Rajasthan, the ‘Land of the Rajas’ with splendid palaces, temples and forts, Pushkar Fair and Ajmer Sharif, leaves a unique architectural splendour and culture of royalty. But, against its great glory and cultural legacy, the state, for decades, had been one of the poorest states of the Indian Union, belonging to the ‘BIMARU’ group (the other states were Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh). Economic backwardness and poverty had influenced the socio-political institutions and the democratic process, like the elections. By exercising their franchise, the poor sections of the population played key-role in bringing different parties to power with the solemn hope of improving their lot. The state has witnessed a ding-dong battle between the Congress and the BJP, none lasting more than one term. Thus, when 5.3 crore voters exercise their franchise on November 25, 2023, the crucial question is whether the above traditional trend will be repeated or not?
In the 2018 polls, the Congress won the battle and dethroned the BJP government headed by Vasundhara, which was installed in the state after the 2013 polls. In the 200-member assembly, the Congress won 100 seats (39.3 percent votes). The tally of the BJP, which won 163 seats in the 2013 polls, had come down to 73 (38.8 percent votes). The other parties, including Lok Tantric Party (LTP), Bharat Tribal Party (BTP), Independents / Rebels etc., won 27 seats (21.90 percent).
The demographic complexion of the state considerably influences the electoral trend. Of the total population, Hindus constitute 88.5 percent, followed by Muslims – 9.07 percent and others like Sikhs -1.27 percent, Jains – 0.91 percent etc. The Scheduled Castes (18%) and Scheduled Tribes (13.5%) are mainly concentrated in the eastern districts of Rajasthan. Four castes, namely Jat, Rajput, Meena and Gujjars, virtually control state politics. More than permanent political loyalty, these castes are dominated by caste considerations or benefits. The Jats, who can influence the election trends in over 80 assembly segments, particularly in Mewar and Shekhawati regions, are always keen to project leader(s) from their community to the post of Chief Minister. On the eve of the polls, they send this message across the major political parties by holding ‘Jat Maha-Kumbh’ or other organisational campaigns in which leaders of mainstream parties seek their support. The same is the case with Gujjars and Rajputs, who traditionally are supporters of the BJP. But, in the 2018 polls, a sizable percentage of Gujjars shifted their loyalties towards the Congress, anticipating the elevation of Sachin Pilot (who belongs to Gujjar community) as the Chief Minister. Similarly, irked by the BJP’s treatment of veteran Rajput leaders such as Jaswant Singh (who was denied ticket in 2014 LS polls) or Gajendranath Shekhawat (who was denied the post of State BJP chief) or other issues, many Rajput community leaders extended support to the Congress, which to a great extent helped the party win a number of seats in Rajput dominated areas. The Meenas, who are more concerned with the interests of the community on issues such as reservation or appointment to key positions in the state government, are closer to the Congress than the BJP.
The situation is not different in the case of STs and SCs, who constitute around 32 percent of the state population. They shift their loyalties on emotive or other issues affecting the community vis a vis the approach of the political parties. This was clear from the 2013 and 2018 assembly polls. Of the 59 reserved seats (SCs – 34; STs – 25), the BJP, which won 50 seats (SC – 32; ST – 18) in the 2013 polls, plummeted to 21 seats (SC – 12, ST – 9) during the 2018 polls. The dismal performance of the BJP was the result of the protest and violent incidents that had occurred in many parts of Rajasthan during the nation-wide April 2, 2018 Bharat Bandh called by Dalit organisations in protest against the Supreme Court Order on the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and the subsequent shut-down across the state by the forward communities. The Congress, which failed to win a single SC seat and managed to win only 4 ST seats during the 2013 polls, could sweep the polls in 2018 by capturing 31 seats (SC – 19; ST – 12). The party could exploit the discontentment among the SCs/STs due to the Bandh related incidents and the aggressive line adopted by upper castes on the issue.
In the impending elections, all the major parties have come up with strategies to appease the different communities/castes and win their support. The BJP projects a ‘rainbow leadership’ comprising prominent leaders of these castes holding key positions in the party or the government at the Centre. They include Vasundhra-Divya Kumari (Royal-Rajput legacy), Jagdeep Dhankhar, Vice President of India, Satish Poonia, former State BJP Chief (Jat/OBC), CP Joshi, State BJP Chief (Brahmin), Arjun Ram Meghwal, Union Law Minister (Dalit), Kirori Singh Bainsla (Gujjar), etc. With the recent induction of Vishvaraj Singh Mewar, a descendent of Maharana Pratap and Bhawani Singh Kalvi, son of Karni-Sena founder Lokendra Singh Kalvi, the BJP anticipates further polarisation of Rajput voters in favour of the party. Congress led by Ashok Gehlot has a set of prominent caste leaders such as Govind Singh Dotasra, PCC Chief (Jat), Sachin Pilot (Gujjar), etc., who have decisive influence among the members of leading castes. Moreover, the party’s promise to conduct caste census in the state has been well received by prominent castes such as Jat, which has been demanding the enhancement of OBC reservation from 21 to 27 percent. The smaller parties, like the Lok Tantrik Party (LTP), floated by the dissident BJP leader Hanuman Beniwal in 2018, the Bharat Tribal Party (BTP), and the National People’s Party (NPP), which contest the polls alone or in alliance with smaller parties, mainly focus their propaganda on caste/community issues targeting the BJP and the Congress for their alleged opportunism in respect of the demands/ issues of Tribals and Dalits in the state.
As the demands and concerns of subaltern groups like the Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs, etc. mainly stem from socioeconomic issues such as poverty, livelihood, lack of opportunities or basic amenities, the major parties are vying with each-other by announcing a number of freebies or promises targeting these groups. Since the presentation of the state budget in 2022, the Congress has been at the forefront of making such promises/announcements, which included financial aid of Rs 15 lakh to families which suffer major loss in natural calamities, subsidised LPG to 1.04 crore families, 1000 guarantee camps in 200 constituencies on the lines of the state government’s ‘Mehangai Rahat’ (Inflation alleviation) camps, laptops or tablets to freshers in Government Colleges, free English medium education to all through Mahatma Gandhi English schools, purchase of cow-dung from farmers at the rate of Rs 2 per kg, the enactment of legislation to protect old pension scheme, etc. The party also assures that the existing schemes, such as ‘Chiranjeevi Health Insurance’, ‘Annapoorna food kits’, etc., would be revamped for the benefit of more people. The BJP, which brands these promises/guarantees or schemes as mere eye-wash and nothing but the ’copy-paste’ of the Centre’s popular schemes, has come out with a large number of promises and schemes meant for all sections of people, like Dalits, Tribals, students, women, government employees, unorganised workers and farmers.
Along with ‘Freebies’ and welfare schemes, both the BJP and the Congress are engaged in vituperative campaigns focusing on their omissions and commissions. The BJP focuses their propaganda highlighting issues such as corruption at high places, break-down of law and order, atrocities against Dalits, Tribals and women, gang-war/extortion, appeasement of minorities, etc. The ‘Red-diary’ which allegedly contains incriminating information about Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s underhand dealings during the political crisis in 2020 and the Rajya Sabha elections from the state, has been used by the BJP as their main weapon against the CM. This allegation, first raised by Rajendra Singh Gudda, who was sacked from Gehlot ministry, could not yet create much impact in the election scenario. The Question paper leaks and corruption in respect of 14 Recruitment examinations, which involved around one crore job-aspirants, corruption charges against a number of IAS/ IPS officers holding key positions in the state government, increasing number of rapes, including the brutal gang-rape of a minor girl and burning her alive in Bhilwara, etc., are other major issues widely propagated during BJP’s campaign. The Enforcement Directorate (ED) and other Central agencies have initiated investigations into some of these cases/allegations. Branding these allegations as exaggerated stories, the Congress leaders counter the propaganda, holding that the previous Vasundhara regime was immersed in an ocean of corruption, nepotism and misuse of public money. The party has been systematically building up public opinion on the alleged selective targeting of political leaders by the Central agencies.
As the electoral battle has become intense, the Congress and the BJP have buried the hatchet in their parties and presented a façade of unity. Gehlot, who has been battling a threat from Sachin Pilot since the inception of the government, has a sigh of relief as Pilot has reconciled with the party/Gehlot and is active in the campaign. Similarly, the initial rumblings in the BJP centering on Vasundhara and her loyalists have considerably subsided, and the party could present a united face before the electorate. For the first time in the electoral history of the state, the BJP is facing the election without projecting any leader as the CM; instead, it relies more on the mass support for Prime Minister Modi and the various schemes/welfare programmes of the Centre. Virtually the 2023 election in the state has become a contest between PM Modi and CM Ashok Gehlot, as well as a Gallup-poll on the freebies and promises of the main contestants.
There are other contributory factors, such as the approach of major communities such as Jats, Rajputs, Gujjars, Dalits and Tribals, that may decide the final outcome of the polls. Each of these groups has their own agenda or preferences, which may reflect in the elections. Many pertinent questions arise in this regard. Whether the Jats who demand the enhancement of the OBC reservation would be influenced by the caste census promised by the Congress? Whether sections of the community disillusioned with the BJP for replacing the Jat-leader and installing a Brahmin as the State BJP Chief would shift their loyalty? Whether the Gujjars who exercised their franchise in favour of the Congress in 2018, anticipating the elevation of Sachin Pilot as the CM, would shift their loyalty towards the BJP? Whether the inclusion of Rajputs with royal legacies would work to the advantage of BJP? Or the non-projection of Vasundhara or other prominent Rajput leader(s) as the CM may work against the BJP? Whether the majority of Dalits and Tribals who shifted their loyalty towards the Congress in 2018 due to emotive and other issues would return to BJP camp or not? The BJP camp is optimistic that many of these issues will turn to the advantage of the party and reflect in the elections.
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.