The electoral landscape of Rajasthan looks more grey than black and white amid rival claims of victory. And with far too many boots on the ground, the terrain isn’t suited to spot leading racers.
Thickening the haze is the voters’ ambivalence. Only the core supporters of the BJP and the Congress are vocal, not the floating mass bedazzled by or cynical about freebies received or promised by the principal adversaries.
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On paper, there are 58 parties in the impending contest. Most of them are poll-time pop-ups destined to perish after the November 25 vote. There are as many rebels born of the BJP’s womb as of the Congress’s. Their damage potential is greater than the seasonal political crop.
For instance, student leader and BJP rebel Ravindra Singh Bhati poses a formidable challenge to both established parties as an Independent candidate from Barmer’s Shiv constituency. The influential Rajput community, lacking a pan-Rajasthan figure, sees in him the potential to step into the shoes of the late Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. To people fed up with familiar faces, his promise rings true: “I’m bad at political trickery but good at keeping my word.” He’s an impressive young face with a baritone.
Then there’s an X-factor: the emerging third front comprising the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party (RLP) of Lok Sabha MP Hanuman Beniwal and Chandrashekhar Azad’s Aaj Samaj Party (ASP). A sample of the impact it can have is seen in Jodhpur’s Lohawat. There, the sitting Congress MLA is said to be trailing in third spot. The fight is between the BJP and the RLP which has fielded a Congress rebel.
The RLP-ASP seem to have made the battle triangular with joint candidatures in 126 of the state assembly’s 200 seats. The RLP is in the fray in 78 and the ASP in 48 seats. By the time the campaigning ends, Beniwal, who flies around in a chopper, would’ve addressed 80-odd meetings in tandem with Azad.
Together they’re targeting a social compact of Jats (10 % of the electorate) and the Dalits (17-18%) left rudderless after the Bahujan Samaj Party’s eclipse. The BSP’s half a dozen MLAs in the outgoing House were lured into merging with the Congress by chief minister Ashok Gehlot. He gained also in subsequent by-elections by virtue of RLP candidatures. Beniwal stoutly denies it but there’s a buzz about a tacit pact between him and the CM.
Azad styles himself as an alternative to Mayawati. But many resident analysts find his projected gravitas unreal. They question his ability to attract and transfer votes the way the BSP chief could in her heydays. There’s a big question mark as well on the possibility of the conservative Jats with a humongous self-image, willingly backing the ASP’s Dalits.
Yet, the fledgling alliance cannot easily be wished away.
The Jats as a community dominate or influence 60-odd constituencies across the state. While a big chunk of the Dalit vote is still inclined towards the Congress, Beniwal has carved for himself a niche among the proletarian Jats, especially the youth, who flock to his rallies despite protestations by family elders aligned with the Mirdha-Maderna Jat dynasties.
Beniwal, in fact, won the Nagaur Lok Sabha seat with the help of his erstwhile ally, the BJP, in 2019 by defeating Jyoti Mirdha, the grand daughter of the late Nathuram Mirdha. She has since left the Congress to join the BJP. Together with his nephew, Ramniwas Mirdha, Nathuram was a titan of his times. But the turf the Mirdhas once commanded is a RLP citadel now.
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The churn in Jat politics is evident as much in nearby Osian, a seat under the Jodhpur Lok Sabha constituency, where the Congress’s sitting MLA, Divya Maderna is locked in a keen contest with the BJP‘s Bhera Ram. “The BJP man is also a Jat. If he wins, it’ll be on account of the Rajput support for his party,” said a local Patwari.
Age old caste cleavages come to the fore during elections. In Rajasthan it’s the rule, not an exception. In the event of Divya failing to make the grade despite her gutsy campaign, it’ll be a major low for the other leading Jat dynasty. She’s the grand daughter of the late Parasram Maderna, the eternal CM in waiting whom destiny restricted to being the assembly speaker. Folklore has it that he could turn his community’s mood “with the tilt of his Gandhi topi (cap)”. He lived and died a Congressman.
It was on Parasram’s popularity that the Congress rode to power in 1998 with a thumping majority of 153, a tally the party hasn’t since crossed. But in his place, Gehlot, a Mali (OBC) by caste, got lucky to be the CM the first time.
That surprise leadership choice lent force to the long story of the Jats’ distrust of the Congress. The gulf was earlier caused after the 1973 death of Barkatullah Khan, the state’s only Muslim CM. At that time, Indira Gandhi had favoured Ramniwas Mirdha, a polished politico who later became deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha. But the state legislature party elected Haridev Joshi for the post.
“The three terms Gehlot has had were God’s gift,” remarked a Jodhpur-based journalist considered close to the incumbent CM. He explained his observation in the context of the 2008 and 2018 leadership race. In the first instance, rival claimant and current Speaker CP Joshi lost his assembly seat by one vote and in the second, the Congress’s thin majority in the new House forced the high command to pick the astute Gehlot over the charismatic Sachin Pilot who had worked hard as the Pradesh unit chief.
“The position this time will be well earned if he retains power and becomes CM. There’s no anti-incumbency against him. He has worked for the spurs he’s seeking,” noted his journalist friend. The praise came with a caveat: Gehlot would’ve been better off not playing the Lone Ranger. That has limited the party’s bandwidth and robbed the campaign of the magic of Sachin co-piloting the outreach. Making amends with the arrival of Rahul Gandhi might not fetch the same response. For the partnership now appears forced, not voluntary.
Regardless of the proportion, the Jats and Sachin’s clansmen, the Gujjars (4% of the electorate) alike are feeling alienated from the Congress. These combatant communities, besides the Scheduled Tribe Meenas (8%) have never had a CM in the state. That makes them easy social/political allies of the BJP which has fielded Rajya Sabha MP Kirodi Lal Meena from Sawai Madhopur to improve its prospects in east Rajasthan. But the sidelining of former CM Vasundhara Raje isn’t really helping the party. Its collective leadership gambit has fetched a tepid response. For all practical purposes the state unit is tied to the apron strings of Narendra Modi.
Electioneering will hit a peak in the lead up to the polling day, with the BJP-Congress star campaigners arriving in Rajasthan after elections in MP and Chattisgarh. That perhaps will help the fence sitters decide the direction they’d want to go. Here, it’s going to be Modi’s word against Gehlot’s. The latter clearly is hamstrung by strong anti-incumbency against sitting MLAs who have been renominated.
For want of safe predictions, the story in Marwar that includes Jodhpur, Jaisalmer-Barmer, Nagaur, Pali and Jalore may find its denouement only on December 3, counting day. But punters in the betting hub of Phalodi after which an assembly segment among Jodhpur’s ten takes its name, have real time forecasts subject to changes based on the word of mouth, informal surveys and money wagered on individual parties, candidates and constituencies. For most of the time, they speculate.
As explained by a punter, sattaland’s final call (which invariably comes true) is in the nature of an exit poll after voting.
“Our speculative numbers aren’t much off the mark,” he explained. “But correctives happen after actual voting.”
From what one authoritatively heard in Phalodi, a forecast a senior Congress leader recently attributed to the town’s speculators was incorrect.
In their reading the BJP is leading the race, not the Congress. So much so that bets have been placed on the Congress winning just two of the 10 seats in Jodhpur parliamentary constituency including Gehlot’s home base of Sardarpura.
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In 2018, the party won 7/10 seats of Jodhpur and 8/9 in Jaisalmer-Barmer, where too it’s walking uphill. The overall figures the bettors flaunt are even more scary for the ruling party.
Does that mean Gehlot will end up repeating history rather than making history ? Right now, that’s pure speculation. For there’s a full week of campaigning left and bit players are likely to influence the outcome in most seats.