Of the three Hindi heartland states going to polls at the end of the year, Rajasthan poses the most formidable challenge for Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah, who has chalked up a record number of victories for his party in the last four years, with the exception of Bihar in 2015.

Reports from the three BJP-ruled states – Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh being the other two – indicate that the party is at its weakest in Rajasthan and even Shah’s organisational skills may fall short in the face of the massive anti-incumbency against Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje and her ongoing battle with the party’s Central leadership. Ironically, the three-time chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh, are comparatively better placed than Raje, who has been in office for just one term. The BJP had registered emphatic victories in the three states in the last Assembly elections as well as in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

The schedule of Assembly elections in five states, announced by the Election Commission on Saturday, indicates the BJP is not very confident about its prospects in Rajasthan. In Chhattisgarh, polling will be held in two phases on November 12 and November 20. Madhya Pradesh and Mizoram will vote on November 28. Then, Rajasthan and Telangana go to polls on December 7. Counting for all states will take place on December 11. Though the Election Commission is an independent body, it does consult the government on poll dates to coordinate security arrangements.

Saving the worst for last?

Not only is Rajasthan among the last states to vote, there is also a nine-day gap from the elections on November 28. This gives the BJP brass the opportunity to focus all its time and energy on the Rajasthan election, without any distractions or worries about the other states.

The BJP is not too worried about Telangana – which votes the same day as Rajasthan – because it does not have much of a stake in the southern state. In all probability, it will leave the field open for the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, which is in an unassailable position and is a potential post-election ally of the BJP.

In Rajasthan, the BJP could find itself at an advantage if it is seen to have done well in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Though exit polls and election surveys cannot be published or broadcast when the electoral process is underway, word does get around of what a party’s chances are. Moreover, in the age of social media, there are many other means of reaching out to the electorate. As the party in power, the BJP has a distinct advantage here.

Despite the uphill task in Rajasthan, Shah has not yet thrown in the towel. The BJP president has put his own team in place and made several trips to the state to oversee preparations and take necessary corrective measures. He is learned to have told party workers that he has a strategy in place and that he expects them to keep a low profile and not play spoiler.

At the same time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi kickstarted his election campaign in Rajasthan on Saturday with a rally in Ajmer, where the chief minister announced free power for farmers shortly before the model code of conduct came into play.

“Even though the BJP is on a weak wicket here, Shah is fighting the election with the intention of winning,” a senior Rajasthan Congress leader said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje in Ajmer on Saturday. (Credit: PTI)

BJP wants a Modi-Rahul contest

The Congress, for its part, is said to be in a position to wrest the state from the BJP – unless it commits harakiri by picking the wrong candidates, fails to contain the rebellion in its ranks, and focuses unnecessarily on the Modi government’s deficiencies rather than on the Raje government’s failures. Though the Congress is banking on the electorate’s disillusionment with the Raje government to return to power, it could be let down by its weak party organisation.

As it is, the Congress is on the back foot after Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati on September 3 spurned its offer of an alliance in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The Samajwadi Party also ruled out an alliance with the Congress on Saturday with its president Akhilesh Yadav saying his party had been made to “wait too long” – thus strengthening the impression that the grand old party is arrogant.

Then there is the fear that the Congress could willy-nilly fall into the BJP’s trap by targeting the prime minister, as the saffron party is depending on Modi’s undiminished charisma to turn around the election in its favour. The BJP would prefer the election to be turned into a contest between Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi to take the focus away from Raje. The BJP’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is said to be responsible for several anti-Raje slogans currently doing the rounds, supposedly aimed at occupying the Opposition space and projecting Modi as the party’s saviour.

The battle within

There is no denying that Raje is facing serious problems at multiple levels. Besides the widespread perception among the electorate that she has failed to deliver on governance, she has been constantly at war with the RSS and the party’s central leadership. Even a powerful party president like Amit Shah has failed to bring her around while the RSS is upset that the chief minister ignored them during her years in power and was instead heavily dependent on the bureaucracy.

“This tug of war between the state unit and New Delhi has not done well for the image of the BJP in Rajasthan,” said Sanjay Lodha, professor of political science at the Mohanlal Sukhadia University, Udaipur. “The fact is that for whatever reason, Shah and the chief minister never enjoyed the best of relations.”

Compounding Raje’s troubles is the banner of revolt raised by several former BJP leaders belonging to various caste groups. The list includes Rajput leader and former Union minister Jaswant Singh’s son Manvendra Singh, Brahmin legislator Ghanshyam Tiwari, Jat leader Hanuman Beniwal and Kirori Mal Bainsla, who enjoys strong support among the Gujjars. These leaders may not be able to make an impact across the state but they have the potential of playing spoiler in their regions.

Manvendra Singh – who quit the BJP on September 22, saying that joining the party had been a mistake – will seek to tap into the anger against the Raje government among Rajputs in Barmer. Independent MLA Beniwal has influence among Jats in the Nagaur region and has been campaigning against Raje for three years now. Bainsla could consolidate the Gujjars in eastern Rajasthan on the community’s long-standing demand for reservation in government jobs and education. Tiwari’s rebellion, too, does not bode well for the BJP. After quitting the BJP in June, he floated the Bharat Vahini Party and could disturb the Brahmin vote in the Jaipur region, which has normally gone to the saffron party.

“These strong voices of discontent could damage the BJP among different social groups and across different regions,” said Lodha.