Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje (left) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a function in March 2018. Photo: AFP/ NurPhoto
Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje (left) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a function in March 2018. Photo: AFP/ NurPhoto

A frenzied battle is playing out in the state of Rajasthan between India’s two major political rivals — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, as state ballots loom and the country heads for a national election next year.

The BJP is trying to wipe out the deficits of governance of the last four and a half years while there’s a power tussle between Rajasthan’s Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje and the BJP’s national party president Amit Shah. The opposition Congress party believes it has a good prospect to come back to power in the western state.

Rajasthan’s State Assembly elections are scheduled in October and November. The outcome of the year-end assembly election results in the BJP-ruled states of Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Rajasthan should give a good indication of the prospects of a second term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In the 2014 general election, the saffron party won 10 of the 11 parliamentary seats in Chattisgarh, plus 26 of the 29 seats in Madhya Pradesh, and all of the 25 Lok Sabha (Lower House) seats in Rajasthan. Ahead of the 2019 general election, the BJP has the towering task of replicating the 2014 verdict in the three states considered their pocket boroughs.

Moreover, if BJP loses Rajasthan, opposition party moves to create a united front against the ruling party in the 2019 parliamentary election will be strengthened.

Chips are down for the BJP

Amid a wave of anti-incumbency sentiment against the Raje government, the ruling BJP lost by-elections earlier this year in the Ajmer and Alwar parliamentary seats and the Mandalgarh assembly constituency.

Meanwhile, the state has been in the news for all the wrong reasons: from gory mob lynching of minority Muslims in the name of cow protection in Udaipur and Alwar to farmers agitating for a Minimum Support Price for their produce and the state’s deteriorating law and order situation.

The state election in Rajasthan is often fought on caste lines as it can play a crucial role in picking the victor. The saffron party’s traditional support base among certain caste groups has undergone a tectonic shift. Rajputs have been unhappy following last year’s killing of Anand Pal Singh – a Robin Hood-type character from the Rajput community — by police.

The “Baniyas” (small traders) have been hit hard by the federal government’s demonetization of high currency notes and the more recent implementation of the Goods and Services Tax. “Brahmin” (uppermost caste in Hinduism) community leader Ghanshyam Tiwari has floated his own political outfit, while Gujjar community leader Lieutenant Colonel Kirori Singh Bainsla is also likely to damage the BJP’s prospects in the upcoming polls.

Other factors hindering the BJP may be party cadres and workers complaining about Chief Minister Raje being inaccessible and reports of her frequent run-ins with Amit Shah.

Raje managed to block Upper House member Gajendra Singh Shekhawat from heading the state party unit, who Shah favored. But Shekhawat may get an important role in the upcoming assembly polls. He has reportedly been working to assign loyalists to critical tasks during the party’s election campaigns this year and next May.

The Shah versus Raje hostility has invoked two crucial questions in the minds of party cadres: If Raje will get a free hand in distributing party tickets to people to contest the elections, and in case of a BJP victory, whether the Modi-Amit Shah team will prefer to bring in a fresh face as the candidate for chief minister.

Bipolar politics

The Rajasthan electorate has, in past decades, has had a habit of rejecting the incumbent government after the completion of one term. But following the resurgence of the BJP since 2014, things have taken an unusual turn. This year’s BJP win in the left-bastion Tripura and their massive electoral victory in Uttar Pradesh last year are developments that stumped all political pundits. “Therefore, how can the possibility of a return of the BJP government be ruled out?” a close aide of Raje asked.

Like Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan presents a bipolar political scenario between the Congress and the BJP – and the virtual non-existence of regional parties. But, unlike the other two states, the Congress has been in and out of power intermittently in Rajasthan in past decades. To an extent, therefore, state Congress leaders seem comforted by the belief that it’s now their turn to assume power in the state.

But it won’t be that easy to defeat the BJP. Its financial muscle looks more powerful than the Congress, and its supporters more organized, united and committed. Moreover, the Congress seems to still be fumbling over its response to the BJP’s campaign model – with the saffron party packaging its developmental plank with more than a dash of religiosity and elements of ultra-nationalism.

High-decibel campaigns

In terms of atmospherics, the BJP takes it all. At each stopover along the route of the chief minister’s election campaign tour — “Rajasthan Gaurav Yatra” (Rajasthan Pride Tour) — there is an overdose of the state government’s audio-visual publicity playing out on LED screens, with publicity material prominently displayed in makeshift stalls put up alongside the main podiums erected for Raje’s campaign speeches.

The Congress has been crying foul over the alleged misuse of official machinery for election campaign purposes, but Raje has taken the opportunity to appear generous to the people by distributing bicycles or scooters to meritorious students at one place and throwing garlands or food packets at another.

In the tribal and backward districts, where some haven’t even seen a train in their lifetime – the glitz of Raje’s cavalcade or sometimes her helicopter seemed to entertain them. Whether or not they have been shepherded or paid to attend, voters in the region have been flocking to Raje’s rallies in substantial numbers. But it’s unsure if Raje and the BJP will be able to convert these numbers into votes.

The Hindutva narrative to uphold Hindu nationalism is also at work. Questions like if historical figures such as Maharana Pratap (the 16th Century legendary Rajput King who fought Mughal ruler Akbar in the famous battle of Haldi Ghati) was a secular person or a devout Hindu, has regularly cropped up during Raje’s statewide pre-election tour.