Making the most of strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the Bharatiya Janata Party and anger towards Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, the Congress looks set to win Rajasthan with a slim margin in the 199-strong Assembly. Victory for the Congress would fit right in with the state’s tradition of alternating between the two national parties every five years. Since 1998, no party here has been voted back to power for a second consecutive term.

Though the final results are still awaited, the Congress celebrations have already begun. “Congress has won the mandate,” veteran leader and former chief minister Ashok Gehlot declared, according to ANI. “Numbers can go up and down but public’s mandate is in favour of the Congress. We will get clear majority, still we would want independent candidates and parties other than BJP to support us if they want.”

His colleague and Congress state president Sachin Pilot said the victory in Rajasthan was the party’s gift to Rahul Gandhi, who took over as party president exactly a year ago.

A victory in Rajasthan would also be a major boost for the Congress in the run-up to general elections in 2019, and give the party sufficient time to prepare itself to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who remains the most popular leader in the state.

It is also a huge improvement on the party’s performance in the last elections in 2013, when it was confined to 21 seats – its lowest tally in the state. The BJP had won 162 of the 200 seats, a victory that was attributed to a Modi wave that would soon go nationwide. This was the highest number of seats any party had won in the state since Independence. This time around, though, voters claimed Modi was no longer a factor.

Last-minute fightback

Contrary to opinion polls that predicted a clean sweep for the Congress, the BJP put up a spirited performance. In the last days of the campaign, particularly, several news reports suggested the BJP was on the path to revival. Political strategists credited the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for this.

“Earlier, the RSS had given up on the state and wanted to teach Raje a lesson for alienating the Hindutva leadership,” said an Udaipur-based political analyst who did not want to be identified. “The Hindutva brigade wanted to end Raje’s hold over the BJP in the state and as a result did not actively participate in the election campaign.”

Sensing trouble in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which voted in November, the central leadership asked the state unit to work on reviving the party, the analyst said. “The RSS became active in the last few days, which seems to have worked in avoiding an embarrassing rout for the saffron party,” he added.

Decisive factors

Several voters and BJP leaders blamed Raje for the dip in the party’s popularity. A minister in her government accused her of being an inaccessible chief minister. “She won’t even respond to my calls or of other ministers,” said the minister. “We had to wait for days to get a response from her. She hardly ever visited any constituency, which made people angry. We will lose only because of her.”

Voters in the state’s Mewar region complained about Raje’s absence and alleged that she had handed over the state to the bureaucracy. The public sentiment was more anti-Raje than pro-Congress.

But the BJP’s performance in the state can be blamed on multiple other factors. First, the Rajputs – a traditional support base for the party – raised the banner of revolt against the chief minister for not inducting a single member of the community in her cabinet. Their demands that she appoint a Rajput as state party president were also ignored.

Rajput groups also staged violent protests against the film Padmaavat, which they claimed insulted the community, and the alleged fake encounter killing of gangster Anandpal Singh, a member of the community. Several of these organisations even called for a boycott of the BJP in the Assembly elections.

The agrarian distress in the state also hurt the BJP. Farmers seemed to have switched over to the Congress in large numbers following the party’s promise to waive off farm loans within 10 days of coming to power and to set up food processing units. This, analysts believe, could have persuaded farmers to vote for the Congress.

Then, many upper-caste BJP supporters were miffed with the BJP-led Centre’s decision to restore the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, overturning a Supreme Court order in the process. The Centre’s decision had come in the wake of massive protests by Dalits against the court’s “watering down” of the Act.

All of these factors contributed to the vast improvement in the Congress’ performance in Rajasthan.

But one point of contention remains in the Congress camp: who will be its chief ministerial candidate? Supporters of both Pilot and Gehlot raised slogans in their support on Tuesday. But the two leaders declined to comment, saying only that the Congress high command would take this decision.