RAJASTHAN: Weak Link

Both BJP and Congress are divided houses. Despite the daggers drawn inside his party, will an astute Ashok Gehlot make it? 

Sadiq Naqvi and Akash Bisht Jaipur 

There was chaos in a recent meeting of the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) and All India Congress Committee (AICC) members at the Rajasthan Congress state headquarters in Jaipur, after Sanyam Lodha, a former MLA, launched a full-blown attack on Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot. In the presence of Union ministers CP Joshi and Namo Narayan Meena, and Mukul Wasnik, the party in-charge of Rajasthan, Lodha accused Gehlot of indulging in corrupt practices and blamed him for the “deplorable” state of governance in the state. Among other things, he blamed Gehlot for handing over the picturesque Jal Mahal in Jaipur to private developers at a throwaway price and ordering the police to fire on Muslims during the riots in Gopalgarh, Bharatpur. Gehlot’s close aides, including Rajya Sabha MP Ashq Ali Tak, tried to stop this outburst, but Lodha was reportedly relentless.  Ironically, Lodha’s political career has been helped by Gehlot. “It was Gehlot who got him a ticket in the first place,” says a Congress functionary. 

Rajasthan, for the last two decades at least, has seen the BJP and Congress taking turns as the ruling party. However, observers say that, in the assembly polls of 2013, as in the last elections, psephologists will have a hard time cracking the code, considering the rebellion brewing within the
two parties.

Hailed for her charisma, but hated for her arrogance, Vasundhara Raje Scindia of the BJP has been sending warning signals to the saffron camp for a long time now, threatening that she will launch her own party. The Congress is in an equally bad state when it comes to intra-party wrangles.

“We saw in the last elections how Gehlot ensured that many top leaders were denied the chance to enter the Vidhan Sabha,” says Arun Chaturvedi, BJP president, Rajasthan. “Even this time, only Gehlot’s men are going to win,” says Congress old-timer, Matadeen Pareek.

With the grand old party’s ‘Chintan Shivir’ scheduled to be held in Jaipur in January, political circles are abuzz with the fault lines between Gehlot and Joshi. There have been rumours of the high command replacing Gehlot with Joshi. It was said that Joshi, who has the blessings of Rahul Gandhi, was running from pillar to post to capture the top slot in Rajasthan. Gehlot, said to be close to Sonia Gandhi, has managed to convince the party to hold the ‘shivir’ in the state — the tables seem to have been turned. “Such rumours have been going on for long,” says Pareek. “Joshi is not so active politically. He just wants positions and has no mass base. He does not possess the acumen of Gehlot. He can only get things done from Delhi. Like when Ramlal Jat, a minister, had to resign on charges of murder and Gehlot couldn’t do anything.” In Rajasthan, even leaders who are apparently close to Joshi ensure that they don’t rub Gehlot the wrong way. “Most of them play both sides,” says Pareek.

With less than a year to go for the polls, Gehlot has been on a launching spree. There has been a virtual flood of goodie-goodie schemes. Even as UP and other states were struggling with corruption regarding the National Rural Health Mission funds, with UP witnessing the murder of three medical officers, Gehlot took an ambitious step and launched a free medicine scheme for all in October last year. He followed it up with a free medicine scheme for cattle in rural areas, and is gearing up for free diagnostic tests. These successful schemes are translating remarkably well on the ground.

However, analysts argue that there are a host of other schemes which are rendered useless in the absence of proper monitoring. “In the pre-election year of 2008, crores of rupees were pumped into MGNREGS. Now, there is an absolute dearth of work in the state. This could cost him dearly,” says Lokpal Sethi, political analyst. Likewise, even other schemes for the marginalised sections, including the most backward Sahariyas, have been facing neglect. “Implementation is a problem,” says Chandrabhan, president, Rajasthan Congress.

Insiders reveal that there is unrest among Congress workers. “People are annoyed with the government for not initiating a new BPL survey. They are unhappy with several other schemes. We have been telling the government, but to no avail,” an angry Congress worker remarked. He added that there was no connect between the top leadership and ordinary workers. “The party that was built by Indira Gandhi is on the verge of destruction. If any Congress worker is active then it will be in vain; people from various camps will get assembly tickets and deserving candidates will be ignored. The situation on the ground is sad, but the message being conveyed to Sonia Gandhi is that all is well in Rajasthan,” he said.

The infamous Bhanwari Devi murder case and the firing on the minority community in Gopalgarh, Bharatpur, have hurt the Congress’s prospects among Muslims and Jats in some regions. “Gopalgarh was an unfortunate incident,” Chandrabhan conceded. “But we took action against the police officers.” “There is tremendous unhappiness among Muslims; they think that it was Gehlot who ordered the firing,” says Sethi. Jats and Bishnois are angry over the way the Bhanwari case was handled. “We call him Ghoshna Mantri,” says Satish Poonia of the BJP, taking a dig at Gehlot.

Clearly, Gehlot’s secular image has taken a beating. “People forget that he stopped the VHP’s Praveen Togadia and arrested him when he dared the government to stop his distribution of trishuls,” says an analyst. “Besides, there was a virtual caste war during Vasundhara’s term.”

‘People forget that he stopped the VHP’s Praveen Togadia and arrested him when he dared the government to stop his distribution of trishuls’ 

The state BJP leadership is a divided house. Senior leaders are reluctant to state that Raje had single-handedly destroyed the chances of the BJP coming back to power in 2008. “If she had accommodated the views of other BJP leaders, the party could have formed the government,” says Pareek. BJP leaders agree that there was miscommunication and differences within the party; some are disappointed with the high-handedness of Raje. “If Raje had accommodated Kirorilal Meena, the BJP would have been a clear winner,” says a party leader.

Poonia dismisses the allegations of rift. “Infighting is not as severe as in the Congress. We could not come to power in 2008 because our ticket distribution was badly managed. We were very confident; that hurt us. We have learnt from our mistakes and you will see that in the next elections,” he says.

With polls drawing closer, caste equations too are changing fast. Recently, there was a massive rally by Brahmins where Joshi from the Congress and Murli Manohar Joshi from the BJP shared the dais. There is an uncanny disquiet among Brahmins after the central government supported the move to allow reservation in promotion for SC/ST. With Mayawati’s BSP not a force to reckon with in the state, especially after its six MLAs defected to the Gehlot camp, there is a strong possibility that the Congress might corner BSP’s vote share. Gehlot is also building bridges with other OBC communities like the Malis (gardeners — his own community), goldsmiths and Rajputs by promoting them. “These communities were not so politicised. They were appropriated by the BJP though it opposed the Mandal Commission. Gehlot is using them to build a mass base for himself,” says Narayan Bareth, journalist.

Analysts point out that much of Gehlot’s future will depend on how well he manages to conduct himself during the forthcoming Chintan Shivir. With Wasnik openly hobnobbing with Joshi, nobody is expecting a smooth ride for Gehlot. However, the other camp blames Wasnik for the mess. “Look at his track record. The Congress couldn’t even touch the double digit mark in Bihar,” says Pareek. 

Indeed, with the price rise breaking the back of the common man and the government struggling to deliver big-ticket projects, including multi-crore power and oil rigging projects, it might be a tough ride for Gehlot in the days to come. Will he make it?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2013