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Rajasthan bypolls loss should worry BJP, Vasundhara Raje as state election nears

A sweep of this nature signals that the public sentiment is turning and the Congress party machine is doing something right, writes Prashant Jha.

analysis Updated: Feb 02, 2018 12:40 IST
Prashant Jha
Prashant Jha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Rajasthan bypoll results,Rajasthan by-election results,Congress victory in Rajasthan
BJP president Amit Shah with Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje at a press meet in Jaipur. (HT File Photo)

It takes special skills for an incumbent to lose a by-election. This is especially true when you are in power in both the state and the Centre — and voters know that electing an opposition candidate will neither change the government nor help in “getting work done”.

Yet, the voters of Ajmer and Alwar have elected Congress candidates in the Lok Sabha bypolls by wide margins. And the voters of Mandalgarh have elected a Congress legislator for the state assembly. All three seats were held by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) earlier.

This is a warning signal for the BJP at the Centre, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, and a stinging rebuke to the BJP in the state, led by chief minister Vasundhara Raje. It comes as a shot in the arm for the Congress in general, and Rajasthan Congress chief Sachin Pilot in particular.

The outcome will have implications for the morale and internal power equations in both parties. It will set the tone for the Rajasthan state assembly elections at the end of the year. It even offers some signs for the 2019 general elections.

State craft

The fact that Raje personally campaigned in the bypolls, spending weeks on the trot in the constituencies, means she cannot escape responsibility for the defeat. The scale of the losses shows that there was almost a wave against her government.

This is significant because Raje is already vulnerable. Many in the RSS and the BJP have felt that she is unpopular and have sought a change.

She has also traditionally had a somewhat difficult relationship with the party leadership in Delhi. But Raje did lead the BJP to victory in the last assembly elections. She has a strong base within the party in the state. And there has been a degree of rapprochement with the Prime Minister. The BJP was aware that having her at the helm may not be a guarantee of victory, but removing her could lead to certain loss if she rebelled. This has helped her survive.

The bypolls, however, will strengthen those voices within the party that seek a change in leadership. It will put her on the defensive as campaigning begins for the state polls, and it also dampens the morale of the party ranks in general.

On the opposite end, the victory comes as a big morale boost for the Congress. The party is starved of electoral wins and a sweep of this nature signals that the public sentiment is turning and the party machine is doing something right.

The Congress picked candidates smartly and did micro caste-management well. In Ajmer, it was a senior Brahmin leader who ate into the BJP’s core vote. In contrast, the BJP put up a rookie candidate, the son of the deceased MP, in the hope of winning sympathy votes. In Alwar, it was a veteran Yadav leader, a former MP, who competed with BJP’s Yadav candidate, thus splitting the community.

The margins indicate that Congress was able to win votes across different sections of society and resonate the larger narrative of Raje’s failures. In Alwar, where the BJP had stepped up the communal rhetoric in a bid to polarise the electorate, the Congress was careful in not getting into the ‘Hindu-Muslim trap’ and keeping the focus on development.

Rajasthan Congress chief Sachin Pilot flashes a victory sign after the party’s victory in Ajmer bypoll election. (PTI Photo)

Leadership mattered too. Pilot, as the Congress’s Rajasthan party chief, has worked hard on the ground over the past four years, creating and capitalising on the resentment against the Raje government. When he did not contest in Ajmer — his old constituency — there was speculation that Pilot was scared. But he campaigned hard across all three seats, and told the electorate it was “his election”.

Like the BJP, there is internal factionalism in Congress too, with Ashok Gehlot harbouring ambitions of becoming the CM again. This verdict will strengthen Pilot’s hands. The stage, therefore, is set for the state polls this year, with the BJP on the defensive and Raje’s leadership under question on one hand, and the momentum and morale with the Congress on the other.

National message

It would, however, be a mistake to confine the impact of the Rajasthan verdict to only the state, given that both Ajmer and Alwar were Lok Sabha polls. It should worry the BJP because this is an early sign that repeating its sw- eep of north and west India may not be possible. In 2014, the party got 25 out of 25 seats in Rajasthan.

If the current trends hold, Modi and Shah will have to prepare for a dip in those numbers.

Finally, the result comes as a much-needed gift to new Congress president Rahul Gandhi. He led a good campaign in Gujarat, where the victor seemed like the vanquished and the vanquished had a sense of jubilation. But it was a loss, and in politics only victory matters. This is a victory.

The Rajasthan outcome shows to the Congress leadership that by backing a young and strong state leader, focusing on the failures of the government, smartly picking candidates, astutely managing caste, and avoiding the ‘communal trap’, it could potentially win back key states going to polls this year. Indian politics has opened up.

First Published: Feb 02, 2018 07:39 IST