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|September 11, 1999||
The Rediff Election Specials/ Savera R Someshwar
Jats, poor monsoon queer Congress pitch in Rajasthan
On the surface, everything seems normal in Rajasthan. Party workers scurry around in party offices and in pockets of the state trying to ensure the victory of their respective candidates. If you walk into a candidate's house, it will remind you of nothing as much as a busy anthill in temporary chaos.
And the candidates themselves? They are intent on ensuring every possible vote for themselves as they race across their constituencies, greeting potential votes will folded hands. There have even been a fair share of rallies by national leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Sonia Gandhi, Rajesh Pilot, Lal Kishenchand Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, not to mention local leaders who have been rushing through the state in a frantic race against time.
Underneath all this visible activity, a quieter exercise is taking place. It is undertaken every day and, through it, both the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress hope to answer that question -- how will Rajasthan, which sends 25 members to Parliament, vote in the 13th general election?
The Jats have been clamouring to be included in the reserved list as a backward caste since the implementation of the Mandal Commission report on August 13, 1990. It was a demand that was accepted by the Congress, both during the 1993 and 1999 assembly elections. Post-elections, though, no progress was made on the issue.
This time, the Jat Mahasabha under Dr Gyan Prakash Pilania, has decided to punish the Congress for what they claim is its vada-khilafi. Dr Pilania, a paraplegic with a broken shoulder and confined to a wheelchair, has been touring the state for this purpose. A charismatic speaker, he has managed to draw huge crowds, but how far this will translate into votes for the BJP is anybody's guess.
For the Jats, traditional Congress supporters, are vehemently against the Rajputs, who have traditionally voted for the BJP. Besides, in certain constituencies like Jhunjhunu and Nagor, they have also been asked to vote for a non-Jat and against a candidate from their community because he represents the Congress.
"The Jats," says Dr P C Mathur, a reader at the University of Jaipur and a sociologist, "have identified with the Congress for the last 75 years. It will be very difficult to ask them to change their loyalties now. Besides, there are many Jats who live outside the so-called Jat belt. With all due respect to Dr Pilania and the Jat Mahasabha, I don't think they are aware of this element."
"The Jat Mahasabha believes it can influence the entire Jat vote," says Chanderbhan Singh, news editor at the Rajasthan Patrika, Jaipur. "I don't think so. It is not easy to change the mind of a voter who has traditionally been voting for the Congress. This specially applies to those who are elderly. You cannot expect them to suddenly vote for the BJP since they traditionally hate the party. Personally, I would say the Jat Mahasabha has influenced 30 to 40 per cent of the traditional Jat voting pattern. There could be some areas where the Jats are strong and might vote against the Congress. Even then, I would say these voters are faced with a dilemma where the Congress Jat candidate is being opposed by a non-Jat."
The caste factor
It is said to play a serious role in Rajasthan politics. "But," says Mathur, "you must keep in mind that no caste in Rajasthan can claim to be a majority. The Jats, the Rajputs, the Brahmins and the Vaishyas are somewhere between 8 per cent and 11 per cent each in the population break-up. The scheduled castes account for 17 per cent and the scheduled tribes, 12 per cent. The remaining 30-odd per cent are divided." Yet, all political calculations in the state have been made strictly on caste.
Though all the parties dismiss them with an airy wave of the hand, local issues are a strong factor in the election. The electorate is very unhappy with the drought-like situation, the inadequacy of relief measures, the lack of electricity, unemployment and bad roads.
This has led to a strong case of voter apathy. The turnout in the first phase was recorded at 52.8 per cent, a good 10 to 12 odd notches lower than the last election. The BJP feels it will benefit from the lower turnout. "This time, there has been a serious political division in the voting pattern," says Rajya Sabha MP Ramdas Agarwal, the party's observer for Rajasthan. "The Congress vote base is more awakened, more politically conscious. It is these people who are fed up with frequent elections and have not turned up at the polling booth. Obviously, this will be to our benefit."
The Congress, on the other hand, feels the benefits of a low turnout will accrue to the party, since its supporters are the ones turning up at the polling booths.
Official stand: We will sweep Rajasthan. The BJP will be lucky if it gets two or three seats.
Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot claims the Congress will win more seats than it won in February 1998. In effect, he is saying his party will win more than 18 seats. "Aur 18 se zyada 19 bhi hota hai," he told rediff.com, "20 bhi hota hai, aur 25 bhi hota hai."
Rajasthan's recent political history seems supportive of his claim. Under his leadership as state Congress president, the party won a thumping majority in the gram panchayat, municipal, state (153 out of 200 seats) and national elections.
Yet, in the last eight months that Gehlot has been chief minister, he has had the devil's luck. The rains have failed Rajasthan, leading to a drought-like situation (so much so that, in the first phase on September 5, entire villages did not vote in protest against lack of drinking water).
The relief measures undertaken by the Gehlot government have proved inadequate, leading to resentment among the people. The farmers have another grievance against the Congress -- they say electricity is available for only eight hours a day which, according to them, is thoroughly inadequate.
Then, in an attempt to tackle rising unemployment, the Congress government reduced the retirement age for government employees from 60 to 58. The resultant vacancies were supposed to have created thousands of jobs. This expectation has yet to be fulfilled. To add to the resentment, many vacant government posts were abolished.
All is not well within the party either. Certain leaders are very unhappy about the fact that a member of the Other Backward Classes has been made chief minister. Parasram Maderna (the leader of the Opposition during the BJP's rule) had been promised the CM's chair before last November's assembly election. He is now apparently sulking in Jodhpur and not campaigning for the party. Despite repeated phone calls, he refused to speak to rediff.com
The Congress also has to contend with the fact that many first-time MLAs are upset with the CM because they have not been made ministers. They are at least 15 to 20 years younger than Gehlot, who cites their inexperience as his reason for not accommodating them. On the other hand, veteran politicians, who have been made ministers, do not like taking orders from a chief minister who is many years younger than them.
Two months ago -- before election-related work had begun, much before the Congress had released its list of candidates or its manifesto -- Rajasthan's Finance Minister Chandramal Baid sent his resignation to party president Sonia Gandhi. His reason? The Congress was sure to perform badly in the Lok Sabha election, and he would be blamed and asked to resign. In the circumstances, he would prefer to quit before the election. He is said to have promised the party president only one vote: his. As for the rest, he would go to Churu, work to the best of his ability, and leave the rest to God. Five senior ministers are said to have echoed his sentiment.
"Gehlot is suffering from the generational turnover," says Mathur. "Both the younger and older members of the Congress don't like him. They don't know him. I believe the younger lot, specially, is working against Gehlot. They are hoping the Congress will win only 10 seats so that they can then work towards deserting Gehlot."
Congress workers admit the anti-Gehlot faction would be very happy to see the party win 10 or less seats. The chief minister would then be forced to bite the bullet and resign.
Then, of course, there is the Jat factor. Rajasthan has never had a Jat CM and, after the overwhelming majority the Congress won in the last assembly election, the Jats were hoping to rectify that. Which is why they would be happy to see Gehlot in more trouble than he already is in.
A senior Congress leader, in fact, believes Gehlot was detrimental to the campaign. "I would estimate the Congress will not win more than 15, 16 seats," he says.
On the credit side, the Congress presence in Rajasthan is very strong at all levels of the political machinery. "The voters knows," says Kunwar Natwar Singh, former Union minister and senior Congress leader from Bharatpur, "that there will be a Congress government in Rajasthan for the next four-and-a-half years. So it will be beneficial for them to elect a Congress government at the Centre as well."
Outside the capital Jaipur, it is the Congress that has the stronger presence. "The people know," Natwar Singh adds, "the MPs and MLAs who get developmental work done in their constituencies. And it will help matters if the MP is from the ruling party."
Former chief minister Shiv Charan Mathur also believes his party will do well. "We will win with a very big majority," he said in a telephone interview. "There is a very good climate for the Congress since we have provided a very good government. They are angry with the BJP because they have not done any work for the benefit of the people. In fact, they have cut the state budget for Rajasthan."
S C Mathur was the only leader willing to go on record about the constituencies the Congress would win. "We will definitely win Ajmer, Bhilwara, Chittor, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Sikar and Udaipur," he said.
Congress workers expect a tough fight in Jhalawar (where the BJP candidate is Union minister Vasundhararaje Scindia), Bharatpur (the contest is between Natwar Singh's son Jagat and Maharaja Vishwendra Singh of the BJP), Bayana, Jaipur (which has gone to BJP candidate Girdhari Lal Bhargav five times), Ajmer, Ganganagar, Sikar (Balram Jakhar's constituency), Jodhpur and Churu.
"In each of the latter seats," says a member of the Congress media cell in Jaipur, "a combination of factors works against Congress candidates, including caste, the disenchantment of the Jats and the unhappiness of Congress workers. Take Ganganagar, for example. Local Congressmen are unhappy that Shankar Pannu has been selected. They would have preferred the minister for mines, Hiralal Indore."
Official stand: We will reverse the trend this time. The Congress will have to run for cover.
This time round, the BJP has entered the election arena in Rajasthan with lesser baggage. Since they are no longer the ruling party in the state, they do not have to contend with the anti-incumbency factor which, after a nine-year rule, hit them hard during both the state and national elections last year.
Then, there is the fact that their prime ministerial aspirant is very popular in the state. His rallies have drawn impressive crowds -- the latest one he addressed in Jaipur had an audience of over 100,000 people.
Rajasthan, which suffered the highest number of casualties in Kargil, is very proud of how Vajpayee handled the war effort. There are a few, though, who feel he could have used the nuclear option, which had successfully been tested in Pokhran, Rajasthan, and avoided the high number of casualties that the nation suffered.
But matters are not being helped much by the fact that former CM Bhairon Singh Shekhawat is maintaining a relatively low profile. Though he has campaigned in certain regions, and though the BJP claims he is actively involved in campaigning, Shekhawat seems to have adopted a laid-back attitude.
There is no doubt that if the BJP does well, it will be because the voters have opted for Vajpayee and not for any local candidate.
"In fact," says P C Mathur, "the BJP's weakness stems from the fact that it does not have strong, charismatic candidates." The party, aware of the situation, has chosen to fight the election in Rajasthan on the Vajpayee plank.
As former state minister Lalit Kishore Chaturvedi says, "Vajpayee is now hero-worshipped in Rajasthan."
The party is also banking on the Jat factor, hoping to cash in on the anti-Congress wave initiated by the Jat Mahasabha. Which is why they expect to make inroads in the constituencies in the Congress strongholds of Mewad and Shekhawati.
The BJP is also hoping to benefit from the vagaries of nature. "During our time," says Ramdas Agarwal, "the state was blessed with good rain. But soon after the Congress took over, there has been a drought. So the people will obviously equate a bountiful season with the BJP."
What could affect the party's chances is the infighting that has divided the state unit -- again on the question of seats allotted.
Says Chanderbhan Singh, "It is very difficult to say how Rajasthan will vote this time. The voter is very quiet, he just does not talk about his preferences." He predicts a tough contest between the BJP and Congress in Ajmer, Bayana ("I think it will eventually go to the Congress"), Bali, Bharatpur, Jodhpur and Kota. Finally, though, he expects the state to split mid-way.
P C Mathur disagrees. Though he believes the Congress is facing problems in Rajasthan, he says it is still a strong force. "The Congress," he says, "will definitely win more than 16 seats."
On polling day, Rajasthan seems undecided between the BJP and Congress. The Congress may have a slight edge over the BJP, but there is no denying that the party will lose the majority it gained last year.
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