The odds are stacked against Vasundhara Raje

Vasundhara Raje
The Gujarat election results don’t bode so well for the Vasundhara Raje-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Rajasthan, facing an anti-incumbency mood and a trust deficit. 

Party leaders in Rajasthan had assumed a comfortable win in Gujarat, making their task easier in the state Assembly election due in November next year. The close contest in Gujarat has left them nervous. BJP leaders admit the Congress is a much formidable force in Rajasthan than Gujarat; also, the opposition has made all the right noises against the Raje government in the past two years. The BJP seniors are also worried about the historic trend, as voters in Rajasthan have not re-elected any party in the state for at least two decades.

Political leaders and analysts believe a Raje victory would depend on three factors. First the strategy she’d adopt over the next six months. Sources says Raje has already got into an election fighting mode to avoid some mistakes in her previous, 2003-08 tenure. In the 2008 poll, of Rajasthan’s 200 seats in the legislative assembly, Congress and BJP won 96 and 78, respectively. In the subsequent election of 2013, riding a Modi wave, the BJP triumphed with a huge margin, winning 163 seats to the Congress’ 21 seats. 

“We were a little complacent; otherwise, we would have won the 2008 elections. This time, we are not leaving anything to the end,” says a top rank party functionary, close to Raje, in the state. BJP leaders, however, admit they face a strong opposition. “It will not be a walkover,” the functionary adds.

The party’s apprehensions are based on a strong anti-incumbency mood against the Raje government. Most sections, including farmers, are upset. Farmers wanted the government to waive their loans like other BJP governments in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra; the administration was silent. Problems related to the goods and services tax (GST) and demonetisation have further alienated traders and shopkeepers. 

The Raje government, however, believes social welfare schemes such as the Bhamashah Yojana, designed to empower women from Below Poverty Line (BPL) families, and their universal health insurance scheme would catapult them to power. 

Much depends on what Raje would announce in her last financial Budget. A look at the finances suggests lack of an adequate cushion to announce sops and freebies. The state government had a net public debt (without the UDAY scheme on power companies finances) of Rs 25,290 crore in 2016-17. It was Rs 23,478 crore in 2015-16. With the UDAY scheme, under which the state took over the debt of its power distribution companies, net public debt was Rs 47,663 crore in 2016-17. “The Raje government inherited huge debt from the Congress and  is still struggling to manage it. Announcing freebies and sops is not financially prudent at the moment but a section in the government and party believes it would be wise to announce something in the budget to woo voters. The Congress will only increase the debt if it comes back to power,” said the BJP leader quoted earlier.

Raje has been silent on strategy and is waiting for the right time to open her cards. She has begun touring the state to get feedback from voters.  

A second factor relevant to Raje’s success is the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government at the Centre. “Our battle is half-won if Modi remains strong at the Centre,” says another BJP functionary.  Modi can galvanise support for the Raje government if he spends a significant amount of time in Rajasthan, as he did during the Gujarat Assembly election. Modi, however, is expected to remain occupied in Delhi, as he would be preparing for the 2019 general election. 

A third factor would be internal bickering within the BJP and Congress. Raje needs to quell opposition within the party; some legislators, owing allegiance to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have openly revolted against her. Though Raje has successfully mended ties with the BJP brass in Delhi, she would need to convince them to again project her as the party’s CM candidate. BJP success would also depend on internal fighting within the Congress. Political analysts say the BJP would find it difficult if the Congress projects Ashok Gehlot, considered a popular leader across castes, as probable chief ministerial face.

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