ATAL Behari Vajpayee is, undoubtedly, the BJP's biggest vote-catcher. His popularity is given an added dose of acceptance in Rajasthan,with his close associate being chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. The Shekhawat government, credited with successful implementation of the rural employment schemes as well as supply of drinking water to the traditionally drought and famine prone pockets, is a model government for the BJP to follow at the Central level.
Which is why the BJP harps equally on Shekhawat's image—despite occasional dissident hiccups—in the contest for the 25 parliamentary constituencies in the state. Rajasthan had contributed 12 each to the Congress and BJP kitty in the 1996 general elections. And the only remaining seat (Jhunjhunu) had gone to Congress (T) candidate Sheesram Ola who later became minister in the United Front government.
The state—which has practically a two-party set-up with the total disintegration of the Janata Dal—has the BJP pitted against a Congress party that is organisationally weak despite the presence of many senior leaders. While PCC chief Ashok Gehlot has helped in some degree to consolidate the organisation, the Congress suffered a setback with former AICC joint secretary Abrar Ahmed's sudden switch into the BJP fold. A double-bar-relled blow, as this gives an impression that even the Muslims might vote for saffron this time.
Shekhawat, a veteran administrator and crisis manager, has also made inroads into the powerful Jat belt—traditionally the Congress party's support base—in the past few years. In the 1996 election, at least nine constituencies—Churu, Alwar and Jalore (all won by the Congress); Bikaner, Tonk, Kota, Bhilwara and Pali (BJP) and Jhunjhunu (Congress-T)—registered narrow victory margins. Both the Congress and the BJP are positioning against each others' vulnerable seats.Veteran Congress leader Nawal Kishore Sharma, who had won the Alwar seat with a 2,400-vote margin last time, has declined to contest.
Unlike the Congress, if the BJP is likely to lose some of its seats, it is more because of the behaviour of individual MPs vis-a-vis the electorate rather than loss of a support base. Senior BJP leader Jaswant Singh faces an uphill task to retain his Chittorgarh seat, as he is not seen to have done much for his constituency. "We might lose a couple of sitting seats, but we are certainly going to wrest about a dozen from the Congress which will take our tally beyond 12", says a party leader.
In the case of the Congress, the only two sure seats as of now are Dausa, represented by Rajesh Pilot, and Jodhpur, represented by Gehlot. "The incumbency factor will benefit us. Moreover, the confusion among BJP leaders on Ayodhya as well as a uniform civil code issue will be in our advantage", claims Pilot.
All India Congress Committee Women Cell chief Girija Vyas was disappointed as Vajpayee's election crowd far outnumbered Sonia Gandhi's in Udaipur on February 11. Similarly, the traditional Congress seat of Sikar seems to be slipping into the BJP fold.
And, while Sonia's two-round electioneering in the state has enthused voters, the weak organisation does not seem likely to take advantage of her visits. Whenever the Congress does win, it's likely to be largely because of its candidate's personal popularity as well as hostility towards individual sitting BJP members.