Rajasthan bypoll results could set the stage for a close 2019 election
Coming as it does after Gujarat, the results of the Rajasthan by-polls are a good indication that the Congress has learnt a thing or two from the BJP on managing caste equations and picking the right candidatesUpdated: Feb 04, 2018 12:48 IST
It is said of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Rajasthan that chief minister Vasundhara Raje is its biggest asset, yet its biggest liability.
The party’s mandarins in Delhi have always been worried about Rajasthan, and are uncomfortable about her. Their worries have now increased significantly after last week’s by-polls in Rajasthan. The BJP lost both Lok Sabha seats, Ajmer and Alwar, to the Indian National Congress. It also lost the assembly constituency of Mandalgarh to its main national rival, which is resurgent after a close contest in Gujarat in which it improved both its vote share and seat share.
Rajasthan was one of the states the BJP won in the 2013 assembly elections and how. The party won 163 seats in the 200-member assembly, defeating the party in power, the Congress (the two parties have swapped power in the state every five years since the 1993 election). The win helped build momentum for the BJP’s march to power in the national elections five months later. In those Lok Sabha polls, the BJP won all parliamentary seats in Rajasthan – 25 out of a maximum of 25. Across the four states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh, the BJP won 149 Lok Sabha seats out of a possible 160. In all, the party won 282 seats and if it wants to maintain or increase that number in 2019, it cannot afford to lose anything in these four states (although both popular wisdom and the law of averages suggest that it will be difficult to win 149 seats out of 160 twice in a row).
Too much can’t be read into by-polls; nor should results of assembly elections be seen as an indicator of outcomes in parliamentary polls. Still, it’s hard to ignore a clear anti-incumbency verdict such as the one some of Rajasthan’s voters sent out last week. The verdict could have a bearing on the future of individuals — Raje and the Congress’ Sachin Pilot, who led the two parties’ campaigns in the state — and of their parties. And it could also have a bearing on issues, strategies, and candidate choices of the two parties in state elections later this year (and the national elections next year).
First, the individuals: whichever way one looks at the result, this is a win for Pilot and a loss for Raje. The chief minister has a sometimes-uneasy but largely cordial relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Some important leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the BJP, do not like her, though. Still, she was, and remains the party’s strongest leader in the state — and did lead it to a win in 2014.
One theory has it that the BJP suffered a defeat because of Raje’s imperious style of governance and angry Rajputs who wanted to teach the party a lesson (the Rajputs believed the BJP had not done enough to ban Padmavaat, a movie which they believed showed one of their historical/mythical figures, Rani Padmini of Chittor, in poor light). Another has it that it was a mixture of anti-incumbency and some smart candidate choices by the Congress. The agrarian crisis, the most important factor behind the BJP’s poor showing in Gujarat, doesn’t seem to have played a part, although, much like in Gujarat, farmers in Rajasthan, and in Madhya Pradesh, which too goes to the polls later this year, are unhappy. The party has already reacted to this, with the government, announcing in the Union budget on February 1, that it would ensure a minimum 50% return for farmers, over cost, when it sets the Minimum Support Prices at which it buys some of their key produce.
It is unlikely the BJP will try to look beyond Raje, and risk the possibility that she may break the party, but both the central and the state leadership of the party will look at the by-poll verdict as a sort of wake-up call.
On the other side, the victory further may have made Pilot, if only temporarily, the biggest Congress leader in the state, marginally ahead of Ashok Gehlot and Jitendra Singh. All three have chief ministerial aspirations which the Congress’ central leadership will have to manage.
Coming as it does after Gujarat, the results of the Rajasthan by-polls are a good indication that the Congress has learnt a thing or two from the BJP on managing caste equations and picking the right candidates. Much like in Gujarat, the party did not play the communal card here, although it could have chosen to do so in Alwar, the epicentre of attacks on Muslim cattle traders by self-styled cow vigilantes or gau rakshaks. It didn’t have to do so, also because it was confident that there was no way the Muslims were going to vote for the BJP.
With a maximum of eight or nine months before the assembly elections in the state, both Raje and the BJP’s leadership in Delhi find themselves in a position they will not like. Raje has to win back voters even as she fights off claimants for her chair within the party. She has a strong following within the party, a significant electoral base and is especially popular with women, but it will not be easy for her to repeat her 2013 performance. The BJP, meanwhile, is looking at the prospect of what could possibly be another close election. If the Congress manages to retain Karnataka (which is well within the realm of the possible) and do as well in Rajasthan as it did in Gujarat, it could go into 2019 feeling confident. No one could have predicted that at the beginning of 2017. Democracy is well in India.