A series of pre-election surveys predicting a clear majority for the Congress in poll-bound Rajasthan has meant that several aspiring candidates are now lobbying with senior party leaders for tickets to the state’s 200 Assembly constituencies. Though the party leadership is working towards identifying the right candidate for each seat, the sheer number of aspirants has made their jobs quite tricky as the Rajasthan unit of the Congress is divided into two groups that are seeking tickets for their loyalists. While one group is led by state party president Sachin Pilot, 41, the other is led by former party veteran and former Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, 67.

Congress leaders have claimed that the number of ticket seekers has increased manifold as compared to the 2013 Assembly elections. With so many aspirants, the state’s senior leadership has put the onus of selecting candidates on party president Rahul Gandhi. He, in turn, has made it clear that winnability will be the sole criteria for allotting tickets and has deployed a screening committee to ensure this. The panel’s constituents are holding long consultations with members of the state unit to arrive at names that could help the party gain a comfortable majority in the state. Identifying the right candidate, however, remains a struggle considering the power struggle between the Gehlot and Pilot camps.

Challenge before screening committee

While the Congress is trying hard to present a united front, members of the screening committee say the battle for tickets by loyalists from both camps is a challenge.

Senior leaders say that Gehlot is likely to want to have a say in the ticket allocation for almost 80% of the seats. “It could be even higher considering many aspirants owe their political careers to Gehlot and that there is no way the party would want to antagonise him before the polls,” said a member of the screening committee. At the same time, Pilot’s loyalists also see themselves as deserving. Ever since he was put in charge of the Congress in Rajasthan in 2014, he has been able to galvanise the state unit with his aggressive campaigning style. He was also credited for the party’s win in several by-polls across the state, most recently in those held in February and August.

“Since his appointment as Rajasthan’s state unit president, he has brought in people, who are working tirelessly in building support for the party,” said another screening committee member. “He and his supporters are to be credited for continuously attacking Chief Minister Vasundhra Raje who is finding it hard to hold on to power. His loyalists would certainly be disappointed if Gehlot loyalists are given prominence over them. It would yet again be a repeat of previous elections when we suffered after trying to accommodate loyalists of several senior leaders.”

What works in Gehlot’s favour is that he still remains the most popular Congress leader in the state, and those criticising Raje’s tenure are comparing hers with that of his. To his credit, several of Gehlot’s pro-poor schemes were hugely popular with the rural populace, who want to see him return as chief minister. A screening committee member claimed that people in rural areas still refer to him as chief minister and recount stories of how his schemes benefitted them immensely. “His pro-poor image and successful tenures as chief minister should certainly help him push names of his loyalists when the decision over candidates is made,” the member said.

Pilot could have a say in accommodating his loyalists in urban areas, where the Congress is finding it hard to identify the right candidate. According to Congress leaders, there is massive anti-incumbency against Raje in rural areas over her policies, but not so much in urban areas, where development is not an election issue. “People in rural areas need government aid to help them in their daily lives and it is not the case in urban areas where vague talks of development and clean drinking water take precedence,” said a Congress leader. The leader added, for instance, in times of distress, farmers want to pay less for electricity, pesticides, urea, veterinary costs, among other things, and they expect the government to facilitate that. “Their political understanding too remains better than those in urban pockets,” said the leader. “However, in urban areas, people are not concerned with these issues.”

He pointed out how in urban areas, the appearance and social background of an individual matters the most, and this is where Pilot’s loyalists can come in. “Several of those working with Pilot are young and articulate leaders who are socially well connected with all communities,” he said. “They have an urban mass appeal and by giving them tickets from these areas, the power struggle could be averted.”

Sensing an opportunity to corner the Congress over its internal differences, Raje has repeatedly taken potshots at the party for being a divided house. In one of her rallies, she claimed how various Congress leaders have become chief ministers and formed their cabinets even before the elections. She added that in comparison to the Congress, the BJP has unity and uniformity and would form the government in the state in the Assembly elections scheduled for December, as well as at the Centre in the 2019 Lok Sbaha polls.

‘No power struggle’

The Congress has, so far, downplayed reports of a power struggle within its state unit and continues to reiterate that it stands united. However, that does not seem to be the case considering that the party has not announced its chief ministerial candidate yet. Defending this decision, another senior Congress leader said identifying such a candidate at this stage would hurt the party’s prospects of forming the next government.

According to him, if Gehlot is projected as the chief ministerial candidate, it would lead to a major dent in the Gujjar vote, which wants Pilot to lead the party. Similarly, if Pilot’s name is announced, members of castes like Malli, Meena and the Other Backward Classes, who have traditionally been Gehlot supporters, could desert Congress. In these circumstances, the Congress has chosen to play it safe, and has also left this decision to Gandhi. The party, however, remains divided over this matter, with one camp demanding that its chief ministerial candidate be announced and the other opposing it.

It is unlikely that the Congress would want to antagonise any community by announcing a chief ministerial candidate beforehand.

Fewer tickets for Muslims?

But when the party finally announces its list of tickets, there is one community that is likely to be upset. Considering how polarised Rajasthan is at present, the party is planning to field fewer Muslim candidates than it did in 2013. That year, the party gave 15 tickets to Muslims, but failed to win a single one of those seats.

There is a view in the Congress that Rajasthan has become a hotbed of communalism, and that giving seats to Muslims could further polarise the electorate, which would prompt other communities to abandon the party. In the past few elections and bye-elections, the Congress has been experimenting with soft Hindutva to avoid alienating Hindu voters. The Congress president’s visits to temples in every constituency he visits and the party’s toning down of its comments on issues concerning minorities indicates that it is trying to not give the BJP reason to claim it appeases minorities. “It is sad that the Muslim leaders are not being considered,” said a party leader. “But, sometimes, there are other political compulsions that need to be factored.”

The Rajasthan elections are scheduled for December 7, and the results on December 11.

The massive anti-incumbency against the Raje government is working in the Congress’ favour so far. But it remains to be seen whether the party can put its internal squabbles aside to pick candidates that can win elections. In the past, internal differences over ticket distribution have hurt the Congress. Will that change in 2018?