Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Reuters
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Reuters

The party campaigns for the 200-member assembly came to an end on December 5 in India’s northern state of Rajasthan. The BJP-ruled state, which goes to the polls tomorrow, Saturday December 7, witnessed rallies and controversial speeches by political parties doing their last-minute best to woo voters.

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s last hour interventions – invoking issues such as the extradition of the Westland Helicopter middleman Christian Michael and the Supreme Court order permitting the reopening of the National Herald Case against the first family of the Congress party – have come about as game changers. The BJP is now within striking distance of power”, one senior leader said.

“Whatever the numbers, the BJP will be the one to form the government”, said another. “We may lose the assembly, but the BJP will bounce back in the Lok Sabha (India’s lower house of Parliament) elections next year.”

BJP on a sticky wicket

While the BJP may present itself as confident of emerging victorious in the state, what is significant is that at the close of a highly-charged and bitterly contested campaign, none of the BJP leaders are articulating the earlier boast of capturing more than 180 of the 200 seats in the Rajasthan assembly.

For the past 25 years, Rajasthan has consistently rejected the incumbent government at every election. This is a streak that has presented the BJP with challenges it should have been able to anticipate.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s “Gaurav Yatra” (journey of pride) was stoned and black flags were waved at several locations in September, forcing the Chief Minister to abandon the road journey and on several occasions resort to taking helicopter rides.

Sections of the electorate including doctors, engineers, government employees, members of the business community, farmers– traditionally loyal caste groups including Tribals, Rajputs (upper-caste Hindus), Scheduled Castes or Brahmins (upper-caste Hindus) – have been in protest mode for almost the entire period of Raje’s rule.

In the previous 2013 assembly elections, the BJP won a record 163 out of the 200 assembly seats; they then topped that with a massive mandate in the 2014 parliamentary elections by winning all 25 of the state’s Lok Sabha seats.

But, as the party is well aware, replicating the same verdict will be a tall order for the BJP. At the start of the campaign, the party’s internal survey report suggested that the party would win no more than 60 of the assembly’s 200 seats.

Gains and Losses

Whatever the outcome in terms of numbers, some positives have emerged for the Congress party.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi adopted a spirited and aggressive campaign posture in Rajasthan and seems to have moved a few steps forward in projecting himself as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s challenger. In doing so, he has provoked senior BJP leaders, including the Prime Minister himself, to respond to his barbs.

At an interactive session in Udaipur, Rahul questioned Modi’s understanding of Hinduism. “What is the essence of Hinduism? What does the Gita (Holy book of Hindus) say? That knowledge is with everybody… Knowledge is all around you. Every living being has knowledge. Our prime minister says he is a Hindu, but he doesn’t understand (the) foundation of Hinduism. What kind of a Hindu is he?” he asked.

At a public meeting at Jodhpur on December 2, Modi said: “Problems of India are intractably linked to the “misdeeds” of four generations of one family’s rule. Jawaharlal Nehru opposed the reconstruction of the Somnath temple and Indira Gandhi brought untold miseries on the people by imposing Emergency rule in the country.  The mother and son (referring to Sonia and Rahul Gandhi) presided over the most corrupt government.”

The Prime Minister’s diatribes against the Gandhi family do not appear to have borne much fruit. On the contrary, his harangues appear to have backfired by providing credibility to the Gandhis’ status as leaders of reckoning.

Despite this, the Congress Party also has its fair share of challenges to meet. The party delayed the process of selecting candidates, providing the BJP with a time advantage of almost one week, which they used to hit the ground running.

The state party unit remains hopelessly faction-ridden, with state party chief Sachin Pilot and former Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot pushing for their own loyalists.

Dissent within the party is high after its leadership failed to consolidate or maximize its support base because of ineffectual management in terms of caste and pressure groups.

Now, there are already some doubts in the minds of the Rajput community. The Rajputs recently shifted loyalty from the BJP to the Congress, after Arjun Sing, a Rajput leader based in Jodhpur, said: “This party is doomed. Only sycophants can survive or flourish in the Congress.”

Against the structured, richly-funded and professionally managed election machinery of the BJP that is supplemented by the support of huge numbers of committed cadres, the Congress campaign has appeared pedestrian, amateurish and whimsical.

Rahul’s own understanding of the state’s caste calculus and socio-political dynamics has remained poor. The current joke is that he described the “Kumbha Ram Lift Irrigation Project” as the “Kumbhakaran Lift Irrigation Project” at a public meeting. Kumbha Ram Arya was a senior Congress party leader from the state, while Kumbhakaran was the brother of the demon King Ravana in the mythological tale of the Ramayana (Hindu religious text).

In light of all this, what justifies the common perception that the Congress party retains an edge in Rajasthan?

A senior Congress leader provided the best answer: “It is the BJP that is losing and not the Congress that is winning.”

Hindutva and Diminishing Returns

During the last five years, Rajasthan has witnessed six gory incidents of mob lynching of Muslims. But while the concept of Hindutva, the prominent form of Hindu nationalism, still resonates with the state’s electorate, the mood currently remains anti-BJP.

Vedanta Sudhir, formerly with the Jodhpur-based Jainarayan Vyas University, explains the phenomenon: “Voters have understood that the BJP’s slogans on abrogating Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir or building the Lord Rama temple at Ayodhya are no more than election stunts. At the same time, common people have been subjected to severe hardships because of the state and central government’s misdirected policies such as currency demonetization and the faulty implementation of the Goods and Services Tax”.

Dharm Chand, convener of an organization called the Rajasthan Adivasi Manch, summed up the situation thus: “In the previous elections, the BJP won with a massive mandate because Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe voters migrated substantially to the party. But the BJP has done nothing for the community. Applications for land title rights on Forest Land are pending, the policy of digitization for direct money transfers has flopped. Corruption in the lower bureaucracy has increased by leaps and bounds and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGA) has almost been shelved. Backward castes and Adivasis (tribals) are banking on the Congress (party) on this occasion.”

In this election in India’s desert state at least, the BJP is battling the odds.