In the peak of campaigning during the recently-held assembly elections, a BJP functionary in Rajasthan was having a chat with his friends. During that informal chat, a friend asked him to clarify BJP’s stand on some politically relevant issues. The BJP official couldn’t answer his friend convincingly.
That failure is symptomatic of a larger problem. The inability of BJP to take a clear stand on Hindutva, Kashmir, the farmer crisis, SME troubles, Rajput anger, Jat alienation, SC/ST ordinance, Muslim mobilisation and role of bureaucracy played a critical role in its failure to retain power in Rajasthan.
While BJP tried its best to maintain a balance in its stand but it created an impression among voters that it was not firm on any of the critical issues, and frequently changing its position as per the situation.
To add to this confusion, there was a prolonged tussle between state chief minister Vasundhara Raje and the central BJP leadership. This tussle had its roots in Vasundhara’s previous tenure as CM from 2003-2008, when Narendra Modi was chief minister of neighbouring state Gujarat. But the rift widened in 2014 when Modi became Prime Minister. It is believed that Rajasthan CM had recommended names of a couple of newly elected MPs for inclusion in the Modi ministry, but central leadership didn’t agree to her demands.
This rift continued to widen in the coming months and years as both sides couldn’t agree on varied issues ranging from various appointments to budget allotment for the state’s schemes.
This rift reached its peak when the central leadership of BJP proposed the name of Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, a first-time MP who was made minister of state by Modi, for the post of state BJP chief after suffering a humiliating loss in the by-elections for Ajmer and Alwar Lok Sabha seats. For the next several weeks, BJP workers in the state waited anxiously for some final decision while Vasundhara Raje mobilised MLAs, MPs and party officials to pressurise the central leadership to change its recommendation and agree on a more agreeable candidate. Finally, old-timer Madan Lal Saini was appointed the new state BJP chief. But he largely remained a ceremonial head of party without any power and command.
The outgoing state party president Ashok Parnami was also chosen by Raje. Parnami was happy playing second fiddle to the CM, and never showed any inclination to build an organisation beyond a small coterie. Over the years, proximity to CM was all that mattered, and leaders with base on the ground got sidelined.
While most accepted their fate and remained within the party, some of them, like ex-minister Ghanshyam Tiwari and ex-MLA Hanuman Beniwal decided to part ways and launch their own parties. While Tiwari’s Bharat Vahini Party (BVHP) failed to win the trust of people, Beniwal’s Rashtriya Loktantrik Party (RLTP) got 2.4 percent of total votes, and won 3 seats out of the 58 seats it contested.
Hanuman Beniwal emerged as a popular leader among young Jat voters, many of those who voted for Narendra Modi in 2014. This time they decided to vote for Beniwal’s candidates. While there is hardly a difference of 0.5 percent in the total number of votes received by Congress and BJP in Rajasthan, Beniwal definitely made a dent in BJP’s vote share.
While Jats were angry because they expected more ministerial berths and other positions in the Raje government, Rajputs were angry for different reasons. In the 2014 Loksabha elections, Vasundhara denied a party ticket to senior party leader and former minister Jaswant Singh, who wanted to contest his last election from Barmer. This decision angered Rajputs. To add to their pain, Vasundhara gave the BJP ticket to Col. Sonaram Choudhary, who was a senior Jat leader and two-time Congress MP.
The Jat-Rajput rivalry is too obvious to ignore in a state like Rajasthan, and both castes try to pull down each other, more forcefully in political contests. A dejected Jaswant Singh decided to contest as an independent candidate, but lost to Col Choudhary.
However, this election sowed the seeds of anger and distrust among Rajputs towards Raje. She tried to pacify the community by offering it various posts and concessions, but the controversial encounter death of Anand Pal Singh, a gangster, further mobilised the community against Raje.
Though BJP offered the maximum number of tickets to Rajputs in the recent assembly elections, the anger within community was so strong that the community fielded independent candidates in nearly 25 seats and ensured the defeat of BJP candidates.
However, the crucial role in ensuring defeat of BJP was played by Scheduled Castes and Muslims. Despite the Modi government’s best efforts to impress SC/ST and Muslim voters by launching various welfare schemes and bringing in ordinances on Triple Talaq and to nullify Supreme Court’s judgment on SC/ST Atrocities Act, the Dalit+Muslim combination voted strategically to ensure defeat of BJP’s candidates. Such well-targeted voting did help many BSP, RLTP and independent candidates wherever they were perceived as stronger than Congress candidates to defeat BJP. No wonder, 28 such candidates have won their seats, by getting more votes than BJP and Congress candidates.
While BJP tried to pamper SC/ST voters by bringing an ordinance after the SC verdict, it antagonized a large number of its core voters from upper castes and OBCs. Their complaint with BJP was that the party ignored the Hindutva agenda and instead indulged in caste-based vote-bank politics and appeasement.
Voters in Rajasthan have been changing governments every five years, but the economic development of the state is not on a par with neighbouring Haryana or Gujarat. Industrial growth is unsatisfactory, and farming is limited due to geographical reasons and scarcity of irrigation facilities. As a result, large numbers of young people remains unemployed. Government jobs are the most sought after occupation and millions apply for few hundred government vacancies. However, due to inefficiency of State Public Service Commission and bureaucracy, most such vacancies ended up in litigation in courts, and lakhs of unemployed youth lost trust in Raje government after waiting endlessly for large scale appointments.
Government employees are also critical opinion builders in Rajasthan. From a bus conductor to a school teacher, each one has influence on a significant number of voters in their caste as well as at their workplace. Flip-flops by senior bureaucrats on issues troubling lower ranked employees angered them and almost all worker unions launched many agitations during the last couple of years. Lakhs of these employees not only voted against BJP, but influenced many others too.
Economic hardships arising out of demonetisation, GST, distress in real estate sector, problems faced by SMEs, and lack of new investment in the state, forced many small businesses to shut shop, aggravating unemployment crisis. Farmers too didn’t get much relief which could ease their burdens, and state witnessed many farmer suicides in the last 4-5 years.
However, BJP’s election manifesto failed to offer solace to the unemployed youth, SMEs and farmers. Political pundits found it to be very bureaucratic and conservative, which couldn’t impress voters.
In 2013, BJP had won a massive mandate winning 163 seats out of 200. However, the alleged aloofness and arrogance of Vasundhara Raje, caused alienation of not only the RSS, which is strong in the state, but also BJP officials and MLAs. Raje ran the state with the help of her few trusted officials, and the Chief Minister’s Office was controlling not only the government, but the politics of BJP as well. A few bureaucrats enjoyed immense authority, and elected MLAs felt helpless and humiliated. Ministers indulged in corruption, and ignored the party supporters. Soon, the impression went around that the CM was not meeting and listening to her own party MLAs, despite repeated requests.
This negative perception was so widespread in Rajasthan, that MLAs would express their helplessness whenever their voters approached them for some work. This further enhanced the anti-incumbency, which resulted in many ministers losing by huge margins, and BJP losing 90 seats from its 2013 tally.
BJP tried its best to recover the lost ground just before the election, but it was a lost battle. Luckily for BJP, infighting in Congress, and BSP deciding to contest alone, saved BJP from a major embarrassment. Otherwise, Congress would have scored much better than 99 seats it managed.
Kuldeep Ratnoo is convenor of United Voters of India, a platform to objectively raise concerns of all voters irrespective of their political affiliations.