Losing a winning hand

VIPUL MUDGAL

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THE election result for the Rajasthan assembly surprised winners and losers alike. The BJP’s most optimistic estimates were just under 100 seats for itself and around 80 for the Congress in the 200-member assembly. It is no secret that on counting day, senior BJP leaders had started sending feelers to ‘like-minded’ parties and independent candidates for ‘negotiating’ their support in order to form the government in the event of a hung assembly. The state electorate overwhelmed Raje by giving her 120 seats, reducing the ruling Congress tally to a mere 56 from a brute 153 in the last assembly.

Vasundhara Raje admitted that the extent of her party’s victory surpassed her own expectations. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee too termed her triumph as a ‘pleasant surprise’ and most other senior BJP leaders in New Delhi echoed the sentiment. The results, once and for all, put to rest all speculative comparisons between Raje and her predecessor, BJP stalwart from Rajasthan, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. Note that the BJP had never managed to cross the magic number of 100 even under Shekhawat’s leadership.

The Congress leaders, particularly Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, had reasons to feel astounded. First, because there was no BJP wave in any part of Rajasthan and second, because Gehlot was regarded as a relatively ‘clean’ and pro-development leader. No credible political survey or opinion poll had suggested that either Gehlot or his government were facing a popular onslaught.

Gehlot was routed in his strongholds of Mewar and Marwar where caste and community equations were considered ‘perfect’ for the ruling party. And though the BJP gained in all regions, its major gains came from the erstwhile Congress strongholds. Gehlot was seeking re-election on the strength of his government’s efficient handling of drought relief operations, construction of new roads and commissioning of new power plants. Obviously, the Congress party either failed to convert its ‘good work’ into votes or Gehlot’s best performance was just not good enough for the electorate.

 

 

Did the Congress party misjudge its time-tested caste and community calculations? The party’s initial official explanation was that the high expectations of the electorate exceeded the state government’s good performance. However, the state party leaders are now conceding that Gehlot and company’s over-confidence and their lack of constituency-wise election strategy could have cost them this crucial election. So enamoured was the state party leadership with the slogan of their own good performance that they did virtually nothing to retain their traditional SC/ST and minority vote banks. The party now realizes, in retrospect, that this was the segment where it suffered major reverses.

Out of the state’s 57 constituencies reserved for SC/ST candidates, the Congress had got 45 seats in 1998 elections with the BJP managing only four. This time the BJP won 42 of these seats, clearly signalling that the Congress cannot take the SC/ST support for granted. The BJP’s gain in SC and ST constituencies was in excess of an impressive 23% and 13% respectively.

More worrisome for the Congress in Rajasthan is that despite the BSP’s open resentment with the BJP (post their breakup in UP), it lost over 24% vote share in 33 constituencies reserved for SC candidates. It also lost 14% vote share among the state’s 24 seats reserved for tribal candidates. Though there were clear indications of a churning in tribal areas, Rajasthan’s dalit voters were largely regarded as Congress supporters. It managed only five seats each in SC and ST constituencies, which is the party’s most dismal performance ever. The BJP, in contrast, posted its best performance by securing 26 and 15 seats in seats reserved for SC and ST candidates respectively.

The Congress leadership failed to come up with a separate tribal action plan despite pre-election reports of increasing influence of Hindu organizations in almost all tribal areas. Gehlot relied largely on tokenism, fielding sitting tribal MLAs; the party neither propped up youth cadre from its ranks nor brought in influential tribal campaigners from other states. Going by cold numbers, the Congress still retains 30 to 35% of the tribal vote. However, its old loyalty is clearly waning, which should be a cause for worry in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections.

 

 

The Congress leadership’s biggest mistake was re-nominating most MLAs despite clear signals that the electorate was angry with ministers and sitting MLAs. One of Gehlot government’s schemes called ‘desire system’ was at the root of much of this resentment. (All transfers of government servants were routed through MLAs who often obliged for a ‘consideration’.) This, when at one stage Gehlot was desperately trying to convince the high command that the only way to handle the imminent anti-incumbency factor was to change candidates.

In fact, in the first three months preceding the announcement of elections, the Congress election cell for Rajasthan discussed nothing but how to tackle the anti-incumbency factor. The initial proposal was to replace 70 MLAs, including about a dozen tainted ministers, with fresh candidates. The spectre of rebels harming official candidates finally prevailed and the idea of dropping controversial ministers and MLAs was shelved. (Gehlot could muster courage to remove only two ministers and a dozen odd MLAs but here too gave them the privilege of nominating close relatives as their successors). The party’s inability to rein in the rebels exposed weaknesses inherent to its structure, a factor bound to haunt it in the Lok Sabha elections as well.

 

 

The number of sitting Congress MLAs who lost stands at 97 out of which 29 were ministers. This includes almost all senior ministers in Gehlot’s cabinet. Rajasthan’s new assembly has a record 60 new faces, mostly belonging to the BJP, which shows that the ruling party went wrong in its choice of candidates.

Region wise, the party could not retain its edge in its own strongholds mainly because it disregarded the local demand for new faces. Oddly enough, the Congress campaigns in most areas were conservative and lacked verve or innovation. Its main campaigners were Sonia Gandhi and Gehlot (with the exception of Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, who briefly visited three northern districts). In sharp contrast, the BJP brought in almost all central ministers and leaders of different caste groups from other states apart from several film stars.

Out of the 42 seats in Gehlot’s stronghold of Marwar (western Rajasthan districts of Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Jalore, Barmer, Pali, Sirohi and Nagaur) where his party had bagged 32 seats in the last elections, it could manage only nine seats this time. The BJP swapped positions with Congress by getting 32 seats against nine in 1998. An analysis of numbers shows that the Congress candidates losses and BJP candidates gains were mostly restricted to a narrow band of one to 5%, which translates into only a few thousand votes.

 

 

In the tribal dominated Mewar region (districts of Udaipur, Dungarpur, Banswara, Chittorgarh, Bhilwara and Rajsamand) the Congress got only 10 seats as against 32 seats in the 1998 elections. Its over 60% traditional tribal vote share came down to well under 40% this time. The BJP secured 25 seats and its ally Janata Dal (united) got two seats in this region adjoining Gujarat. In other constituencies with a tribal presence (districts of Kota, Bundi, Jhalawar and Baran), the Congress lost 10 seats and the BJP gained eight . Compared to the Marwar region, the swing in BJP’s favour was much larger in both Mewar and eastern Rajasthan, which clearly showed that a significant number of tribal voters had shifted loyalty.

The only consolation for the Congress is that despite losing many seats in the overall tally, it has not been wiped out in the Jat dominated areas as was earlier feared. The party fared better than the BJP in Alwar, Bharatpur and Dholpur districts even as the BJP gained new Jat votes in Shekhawati (Churu, Jhunjhunu and Sikar) and western Rajasthan (Barmer and Nagaur).

The BJP has got only half of the 52 seats where Jats have a significant presence. Although the Jat Mahasabha of Rajasthan had issued a so-called fatwa in favour of BJP, there is no evidence of its having worked. Navin Pilania, son of Jat Mahasabha President Gyan Prakash Pilania and Gangajal Meel, the brother of its General Secretary Rajaram Meel, both contesting as BJP candidates from relatively ‘safe’ constituencies, lost elections despite the fatwa. Besides, more than a third of Jat voters ditched both Congress and the BJP in favour of members of the community contesting as independents or rebels.

The Rajasthan assembly election results show that despite conceding considerable ground to BJP, the Congress still retains its edge among SC/ST and OBC voters. Compared to the last elections, the BJP has succeeded in reducing that edge by a few percentage points almost uniformly. By fielding two Muslim candidates in Nagaur and Pushkar constituencies, it managed to chip away at the ruling party’s last bastion, its Muslim vote bank.

 

 

Months before the elections in Rajasthan, the BJP strategists were sanguine about the possibility of an alliance with the BSP. At a time when the Congress was battling the prospects of dropping 60 to 70 sitting MLAs, it was felt that the BSP could have been persuaded to field Congress rebels as its official candidates. The plan, however, fell through when the BJP fell out with BSP in UP. This made the Gehlot camp even more complacent about its strong position among dalit voters.

Around the same time, the BJP was facing open rebellion in the party on the issue of providing reservation for the upper caste poor. The BJP’s biggest traditional supporters, Brahmins and Rajputs, were up in arms against the party leadership and a powerful lobby finally broke away to form a pro-reservation Social Justice Front (SJF) under the leadership of Rajput heavyweight, Devi Singh Bhati. The party was also finding it difficult to placate the two upper caste voters after it projected itself as the benefactor of the Jats. (It was Prime Minister Vajpayee who had first mooted the idea of reservation for Jats at an election rally just before the last Lok Sabha elections). The Congress party was, predictably, excited about the prospect of some upper caste voters deserting the BJP.

 

 

However, the BJP high command tackled the problem astutely. First, a new umbrella organization of Rajputs was floated to unseat Bhati and his supporters from the leadership of the community and then at his election rally Prime Minister Vajpayee announced that steps would be taken to ensure reservation on economic criterion, taking the wind out of the rebels’ sails.

The BJP and RSS cadres took Vajpayee’s message to towns and villages explaining that the PM was committed to reservation on economic criteria but was unable to do so because of inadequate numbers in Parliament. In all this, the Congress high command was consistently blamed for its double standards on the issue. (Gehlot was supporting a 14% reservation for the upper caste poor but the Congress parliamentary party had hardly followed up his promise on the floor of the house.) In the end the Congress was unable to cut into BJP’s upper caste vote bank despite reports that it had offered material support to some rebel candidates from the upper castes.

The credit for getting the upper caste voters to finally support the BJP, though grudgingly, must go to the party’s grassroot cadres in all constituencies. Similar tactics were employed to neutralize the Judeo factor in Rajasthan’s urban areas where it could have become an issue. The Congress cadres, in sharp contrast, were either nowhere to be seen or too busy working for individual candidates, confined mainly to the issues of specific constituencies.

Rajasthan’s nomads have an adage for their cattle: Jo phirega so charega (One who roams will get to graze). BJP leader Vasundhara Raje literally applied the axiom to her campaign. She came as a reluctant leader of a divided and dispirited party but did not look back once she realised that there was no going back. She began her acclimatization with a parivartan yatra and covered hundreds of villages and suburbs by road in every region of Rajasthan.

Raje began by taking on the Hindutva brigade, her so called rivals in the state BJP – and even RSS – and on issues ranging from selecting the state party office-bearers to distribution of tickets, she emerged as her own person. (She also displayed the qualities of an astute politician by going back to the RSS and sangh parivar outfits on the eve of elections). Raje was aware that her opponent, Gehlot, presented a formidable challenge given his clean personal image and the government’s good performance. She presented herself as BJP’s liberal face and made development her main campaign issue. This eventually helped her win floating voters and fence sitters, for whom Congress seemed to have no strategy whatsoever.

 

 

The Congress grossly underestimated the help Raje would get from the RSS front organisations such as Rajasthan Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad (RVKP) and Hindu Jagaran Manch that have been running schools, hostels and clinics in tribal areas. The RVKP is involved in the tuberculosis control programme and is running dozens of de-addiction camps, health centres, hostels with 50 to 70 students each, and hundreds of small primary schools in the tribal Dungarpur, Banswara and Udaipur districts.

The RVKP is also known for its aggressive ghar wapasi (‘reconversion’ of tribal Christians to Hinduism) with the help of allies such as Hindu Jagaran Manch and Bajrang Dal. It had enrolled a large number of tribal activists for Ram Janmabhoomi campaign in Ayodhya and prepared cadres for BJP’s election campaigns. It was from this area that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi started his sadbhawana yatra right after the post Godhara riots and was quick to revisit for election rallies. The BJP was also helped in this region by hundreds of party activists from Gujarat.

 

 

Provocative speeches were often made in programmes organised by the Bajrang Dal activists in Jhalawar and Baran districts only weeks before the elections. One such incident in Iklera sub-division of Baran district turned violent and led to attacks on Muslims and ransacking of their houses. These were led by a known RSS activist, Kanwarlal Meena, who was declared as the BJP candidate from the nearby Khanpur constituency in the party’s initial list. He was, however, denied a ticket in the final round.

Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal activists clashed violently with the police in Gangapur city in 2001 when they were prevented from disrupting a tazia procession. The clashes led to police firing resulting in the death of three people. Similar clashes took place in Iklera subdivision of Jhalawar district last year when the police tried to get the Bajrang Dal activists to pay for their bus tickets. Both these incidents were followed by several bandhs and mass mobilization drives in areas with no previous history of communal trouble.

Only a month before the assembly elections, the VHP organised a week-long tribal mela to celebrate the birth anniversary of the legendary Bhil chieftain Rana Punj, who had, as the legend goes, helped Maharana Pratap in his fight against the Mughals. Events like archery and folk performances were a huge draw in the tribal fair.

The VHP has been running trishul (trident) distribution programme in Rajasthan’s tribal areas and in 13 other districts with substantial minority presence since 1998. Its ‘star’ campaigner Pravinbhai Togadia covered most of these places, particularly in the wake of spontaneous or accidental communal troubles in Ajmer, Bhilwara, Sawai Madhopur and Mewat and Shekhawati regions. The programme of arming thousands of Hindus with trishuls climaxed in 2003, until Gehlot banned them under the Arms Act and later arrested Togadia in Ajmer. Togadia made it a point to revisit many of these areas immediately prior to the elections.

It is undeniable that Togadia’s meetings did not evoke massive response at most places and the role of the RSS and other Hindu organisations in the assembly elections was at best marginal. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the BJP managed to convert the activities of the sangh parivar outfits into votes by concentrating on vulnerable areas. The party’s planners never lost sight of the fact that the cumulative effect of even small shifts of Congress voters to the BJP could make a big difference in assembly elections.

 

 

The BJP’s election planners had organised several professional pre-election surveys in the run up to the assembly elections to gauge the popular mood. The party’s election planners concentrated their energies and resources in about 50 seats where the Congress edge was found to be really thin. Though different surveys predicted different seat tallies for the Congress, all concurred that the government employees and unemployed youth were particularly disenchanted with the ruling party. Consequently special care was taken in subsequent interventions to take advantage of this resentment.

The state BJP leaders, led by Raje’s then advisor and party’s political secretary, Chandraraj Singhvi, took the lead in contacting employees unions and individual leaders. The employees expected last minute sops from Gehlot just before the elections. But all that Gehlot was able to offer was two instalments of increased dearness allowance, which fell far short of the employees expectations. Their main demand was a conversion of their 64 day strike in 1999-2000 into earned leave and bonus. In contrast, BJP Vice President Lalit Kishore Chaturvedi was quick to hold a press conference virtually conceding all the employees demands soon after dates for the assembly elections were announced.

Vasundhara Raje made it a point to address the concerns of the government employees in all her election meetings. In addition, she held separate meetings with representatives of employees unions. On the day the government employees were being dispatched for poll duty all over the state, they raised pro-BJP and anti-Gehlot slogans, unafraid of making their preferences clear.

Many observers feel that the employees ire against Gehlot worked wonders for the BJP. There were widespread complaints that at many places poll officials openly sided with the opposition party by pressing the ‘right’ buttons in tandem. Congress supporters later suggested that the job of angry employees was made simpler by the electronic voting machines, though there is no evidence to prove this. It is also alleged that a large number of missing names of minority voters may have had something to do with the government employees resentment against Gehlot.

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