The ’98 tally: Congress - 18
Next best party: BJP - 5
Political realignments along caste lines have meant that both the Congress and the BJP can’t take their conventional votebanks for granted. The two are thus likely to play musical chairs, losing and gaining in each other’s strongholds. The overall tally of ’98—18 Congress (plus two others) and five for the BJP—may not change substantially.
The anti-BJP wave which gave the Congress an 80 per cent majority in the ’98 state elections is no longer perceptible. Their platforms—the BJP’s Kargil and the Congress’ stability—have little impact. Caste factors and local issues dominate.
The Jat reservation issue will hurt the Congress in the west. Peeved at not being granted obc status, the traditionally pro-Congress Jats under the banner of the Jat Mahasabha have called for its defeat.
The problem is of the Congress’ own making. A section of senior Jat leaders in the party, unhappy with the appointment of Ashok Gehlot as chief minister, had encouraged the agitation by pro-reservationists. Their pique was understandable; despite considerable political clout, there’s never been a Jat CM in Rajasthan.
The reservation issue was a convenient club to beat Gehlot with. In vain was it pointed out that the Congress manifesto for the ’98 assembly elections hadn’t promised quotas for Jats. "To some extent, the matter was mishandled and will have some impact," admits cwc member Rajesh Pilot.
Not all Jats have bought the Mahasabha’s anti-Congress stance: when the organisation’s Sikar unit announced its support to the BJP, the dais was stoned. On the flip side, the Jat agitation has encouraged the usually pro-BJP Mali community to stand by "their man", Gehlot. Caste loyalties have proved stronger than party affiliations.
For the Congress, the worst would be over with the first round of polling on September 5, comprising 10 constituencies in the Jat belt. It’d won seven of the 10 in ’98, the tally going up to nine after Sis Ram Ola and Buta Singh joined the party. Close to polling day, the party seemed well-placed in Nagaur, Jhunjhunu, Bikaner and Barmer despite the division among the Jats.
In Jhunjhunu, where Ola won twice as an independent before joining the Congress and becoming its official nominee, the Mahasabha’s Sumitra Singh was expected to nibble into his voteshare. But Ola’s stature is likely to carry him through.
In Barmer and Bikaner, the BJP feared a division in its Rajput votebank thanks to disaffection among the community’s leaders. Congress nominee and twice winner Sona Ram appears set to pull off a hat-trick in Barmer, despite a spirited fight from the BJP’s Manvendra Singh, foreign minister Jaswant Singh’s son. The defection of Rajput leader Lokendra Singh Kalvi is a blow to the BJP here. In Bikaner, too, a section of the BJP’s Rajput leaders are unhappy with the allocation of the ticket to a Jat.
In Jodhpur, Gehlot’s prestige is at stake. He’s won the seat three times. Sikar and Jalore are as prestigious for the Congress, featuring Balram Jakhar and Buta Singh, both ‘outsiders’ from Punjab who’ve yet carved out a base here. Jakhar moved to Sikar from Bikaner, which he’d won comfortably in ’98, only to find the Mahasabha targeting him with the slogan, "Aap lambey, chaurey aur tagrey hain, par aap bhagorey hain (you’re tall, broad and strong, but you’re a quitter)." Visibly upset, he said "They are not true representatives of the Jats. They are betrayers. They sold us out." Thanks to its efforts, the division in Jat votes was most apparent in Sikar. The cpi(m) has a committed following here and Jakhar’s fate could well depend on the number of votes its candidate, sitting mla, Amra Ram, polls.
Buta found it tough in Jalore, with local Congressmen upset he’d got the ticket despite quitting the party, doing the rounds of other parties and rejoining just before polls. His rival and BJP vice-president Bangaru Laxman also had the anti-incumbency edge.
The second round of polling, for 15 seats, will see some interesting contests. The BJP, though organisationally weak after two drubbings in ’98, is well-placed in Jhalawar, fielding Vasundhararaje Scindia for the third time. Pilot, contesting from Dausa for the fourth time, looks comfortable. Bitter opposition from a section of the Jats resulted in his being shown black flags at a rally last week, but they account for less than 1 lakh votes and are unlikely to affect the final outcome. On the other hand, the numerically powerful Meenas are upset with their usual favourites, the BJP, for having denied the influential Kirori Lal Meena a ticket from Sawai Madhopur.
Bharatpur, where Jagat Singh—Congressman Natwar Singh’s son—takes on former MP and royal family scion Vishwendra Singh, will see a keen contest. Natwar, himself a Jat, has won the seat twice. But most Jats may vote BJP this time. Other communities, notably the Jatavs, are with the Congress but it is the Meos who hold the key. Their leader, Tayyeb Hussein, has aligned with the Congress but the bsp’s Nusru Khan could take a large chunk of the Meo vote. In Udaipur, pcc chief and two-time winner Girija Vyas is well placed, as are Congress nominees in Bhilwara, Chittor and Alwar. In Pali, the Congress’ Meetha Lal Jain must contend with infighting.
The BJP’s not contesting Banswara, leaving it to its ally, the jd(u). Home of the late socialist leader Mama Baleshwar Dayal, it’s the JD’s sole pocket of influence in Rajasthan.
Overall, the Congress appears to be in better shape than it was a month ago, partly because it has managed to win back a section of the Jat vote. Besides, it has benefited from infighting in the BJP, which has been as bad if not more intense than that in the Congress. The lessons of ’98, it appears, are yet to be learnt.