Banking on anti-incumbency sentiment against the Vasundhara Raje-led Bharatiya Janata Party government in Rajasthan to help it put up a winning performance in the December 7 state election, the Congress received a shot in the arm with former BJP leader Manvendra Singh joining its ranks on October 17. Congress leaders and political pundits say the Rajput leader’s entry gives the Congress a clear edge over the BJP in the Marwar region, which sends 30 legislators to the state’s 200-strong Assembly.
Manvendra Singh, the MLA from Sheo, is the son of former Union minister and senior BJP leader Jaswant Singh. He quit the BJP in September, saying that his decision to join the party had been a mistake. With his departure, the BJP no longer has a Rajput leader with a high evel of popularity in the state. Rajputs account for around 7% of the state’s population.
In previous elections, influential Rajput leaders such as Jaswant Singh and the late Bhairon Singh Shekhawat had boosted the BJP’s electoral prospects in Marwar, which comprises the districts of Jodhpur, Barmer, Nagaur, Sirohi, Pali, and Jalore. On average, 15 to 17 Rajput legislators have been voted in to the 200-member state assembly during each election, most of them coming from the BJP. Of the 27 Rajputs elected to the House in 2013, for instance, 24 were from the BJP.
However, that support began to crumble after the BJP denied Jaswant Singh a Lok Sabha ticket in the 2014 general elections and decided instead to field Colonel Sonaram Choudhary, a former Congress leader and a Jat. Jaswant Singh chose to contest as an independent candidate. He lost the election by a margin of 80,000 votes. The Rajputs were miffed with the BJP’s treatment of Jaswant Singh. After Jaswant Singh slipped into a coma in August 2014, Manvendra Singh started mobilising voters against the BJP.
Why Rajputs are angry with Raje, BJP
Evidence of Manvendra Singh’s popularity was apparent on September 22, when his Swabhiman Rally in Barmer drew lakhs of supporters. In fact, resentment among Rajputs with the ruling BJP is so intense that members of the community threw stones at Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s bus during her Gaurav Yatra in August, forcing her to complete the Marwar leg of her campaign tour in a helicopter.
Other factors have also contributed to Rajput anger against Raje and the BJP. In July 2017, they violently protested against the killing of Rajput gangster Anandpal Singh by the state police. Singh was facing murder charges. His family claimed he had wanted to surrender and that the encounter was fake. Eventually, the Central government gave in to the community’s demand and ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry. The fact that no Rajput BJP legislator came out in support of Anandpal Singh’s family angered the community.
The community has also taken offence at Raje’s decision to oppose Jodhpur MP and minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, a Rajput, being appointed as BJP state president.
“The anger had been building over the years and people have not forgotten how [Jaswant] Singh was treated by the party,” said Jaipur-based political analyst Om Saini. “They blamed Raje for forcing her hand in not giving ticket to the veteran leader. Now that Manvendra has decided to join Congress, the Rajput resentment will reflect in the upcoming polls. It would be surprising if BJP manages to cross Congress’ tally in the previous elections.”
In 2013, the BJP had won 27 of the 30 seats in Marwar with the remaining three going to the Congress.
Jats and Rajputs
Manvendra Singh’s decision to join the Congress changes the political equation in the region with two of its dominant communities now supporting the party. In addition to now having the Rajputs on the side, the Congress is also counting on the backing on the Jats, who constitute 17% of Marwar’s population. The community have traditionally suported the Congress. When Sonaram Choudhary switched over to the BJP in 2014, he did take away a chunk of Jat votes from the Congress’ share. This time around though, political watchers say the community is likely to back the Congress, making it tricky for the BJP to repeat its 2013 performance. In fact, even Choudhary is said to have lobbied the Congress leadership and asked to be taken back, but he was rebuffed by senior leader Ashok Gehlot.
With both Rajputs and Jats apparently supporting the same party, though, the question of ticket distribution has become more tricky.
“Jats and Rajputs have been at loggerheads with each other for centuries and Manvendra’s induction alone won’t change that,” said a Congress leader involved in the ticket distribution process, who did not want to be identified. “However, we are trying to negotiate with the Jat leadership to ensure they get their quota of seats. If needed, we may give them some additional seats to ensure they remain by our side.”
SL Meena, who heads the Political Science Department at Jai Narain Vyas University in Jodhpur, said that Jats will never abandon Congress en masse “In the past, Jat leaders like Nathu Ram, Ram Niwas Mirdha, Kumbha Ram Arya, Sis Ram Ola and Parasram Maderna were given prominent positions in the party, which helped it retain the community’s support,” said Meena. “However, to avoid any split in Jat votes, Congress needs to handle the process of ticket distribution carefully. If they can give Jats fair representation, the party will win most of the seats from the region.”
In addition, Muslims and Dalits are also expected to support the Congress. All this could prove a game changer for the party.
In the last 20 years, Rajasthan has voted out the incumbent government in each election. This pattern is expected to continue in this election as well. Several opinion polls have given the Congress a clear edge over the BJP. Manvendra Singh’s entry has further emboldened the party, which is desperate to win an Assembly election before the big fight in 2019.