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

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s prospects of retaining power in the northern state of Rajasthan in elections due later this year are looking shaky as protests continue to spring up at community gatherings.

Last week there was even the embarrassing spectacle of unrest in the impoverished township of Ramganjmandi, which is right next to Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s home constituency of Jhalawar. It has turned out to be a political bellwether for the floundering BJP.

Black flags were raised during other appearances by Raje, who has been on a 40-day “gaurav yatra” (honor parade) since August 4. Police used sticks to disperse demonstrators at BJP gatherings, while people seeking party tickets to contest seats in the 200-member state assembly were seen openly fighting at some venues.

Party president Amit Shah has said the assembly polls will be a “practice run” for the 2019 national election, making it crucial that his party does well in the desert state. BJP seized on the opportunity to start a high-octane election campaign at a time when leaders of the Opposition, especially Congress, were still in their strategy rooms.

But the omens are not good. While Raje’s yatra was hailed as a  political “masterstroke” when she set off from Rajsamand in South Rajasthan, it has looked like a journey to nowhere as the BJP’s vulnerabilities have increasingly surfaced.

On a journey to nowhere

The party’s problem is that unlike Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, the two other states it controls where elections are scheduled this year, Rajasthan has shown a “flip trend” of voting out incumbent governments at the completion of their five-year terms. Even if BJP can break this pattern, the saffron party’s popularity will take a big hit.

Voters are unhappy with the adverse impact of the BJP-led federal government’s demonetization of high-currency notes and introduction  of a Goods and Services Tax. They have also gained little benefit from the BJP’s online money transfer schemes because many are illiterate,  while others complain about the inadequate capacity of internet servers and alleged corruption in lower ranks of the bureaucracy.

The BJP’s hopes of returning to power have been further weakened by the fact that Congress has persistently worked to rebuild its party apparatus in Rajasthan under the leadership of Sachin Pilot since the last poll. BJP will have an edge in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where Congress has been less active, but faces a big fight in the desert.

In the 2013 assembly elections the BJP won 164 of the 200 assembly seats in Rajasthan and went on to record victories in all of the state’s 25 parliamentary constituencies at the general election the following year. Getting that number this time is likely to be an impossible task.

Congress and the BJP, the two parties that will dominate the Rajasthan poll, have adopted contrasting campaign strategies. Raje’s meetings are much the same as always: men, women and children are brought in by the truckload from nearby areas and made to sit at the gathering in a disciplined manner while praise for the government’s achievements blasts out from large speakers and LED screens.

This approach mixes the “Hindutva” brand of politicized religion with   ultra-nationalist elements and catchy phrases. The chief minister has a familiar refrain at these meetings: “The spectacular achievements of her term of five years against the 50 years of misrule by the Congress”. Managed with corporate efficiency, the event usually ends with a  testimonial on stage from the beneficiary of a government scheme.

Contrast in political styles

Most of these meetings are apparently financed and organized by would-be candidates seeking party tickets to contest the poll. A veteran political analyst in Rajasthan noted: “This is a yatra [tour] of the BJP ticket seekers, by the ticket seekers and for the ticket seekers”.

Raje had been running a photo exhibition of her government’s achievements alongside the main venue at meetings until a High Court injunction prohibited her from using state resources to campaign. The chief minister also lays the foundation stone for future projects at each venue.

In comparison, the Congress campaign has been low-key and relies on a tried and tested philosophy: the BJP represents the rich and the Congress the poor. It is a theme that resonates with crowds. On a visit last month to the state capital, Jaipur, Congress president Rahul Gandhi spent a few hours addressing party workers and taking part in a well-attended road show. He also found time to visit a temple, in keeping with the reworked party strategy of “soft Hindutva”.

Attendances were high at the Congress meetings in Sikar, Karauli and Baran – in fact, they were estimated to be three times greater than the 45,000 who turned out at the chief minister’s gathering at Pachpadra in the bordering district of Barmer last month. The Congress’ only  dilemma is whether former chief minister Ashok Gehlot or state party chief Sachin Pilot will be given the top job if the party is victorious.

BJP has its own decision to make. Will Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah stick with Raje as chief minister if their party regains power, given her growing unpopularity? One factor that may influence this choice is a persistent view that Raje wants an alternate candidate fielded to Modi as prime minister in 2019, in case there is a moderate political mandate for the ruling National Democratic Alliance.

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