar and Jignesh Mevani have held meetings in Jaipur, as have leftist and Gandhian groups.

If Raje needs to break the 25-year trend of incumbents losing elections, it would seem, she might need the 1993 election to repeat itself. That election was fought under exceptional circumstances.

The BJP governments in Rajasthan and other north Indian states were dismissed after the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in December 1992. After nearly a year-long President's rule, the elections were held again in a climate of social polarisation and BJP won in Rajasthan, even as it lost in Madhya Pradesh.

Interestingly, the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance in Uttar Pradesh had frustrated BJP's bid to return to power in that state. If there is a lesson for the BJP from the 1993 elections, is there a lesson for the Congress as well – that it must reach out to other parties? We should get our answer in four months' time.


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