Cover Story: Battlefield 2018

Rajasthan: Operation Desert Storm

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With the Sangh Parivar now going all out to help Vasundhara Raje win, is BJP back in the fray of a state where Congress saw its brightest hope?

THE FIRST SIGN that Congresswaalas say they got of their party’s good chances of winning elections in Rajasthan was police officers making rounds of their state office. It is in a corner of Jaipur city—in its dereliction, it looks like a forsaken warehouse, more so in comparison with the office of the BJP, which is bigger, and buzzing, and at a much better location. As compensation, the Congress office has put a digital clock above its entrance; it is a countdown to December 7th, the day Rajasthan goes to the polls, the day that India’s grand old party hopes will revive its fortunes.

In 2013, the BJP marked an impressive victory in the state, bagging 163 out of 200 seats. The overwhelming mandate was attributed more to a Modi wave than to Vasundhara Raje’s leadership. In 2003, Raje had become the first woman Chief Minister of the state, with 120 seats. But in 2008, the BJP was reduced to 78 seats with the Congress forming the government with its senior leader Ashok Gehlot as Chief Minister. “Even in the days of Bhairon Singh Shekhawat (a popular BJP leader from Rajasthan), the BJP always got under 100 seats. So, 163 seats in 2013 was only because of Modi,” says journalist Riyazuddin Shaikh.

This time, opinion on whether Modi’s magic will still work is divided. Though BJP loyalists insist that whatever happens in Rajasthan will not reflect how this state will vote in the General Election of 2019. They point at slogans like ‘Modi tujhse bair nahi, Rani teri khair nahin’ (Modi we have nothing against you, Queen we won’t spare you) as an indicator of the state’s popular mood.

On her part, the Rani, as Vasundhara Raje is sometimes referred to, has tried to make amends in the past few months. Her campaigning began in August with BJP President Amit Shah flagging off her 40-day tour across the state. But in October, when Narendra Modi came to Ajmer to address a public rally as culmination of Raje’s yatra, it received a lukewarm response.

In this term, say BJP insiders, Raje had grown aloof. One by one, they say, she isolated everyone, including the RSS. “She may still spread out a red carpet for [RSS chief] Mohan Bhagwat when he visits, but she does not listen to them,” says a senior party functionary. Under Raje, the post of the party’s organisational secretary, which is given to an RSS man, remained vacant for years. This became more acute when Raje fielded candidates not favoured by the RSS for the Ajmer and Alwar Lok Sabha bypolls in January this year. The BJP ended up losing both these seats to the Congress.

“I blame the Central leadership for allowing Raje to turn Rajasthan into her fiefdom,” says Ghanshyam Tiwari, a veteran BJP leader from the state who recently quit to form his own party. Tiwari was the first MLA of the BJP from Rajasthan after the party was founded in 1980. A six-time MLA, he was elected to the Assembly in 2013 with the highest margin of votes but was denied a place in Raje’s cabinet.

Tiwari is particularly incensed at Modi, who he accuses of turning a blind eye to his grievances. “When [Modi] was in charge of Uttarakhand, he took my Tata Safari for fifteen days. When I was not included in the Cabinet by Raje, I had a meeting with him for 45 minutes. But he did not intervene,” he says.

Raje’s own equation with Narendra Modi began on a wrong foot. In 2014, after the BJP won all 25 Lok Sabha seats in the state, BJP sources say Raje was expecting her son Dushyant Singh to be inducted into Modi’s Cabinet at the Centre. But that did not happen. A sulking Raje is believed to have gathered her MPs at Delhi’s Bikaner House, where she pressurised them to skip Modi’s swearing-in ceremony.

Through a series of events, Raje managed to anger Rajputs, who are just 5-6 per cent of the state’s population, but wield significant influence. It began with Raje’s treatment of senior BJP leader Jaswant Singh, who was denied a ticket in 2014 from Rajasthan for the Lok Sabha. In June this year, a dreaded criminal belonging to a sub-sect of Rajputs, Anandpal Singh, was killed by the police, sparking clashes. Two years ago, in 2016, Raje invoked the wrath of the erstwhile royal family as her administration sealed the gates of a luxury hotel owned by BJP MLA Diya Kumari’s family, as part of an anti-encroachment drive. As the royal family took to the streets in protest, the buzz in Jaipur was that Raje had drones fly over the march to see who all had joined the agitation.

“We are fighting as one, we are fighting to win. The Congress is divided into camps, we are not” - Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, BJP MP and election in charge of Rajasthan

After BJP’s bad performance in the 2018 by-polls, her loyalist Ashok Parnami was removed as the state BJP chief. He was about to be replaced by Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, another popular Rajput leader, but at the last moment Raje put her foot down. As a compromise, another leader, Madan Lal Saini, was finally appointed. BJP insiders say that Shekhawat, a Union minister who is in charge of the state for elections, has not been able to forget this. Considered very close to Amit Shah, Shekhawat can be seen holding fort at the BJP office in Raje’s absence. “We are fighting as one, we are fighting to win”, he tells Open, “The Congress is divided into camps, we are not.”

As the party began ticket distribution this time, sources say Amit Shah wanted to change several candidates. But Raje managed to retain 85 existing MLAs in the BJP’s first list of 131 candidates, mostly considered her loyalists. It made Congress leader Sachin Pilot quip in a TV debate that the only positive thing about Raje is that she managed to put Shah in his place.

Raje even managed to get a ticket for Yunus Khan, who is considered her deputy. The RSS was not keen to field him. But now he will fight Sachin Pilot for the Tonk seat. As a compromise, the RSS is believed to have managed tickets for some of its loyalists ignored earlier by Raje. These include Madan Dilawar from Ramganj Mandi and Jogeshwar Garg from Jalore. “Finally, Modi and Shah had to give up. We don’t know why, but it seems they don’t want things to get more complicated with her,” says a BJP insider.

The BJP camp’s hope now hinges on RSS influence on ground; BJP sources say that the Sangh has decided to forget its differences with Raje as of now and push the pedal hard for her. “Their worry is also about 2019, as every Lok Sabha seat will count then, and they would like to repeat the 2014 magic in Rajasthan,” says a senior BJP leader. The Congress party’s delay in announcing its candidates has also made BJP workers buoyant about a possible miracle.

Congress supporters, meanwhile, rued the absence of candidates from their constituencies. “The candidates should have been on the ground by now, doing rallies and public meetings. But many of them have dropped anchor in Delhi, living in state guest houses. They are shuttling from the Congress office to 10 Janpath,” says a Congress leader.

THE RIVALRY BETWEEN Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot for chief ministership has also not gone unnoticed. Gehlot, 67, is one of the most experienced leaders in the Congress today. Considered close to Rahul Gandhi, he is credited with securing significant wins for the party, including important alliances and managing senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel’s Rajya Sabha victory. Pilot, on the other hand, takes credit as state chief for scoring crucial victories in recent bypolls. The party has so far not declared any chief ministerial face. “Even if they want to, they cannot project Sachin Pilot,” says a senior Congress leader, “because if they do, other influential castes, like Meenas and Jats, will gang up against the party.”

“There is no conflict. The party high command will decide who becomes the CM and all of us will adhere to that,” says Gehlot. While Rahul Gandhi has been known to favour younger leaders, Congress sources reveal that in party ticket distribution, Gehlot has had an upper hand and around 105 tickets were given on his recommendation.

The Congress is hoping to woo Dalit voters back into its fold—they comprise about 18 per cent of the state’s population. In the last elections, many of them voted for the BJP. In 2013, out of 34 reserved seats, the BJP had won 33. Dalit activists, however, say there is hardly any difference between the BJP and the Congress when it comes to their attitude towards them. “The younger generation is getting more and more restless,” says Bhanwar Meghwanshi, a writer-activist. He says that both parties frequently change candidates for reserved seats, while for general seats they are generous to candidates who may have lost several times earlier. “A formidable Dalit leadership can only develop when a particular candidate is allowed to work in a constituency for more than a term or two. But both BJP and Congress never allow this to happen,” he says.

“I blame the Central leadership for allowing Raje to turn Rajasthan into her fiefdom” - Ghanshyam Tiwari, former BJP leader

Still, over the last few years, say Dalit activists, the community has felt there is no mechanism left for them to get justice. In Hindaun, in response to a bandh and subsequent protest called by Dalits in April over a Supreme Court judgment barring the arrest of public servants under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act before a preliminary inquiry is conducted, upper castes retaliated, setting on fire houses belonging to BJP MLA Rajkumari Jatav and former Congress MLA Bharosi Lal Jatav.

IN 2015, IN DANGAVAS, five Dalits died after some Jats attacked them brutally over a land dispute. Govind Meghwal, a nursing assistant who lost his father and four other relatives in that attack, recalls that day. “The police reached an hour later. The Jats blocked the road so that ambulances carrying the injured could not pass; they removed drips from the arms of the injured,” he says.

Out of 18 demands made of the government, Meghwal says, only one regarding a CBI investigation was met. The state government did not provide any monetary relief to the victims. “The families of the deceased only got a little over Rs 5 lakh under the SC/ST Act,” says Khema Ram, whose arms and legs were broken in the attack.

Currently, 27 accused are facing trial, while 13 are still at large. There is a calm in the village, but Dalits say they feel threatened. A police post has now been set up at the entrance of their part of the locality. On October 6th, one of the accused’s nephew threatened a Dalit man with a pistol. “It took the police three days to take him into custody. By that time, they got rid of the pistol,” says Govind Meghwal.

But there is also concern about how the anti-incumbency vote against Raje would get split. Apart from Mayawati’s BSP, there are several other Dalit-centric parties in the fray.

After their second list came out, BJP insiders say they are in a slightly better position now than, say, a fortnight ago. They say the party has categorised 67 seats as ‘A’, which they are confident of winning. To win the remaining 133, categorised as ‘B’, they are hoping for a swing.

With the Congress pitching BJP dissident Manvendra Singh against Raje in her constituency, the battle has become charged. Prime Minister Modi is scheduled to address several rallies, while Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath will address 21 rallies from November 21st to 30th.

As the campaigns get shriller, the Congress is sharpening its attack on the BJP over what it calls its failure to develop the state. They are attacking Raje on issues like the weakening of MNREGA, farmer distress, and violence against Dalits and Muslims. But ultimately, say political anlaysts, it will all boil down to which party has figured out its caste arithmetic better than the other. “The last 48 hours will matter,” says a senior Congress leader who got a ticket to fight the Assembly polls as part of the party’s second list. “It is then that our fate will be decided.”