In many ways, Rajasthan is make or break for the Congress. Of the five states whose election results will be announced on December 11, Madhya Pradesh may be the one that gives the clearest indication of how the Bharatiya Janata Party might fare in 2019’s General Elections. But that is only because nearly everyone is expecting the Congress to win Rajasthan, a BJP-ruled state that has consistently seen the two national parties alternate power over the last 20 years. If the Congress somehow manages to break this trend and loses Rajasthan, despite anti-incumbency, agricultural distress, unemployment and unhappiness within the BJP against Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, it will say much about the party’s electoral prowess in the run-up to 2019.

Rajasthan has not had a quiet five years under Raje. It has seen mob violence and cow vigilantism, farmers’ agitation and protests over the Supreme Court’s order to curb the alleged misuse of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Concerns about unemployment, especially after 15 lakh jobs were promised, and unhappiness from government workers have also contributed to an atmosphere where change feels imminent. But the Congress has a steep hill to climb. The BJP won 163 of the 200 seats in the assembly in 2013, with the Congress bagging a measly 21.

An average of the opinion polls believe the Congress will be able to turn the tables, and garner more than 100 votes while the BJP is reduced to around the 65-seat mark. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is still massively popular unlike his party’s chief minister in the state, has aggressively campaigned in Rajasthan in the last few days. Could that, plus the uncertainty regarding whether Ashok Gehlot or Sachin Pilot will lead the Congress in Rajasthan, help the BJP retain the state?

What are the major issues in Rajasthan?

The question of how well Rajasthan has done under Raje comes up often. The BJP government came to power with a huge majority, promising 15 lakh jobs, subsidies and a reform program that would boost growth. Instead, unemployment remains a sticking point, and across the state there is unhappiness over the access to public welfare programmes include the public distribution scheme and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, as well as problems with using Aadhaar to access various other benefits. For the poor in particular, these issues have come to the fore, even as the state was used to experiment on reforms that the government was hoping to implement else where including land and labour policy changes.

Over the last five years, Rajasthan has seen unrest among various communities for different reasons like incidents of mob lynching, cow vigilantism, farmers’ unrest, Rajput anger against the film Padmaavat and anger among upper-caste groups about the Centre’s amendment to the Supreme Court’s order on the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

In September 2017, farmers in Rajasthan’s Shekhawati region led a successful agitation and demanded loan waivers and better pricing. This followed another protest in April 2018 where farmers in Chomu tehsil in Jaipur district protested against a toll booth for which they had to pay taxes. The police used tear gas shells and batons after the protestors threw stones at them.

The Supreme Court’s order in March to curb the alleged misuse of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act led to protests by multiple Dalit organisations in states like Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Bihar, Jharkhand and Rajasthan. In Rajasthan’s Alwar city, one person died after the police opened fire on protestors. After the Parliament in August reversed the apex court’s decision, upper-caste groups in various states protested the amendment. These protests were also observed in parts of Rajasthan like Jaipur, Udaipur, Alwar and Karauli among others where businesses were shut and police forces were deployed.

The resentment against Raje’s government especially among Rajputs started in July 2017. The Rajput community protested violently when a Rajput gangster Anandpal Singh was killed by state police. Singh, who was revered as a symbol of pride within the community was facing several charges against him including murder.

This unrest was followed by another set of protests which began in November 2017 prior to the release of the film Padmavat. A man’s body was found hanging from Nahargarh Fort in Jaipur and slogans against the film were found close to the body. Rajput groups led by the Shri Rajput Karni Sena claimed that the film distorted the “history of Hindus”. The protests in Rajasthan and other states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana led to the film being banned from screening.

Rajasthan also witnessed numerous incidents of mob violence and cow vigilantism. In Alwar, Pehlu Khan, a farmer was attacked in April 2017 while he was transporting his cows from Rajasthan to Haryana, by a group of men who were allegedly affiliated with right-wing Hindutva groups like Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad. This incident was followed by another one in Alwar in November 2017 when a group of men allegedly shot dead a man, Ummar Khan, who had been transporting cows. In December 2017, in Rajsamand district, a video went viral of Muslim labourer being hacked to death by a man, Shambhulal Regar. In the video, Regar was heard making threats of “love jihad”. In July 2018, Rakbar Khan was allegedly lynched by two men in Ramgarh district on suspicion of cow smuggling. Commenting on the incidents on July 30, Raje said that they were a result of “not being able to get jobs”.

Which are the parties in focus?

The elections in Rajasthan are viewed as a fight mostly between the BJP and Congress as it is also in the run up to the general elections in 2019. Previous elections in the state however, have also shown a constant power shift between the two parties.

It has also been noted that the BJP’s chances in the state have been weakening due to a rising anti-incumbency sentiment against Raje, who is known to have upset the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh by ignoring them during her tenure and depending upon the bureaucracy. Raje’s tenure has also seen several BJP leaders in the state exit the party and join the Congress or form their own parties. To control the damage, BJP president Amit Shah had to devise an election strategy and in September he flagged off Raje’s “Gaurav Yatra” where instead of focusing on issues pertaining to the state, he made remarks criticising the Congress and its leader Rahul Gandhi.

Congress sees its chances heightening in Rajasthan after the bye-election results came in its favour but a weak party organisation which sees infighting between leaders Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot could dampen its future. The failure to forge an alliance with Bahujan Samaj Party could also cause a dent in their vote shares. On October 3, Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati announced that her party would contest elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh on its own, claiming that the Congress was offering only nine out of the total of 200 seats to her party.

But it also seems that BJP and Congress will not be the only two parties vying for power in the state. Interestingly, Hindustan Times reported that a third front was taking shape in Rajasthan, which wants to defeat the BJP and Congress as they are “two sides of the same coin”. On October 29, Hanuman Beniwal, a Jat leader and an independent member of legislative assembly in the state will announce his own party in Jaipur. Beniwal had left BJP in 2012 due to differences with Raje. He also said that the focus of his party would be on farmers’ issues like loan waivers, toll-free roads and highways, jobs and a strong Lokayukta to tackle corruption. His party will also align with member of legislative assembly Ghanshyam Tiwari’s Bharat Vahini Party. Tiwari, a Brahmin leader, was also formerly with the BJP but left in June accusing Raje of “corruption, favouritism and autocratic behaviour” and started his own party.

Who are the leaders to watch out for?

Raje won the state elections for BJP in 2013 with a thumping majority, but anger amongst voters against her rule reflected in the electoral losses the party suffered in the bye-election results in February. Congress’ victory in the bye-elections came as a surprise to the BJP as an anti-incumbency sentiment among voters against the party began to gradually develop since the incidents of mob violence and protests against Padmaavat in 2017.

To assert her power, Raje launched a 40-day “Gaurav Yatra” around the state in August. However, this was met with much anger as members of the Rajput community threw stones at her bus during the rally in Jodhpur district.

Congress has not yet made it clear who its candidate for chief minister will be, but the names that clearly emerge in this race are those of Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot. Gehlot earlier served has chief minister of the state in 1998 and 2008 and the veteran Congress leader is known to be fighting to get his old job back. On the other hand, Pilot was made the head of the state’s unit in Congress and his aggressive campaigning style saw the party win the bye-elections that took place in February.

The party has chosen to play it safe as declaring a candidate could cause a dent in their vote share. For instance, if Gehlot is projected as the party’s candidate, it could cause dissatisfaction among the Gujjar community that wants Pilot to lead. Similarly, if Pilot is chosen then members of castes like Malli, Meena and Other Backward Classes could desert the Congress as they are Gehlot supporters.

Significantly, Congress also gained an advantage in Rajasthan once Manvendra Singh joined the party on October 17, giving the party an edge as he is hugely popular among Rajputs. Manvendra Singh is the son of former Union minister and BJP leader Jaswant Singh.

What did previous elections look like?

Previous elections in Rajasthan have always shown results in the form of a pattern as power has been shifting between the BJP and Congress since 1993, as prior to that the state was a Congress stronghold. The state has been alternately ruled by Congress leader Ashok Gehlot and Raje as the former ruled the state in 1998 and 2008, while the latter won her first elections in 2003 and later in 2013.

In February 2018, bye-polls conducted in two Lok Sabha Constituency seats and one assembly seat saw the Congress ahead of the BJP by huge margins. Interestingly, all three seats were earlier held by BJP leaders and fell vacant after their deaths. In the Lok Sabha constituencies of Alwar and Ajmer, Congress candidates had won by a margin of nearly two lakh votes and 84,000 votes. In fact, the BJP’s vote share in both these constituencies has seen a steady decrease since 2014. In the assembly seat of Mandalgarh, the BJP lost by 14,000 votes. It has been argued that since Alwar is close to Haryana, Ajmer comes in central Rajasthan and Mandalgarh borders Madhya Pradesh, these bye-election results indicate the larger mood of the voters throughout the state.

Read more