In Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot is neither down nor out
Girish Nikam Jaipur
In the 2008 elections to the Rajasthan assembly, Congress had fallen just five short of a simple majority, winning 96 out of the 200 seats. BJP had won 79 seats. Congress had won nine of the 96 seats by less than a margin of 2,000 votes. It had lost 14 seats to the BJP by a margin of less than 2,000 votes, including the Nathdwara seat, which CP Joshi (former central minister) had lost by just one vote.
If the 2008 elections were a close contest, 2013 does not seem likely to be any different. This is unmistakable, while travelling in the state, despite the one-sided results the pollsters are indicating.
It is rare nowadays that an incumbent chief minister gets wide praise from the electorate. Ashok Gehlot seems to have broken that mould. In fact, even his political rivals or voters, who are not inclined towards Congress, leave alone his party supporters, are uniform in their reaction. “Gehlot has done a lot of good work with his schemes in the last two years, though he didn’t do anything in the first three years.”
The schemes that are talked about widely are the free medicines, free medical tests, pensions to a wide cross-section of people, a reasonably efficient PDS system, water rejuvenation schemes, among others. Most of them are directly benefitting the economically weaker sections. As a 40-year-old TB patient in Tonk pointed out, “If not for the free medicines and tests scheme, I would be in dire straits.” In other circumstances, a serious ailment, with huge expenses of treatment, and the suffering, can destroy a family. With medicines and tests taken care of, this labourer can fall back on his brothers to take care of his meals and stay. “Now they don’t feel that it’s a big burden,” he says.
Having touched the poorest of the poor, Gehlot’s stocks run high among them. However, one cannot say the same thing about some of his ministers or some of the MLAs, who have been caught in controversies. It is this anti-incumbency against some of the ministers and MLAs that he has to battle, to encash the significant goodwill he has gained.
Is it a battle between Gehlot and the BJP’s ex-chief minister, Vasundhara Raje Scindia?
Going by the mood of the people, including many hardcore BJP supporters, it seems Scindia is more in the background than the party itself. Her five years of rule between 2003 and 2008 are not even remembered by her own party supporters as something to look back on and cheer. The campaign of the Congress about her elitist lifestyle and her non-availability after 8 pm (incidentally, a popular whisky brand in Rajasthan) seems to have hit its target, pretty hurtfully.
Rajasthan, like many of the north Indian states, is, indeed, steeped in the caste narrative when it comes to electoral politics. The Jats, Gujjars and Meenas who form a substantial part of the population and are electorally important and empowered, do play a crucial role. But the curious fact is that all these three communities are not inclined towards any one party across the state. Their affiliations vary from region to region and sometimes even district to district.
While a Meena in Dausa is a staunch supporter of the National People’s Party of Kirori Lal Meena and PA Sangma, in rural Jaipur district or Tonk, another Meena can support the Congress. It is this eclectic behavior of these communities which makes it difficult for any political party to take their support for granted.
For Gehlot, who seems to have captured the imagination of the people, cutting across caste lines in different parts of the state, especially the poorer and rural voters, his Achilles heel seems to be the Muslims. This disappointment of the Muslims towards Gehlot, with some bordering on distinct hostility, is something the Congress party has to deal with squarely. The reason for it is not too difficult to understand.
During the last five years of Gehlot rule, there have been several low intensity communal problems in the state, with two or three cases of violence acquiring serious proportions. Especially the Gopalgarh violence two years back when about 10/11 Muslims lost their lives; the other case was in Tonk where the masjid was raided by the police, tear gas shells were fired and even firing took place. The biggest complaint of the Muslims is that the state authorities have been complacent, or worse, they connived with the communal forces. They also accuse Gehlot directly of having underplayed these incidents and not taking action against the officials and police personnel who were involved in them.
Gehlot has been unable to overcome these criticisms, and it has been left to the likes of Rahul Gandhi to douse the Muslims’ feelings. However, it is not that the entire 8 per cent of the Muslim population in the state is up in arms against Gehlot. For instance, the Muslims in Ajmer region seem to be more tolerant and less hostile towards him.
The BJP, on the other hand, is unable to exploit this anger of the Muslims for obvious reasons, and their projection of Narendra Modi is not helping matters. In fact, it is this projection which may push even the frustrated Muslims back to Congress, though in regions where they have a secular alternative they may plumb for them.
For the BJP, however, it is a tough battle, as it not only has to counter the popularity of Gehlot, but also the intra-party battle. The jaded charm of Scindia is also something they need to be worried about. And Modi does not excite the voters in an assembly election.
The recent logic in Rajasthan has been that incumbent governments are voted out, but Gehlot stands a fighting chance of reversing that logic. That itself is a big feather in his cap.