Can Gehlot hold the fort?

The walls of the desert state of Rajasthan were splattered with posters of the feisty Vasundhara Raje’s ‘return to power’ till recently. But as pre-poll yatras criss-cross the state, even those who had written the Congress off now concede that this year’s assembly elections won’t be a cakewalk for the BJP.

The message now is that the elections will be a battle between the persona of the BJP’s Vasundhara Raje and the politics of Congress chief minister Ashok Gehlot.

The BJP seems confident of recreating Raje’s magic of 2003 when her Parivartan Yatras calling for change had left Gehlot high and dry with the Congress crumbling from 153 seats in 1998 to 56 in the assembly of 200 seats. The Congress, however, hopes to create history of sorts by reversing Rajasthan’s two-decade-long trend of voting out the incumbent in the primarily two-party state.

This time around, there is a third force that can’t be ignored. BJP rebel Kirori Lal Meena, who with a promise of giving a people-friendly government, has floated the PA Sangma-led National People’s Party in the state and intends to contest all 200 seats. The Independent MP from Dausa may end up playing spoilsport in a state that has usually given a clear verdict. But the fact that 68 seats in the 2008 elections were won by a margin of less than 5,000 votes could be a cause for concern for the two major parties as the contest gets fiercer by the day.

As political analyst Narayan Bahrat summed it up, “While Raje’s yatra through all 33 districts in the state has re-established her leadership, Gehlot’s  has boosted the party workers’ morale as till then the Congress graph was at its nadir.” But as experts pointed out, much would depend on the selection of candidates by both parties.

Rajasthan is apparently high on the agenda of the Congress and the BJP high commands. Of the four major poll-bound states, the beleaguered Congress leadership is pinning its hopes on Rajasthan because it finds itself in choppy waters in the other three — Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattishgarh.
Moreover, winning the assembly polls in Rajasthan is crucial for both from the national perspective too because voters here have traditionally supported the same party in the Lok Sabha that they sent to power in the assembly.

Rahul Gandhi is said to be personally monitoring poll preparations in Rajasthan, from ironing out differences at the constituency level to selection of candidates. Gehlot is concentrating on the management of voters and the slew of freebies announced by him to lure them has left his opponents gaping.

Significantly, Muslims, who form about 9% of the state’s population, are unhappy over Gehlot’s handling of the communal situation in the state. Mohammad Salim Engineer of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind said, “The chief minister has failed to contain communal tension. On an average, two communal clashes or riots take place every month and the guilty are not apprehended.”

What impact this has on Muslim voters is one of the many factors that have divided the state vertically into two sides — those who want the status quo and those who want change. And this will decide whether Rajasthan creates history or simply follows tradition by rotating parties every five years.


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