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Unity the mantra in Congress campaign for Rajasthan election 2018

Congress is fighting the challenges of a perceived rivalry between Gehlot and Pilot and its ability to convert anti-incumbency into votes.

india Updated: Jul 30, 2018 14:31 IST
Chetan Chauhan and Sachin Saini
Chetan Chauhan and Sachin Saini
Hindustan Times, Jaipur
Congress,Rajasthan Elections 2018,Rahul Gandhi
The Congress high command has devised a formula wherein prominent leaders may not contest the assembly elections so that they can devote more time to ensuring the party’s victory.(HT file photo)

The narrow bylanes of Sansar Chand Road in old Jaipur are witness to unusual hustle and bustle these days. Not because of any local festivities, but because of hope that the Congress has a chance of beating the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the assembly elections due later this year in Rajasthan.

The road leads to the Rajasthan Congress headquarters, where the party has set up a war room to take on the BJP’s hyper-active social media cell and a call centre to monitor everyday feedback from at least 10 “active” members in the vicinity of the state’s 49,000 polling booths. While the war room has a core team of 42 members guiding over 100 volunteers tasked to counter the social media campaign of the BJP round the clock, the call centre manned by old-timers monitors new members joining the Congress and what the existing ones are doing, using an app called Shakti. “The app helps us to monitor what workers are doing at the block level,” said a senior Rajasthan Congress functionary.

But what clogs Sansar Chand Road is the rush of ticket aspirants who come with their supporters to impress the top party leadership whenever they visit the state headquarters although the Congress is yet to start the process of identifying candidates for Rajasthan’s 200 constituencies.

The enthusiasm is not limited to Jaipur and was evident from over a dozen incidents of party workers coming to blows at the ‘Mera Booth Mera Gaurav’ campaign in different parts of the Rajasthan.

Party leaders attributed these “scuffles” to supporters of rival ticket claimants and claimed that it indicates hope among workers that Congress will win the next elections.

BJP leaders such as parliamentary affairs minister Rajendra Rathore termed these “fist fights” as indication of “intense” infighting in Congress at the booth level.

“They (Congress workers) don’t have any unity. We are organisationally better managed than Congress to fight these polls,” said Rathore.

Strategy

Rajasthan party chief Sachin Pilot said the party has covered 190 of the 200 constituencies in the ‘Mera Booth Mera Gaurav’ campaign, which has received a huge response, and the remaining 10 will be covered well before party president Rahul Gandhi launches the Congress campaign in the second week of August. What has bolstered Congress, Pilot said, was the “tepid” response chief minister Vasundhara Raje received during her ‘Jan Samvads’ initiated in April.

The strategy of the Congress is simple — take to the people the failure of the Vasundhara Raje government, which is on the defensive, and present its roadmap for Rajasthan’s development.

“We will tell people about unprecedented scams during Raje tenure, failure to fulfil promise of providing 15 lakh jobs and the distress their policies have caused to the farm sector. The BJP made 611 promises in its manifesto before assembly elections and had failed to deliver,” Pilot said.

This time, the Congress plans to come out with a hyperlocal (district level) development roadmaps on the basis of the feedback from its workers and voters that will culminate in a state-level manifesto.

The party is also looking at holding smaller rallies by communities and professionals that will be addressed by senior party leaders, including Gandhi, as the campaign picks up.

Rajasthan will also see Gandhi holding several road shows.

Rajiv Gupta, a retired professor of Rajasthan University, said the Congress should aggressively counter the BJP’s propaganda, which the Congress is not doing as of now.

“The BJP is getting the message percolated down that the Congress infighting will get worse if they come to power and they don’t have any plan for Rajasthan. The Congress needs to aggressively counter this narrative and should project a sense of unity,” he said.

Bottlenecks

The Congress is grappling with two challenges on the ground.

First is the perceived rivalry between former chief minister Ashok Gehlot and Pilot, which the BJP is waiting to pounce on. “If Pilot will appear to become the chief minister, the Congress will get votes of the Gujjars (Pilot’s community) but will alienate other martial races of Rajasthan such as Meenas and Jats, who traditionally have been Congress voters,” said a former Rajasthan BJP president on condition of anonymity. The Congress has realised that the rivalry leading to divisions within the party ranks, from the grassroots to the top leadership ,can have adverse ramifications. Party leaders said the high command has devised a formula wherein prominent leaders may not contest the elections so that they can devote more time to ensuring the party’s victory. As part of the plan, Pilot will continue his present responsibilities, former rural development minister CP Joshi can head the Rajasthan campaign committee and Gehlot would oversee the entire election preparations in the state.

The party’s campaign — on the ground and on social media — will give prominence to all, with more focus on Gehlot, said a Congress leader, who didn’t want to be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media. Leader of the Opposition in the Rajasthan Assembly Rameshwar Dudi noted that the Congress had contested past elections in the state without a chief ministerial face and still won. “We are all together to defeat the BJP. The legislators will decide who will be the chief minister,” he said.

This is not the first time that such rivalry is playing out. Om Saini, a former journalist and political analyst, said Gehlot himself had been the beneficiary of such rivalry when he became chief minister in 1998. “The Congress contested the polls without projecting a CM face and made Gehlot the CM to dismay of all established leaders such as Parasram Maderna and Sis Ram Ola. Being in power, Gehlot emerged a mass leader with the passage of time,” he said.

The second challenge will test the ability of the Congress to transform chief minister Vasundhara Raje’s anti-incumbency into votes for its own candidates. The grand old party had been found lacking in several states to convert people’s sympathy into votes because of the absence of an adequate number of dedicated, ground-level workers.

In Rajasthan, the BJP has a stronger organisational structure on ground than the Congress, which in the last few months through the Shakti app and the booth campaign had tried to rejuvenate its workers. “We for the first time have a database of important workers in 49,000 booths and are getting feedback from them on a daily basis,” Pilot said, expressing confidence that on voting day the workers will deliver.

The final punch

Before the heat of the election sets in, the Congress will start a mass contact programme to reach out to every voter, conduct election management classes for its activists and deploy senior leaders from across the country to oversee its units in different regions of Rajasthan. The party plans to deploy a strong team of over 1,000 volunteers in its social media teams spread across districts.

Gandhi will launch the party’s campaign sometime in mid-August, almost two months after he held rallies in two other election-bound states, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Congress leaders say the delay in Gandhi visiting the state was tactical because they want to derive the maximum impact from his visits in the next two months. Once the campaign is launched, Gandhi will travel across the state to meet different sections, one of them said.

Gupta said winning Rajasthan will mean a stronger footing for Rahul Gandhi to negotiate with Congress allies for the 2019 polls. A loss could reduce Congress to playing second fiddle on the negotiating table and strengthen the BJP, he said.

First Published: Jul 30, 2018 13:54 IST