Going by the 2018 Assembly election result, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress could almost evenly share Rajasthan’s 25 Lok Sabha seats in the impending polls.

Apart from Chhattisgarh and Punjab, the Congress looks best placed for a good performance in Rajasthan. After all, the Assembly election took place just three months ago and in the past they have set the tempo for the subsequent national election. Given that it was not voter sentiment so much as messy seat distribution that likely cost the Congress a bigger majority in the state election – the party got 100 of the 200 seats but saw several leaders who were refused tickets win as independents – the party should theoretically do even better than take half the Lok Sabha seats.

Yet, that is not the way the winds are blowing in Rajasthan. On the contrary, it is the BJP which seems to be way ahead and people talk about the saffron party winning 19-20 seats.

It would be inaccurate to describe the BJP as the hot favourite, however. People do not even take its name when you ask them who they will vote for. They have only one word by way of an answer: “Modi”.

But not the BJP? “No, neither the BJP nor the Congress,” goes the fairly common refrain, from a village in Nimayi taluka of Tonk to the heart of Jaipur city. Their preference is Narendra Modi alone. It is a paradox: the voters see the prime minister as distinct from the party he leads.

In Rajasthan today, it is the BJP which needs Modi and not the other way around. He has emerged as the central issue of the 2019 election. Much like Indira Gandhi in 1971, Modi seems to have skirted the party’s organisation and reached out directly to the people.

In Jhilai village, Tonk, voters are most agitated over unemployment and the lack of livelihood opportunities. “We don’t want money, our people only want work,” a villager said. “We promise you that we will work very hard. Give us work.”

So, whom will they vote for? Modi, eight out of the 10 villagers replied.

Modi had promised to create crores of jobs. Have any come their way?

“No,” a villager replied. “But then, you tell us, whom can we vote for? Who else is there on the other side?”

Modi may have made mistakes, they concede, but he is a “leader”. He has struck “deep in Pakistan” and “given it back to them”. “When the country is under threat we have to put our own considerations aside,” one villager argued.

Another added, “No government has done anything about jobs. They talk about it but when they come to power they become tatasth.” The word translates as status quoist.

Some people are disappointed the loan waiver announced by the new Congress government does not cover all farmers but only “defaulters”. Others feel the government has made no difference in its first three months. Still, many are willing to give it time. Given Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s past record, they say, he “will do something good”.

But they see this election as being about Modi. In fact, during last year’s election campaign, some people would talk about voting for Modi in the national polls. “Modi tujhse vair nahin, Vasundhara teri khair nahin” was a slogan often repeated. “Modi, we have no hostility towards you, but Vasundhara Raje is done for,” they would shout, referring to the then chief minister.

The Pulwama attack and the subsequent Balakote air strike seem to have reinforced that sentiment in this border state.

The appeal of the strike on Pakistan lessens as one moves southwards, however. It is not so palpable, for instance, in Maharashtra.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi with Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his deputy Sachin Pilot at a public meeting in Jaipur. Photo credit: Twitter/Congress
Congress president Rahul Gandhi with Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his deputy Sachin Pilot at a public meeting in Jaipur. Photo credit: Twitter/Congress

Losing steam

In many states, the “electoral arithmetic” was on the Opposition’s side even if it did not have a clear leader to take on Modi. But the failure to strike alliances has dented that advantage.

The Congress has allied with the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka, the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar. But it’s yet to take a call on tying up with the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi despite all the obvious advantages of such an alliance. The party has also failed to agree a deal with the Left Front in Bengal, likely to the BJP’s advantage.

In Jharkhand, the Rashtriya Janata Dal was left out of the Congress’ alliance with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha even when every Opposition vote counts.

The most critical alliance, of course, is that of the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal in Uttar Pradesh. The Congress is out of it, contesting on its own, which is bound to create some confusion among the minorities, notwithstanding the rhetoric about Muslims voting tactically for the candidate best placed to win against the BJP.

There is, however, a view that had the Congress joined the alliance, the BJP would have dubbed it a pro-Muslim formation and tried to consolidate the Hindus against it. The few thousand Hindus who traditionally vote for the Congress would have swung to the BJP and not gone with that alliance.

More conspicuous has been the absence of a Congress in attack mode, taking on the ruling party with a clear game plan. Priyanka Gandhi was expected to face the BJP frontally, yet she stayed silent for over a month after the Pulwama attack.

The strike on Pakistan floored the Opposition and it lost steam in the last month. The Congress in particular failed to yank the narrative back to economic matters such as unemployment and farm distress, which had got traction in the three Assembly elections that the party won in 2018.

The party finally took a shot this week with Rahul Gandhi announcing a basic minimum income scheme of Rs 72,000 a year for the poorest 20% of India’s families. How the beneficiaries would be identified, where the money would come from and such other details are “being worked out”.

This could have been a game changer had it come earlier, and been part of a holistic action plan backed by a phalanx of Opposition parties. But it has come too late in the day, just two weeks before the first phase of polling on April 11. The Congress simply does not have a well-oiled electoral machinery nor the resources to take this message to the last voter in the time left.

Also read: ‘People are a little unhappy but not angry with Modi’: Psephologist Sanjay Kumar on Lok Sabha polls

The Election Fix: Did BJP get a ‘Balakot bump’ or was the Congress’s silence a tactical move?