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A harvest after the drought?

In Rajasthan, the Congress is approaching the elections with a great deal of confidence, writes SUNNY SEBASTIAN.

THE TITLE of a well known book, "Everyone loves a good drought", could well describe the mood in the ruling Congress party as Rajasthan gets ready for the Assembly elections. The Government led by Ashok Gehlot had seized the opportunity to show its mettle during the drought. And it now hopes to harvest the goodwill generated by its relief operations, which created a record of sorts this summer by employing a stupendous 70 lakh persons a month.

It is with great confidence that the Congress party, which had won an unprecedented three-fourths majority in the 1998 elections, is approaching the 339.12 lakh electorate this time. The main Opposition in the State, the Bharatiya Janata Party remains the only serious challenger.

Perceived as a slow starter by both political observers and the Congress leadership in Delhi, the Chief Minister, Mr. Gehlot's popularity has peaked towards the end of his present tenure. His graph had plummeted when the party lost all the three Assembly byelections held towards the end of 2002 even after his Government did a commendable job in development and governance.

During the conclave of Chief Ministers of Congress-ruled States held soon thereafter at Mount Abu in Rajasthan, the point to ponder for the party was: is good governance alone enough to win elections? Many leaders thought social engineering as well as certain "interventions" were called for.

The turnaround for Mr. Gehlot came with the effective drought management in the summer of 2003, often battling the BJP-led Government at the Centre for financial assistance as well as for grain. And, the good monsoon and the Gehlot Government once again taking up cudgels against the Centre for remunerative prices for farmers have only done the Congress good.

LEAVING NOTHING TO CHANGE: Replicas of electronic voting machines are in great demand with political parties, which use them to educate the voters.

Despite the Centre providing all the grain component in the drought relief payments and even arranging for transport of drinking water through the Railways, Mr. Gehlot got all the credit. This was not only because the State was the implementing agency but also due to the fact that he had to fight for every bit the State got from the Centre.

What the BJP managers now find difficult to counter is the charge that none of the party's senior leaders, including the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, toured the drought-hit areas when the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, made more than half a dozen visits.

Mr. Gehlot's image got another boost with the arrest of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader, Praveen Togadia, in Ajmer this year when the latter violated the ban on distribution of trishuls (tridents). The fact that the Hindutva forces did not, or could not, create much trouble over the arrest and even gave up the trishul diksha programme has only enhanced Mr. Gehlot's standing.

It is pertinent that Rajasthan had remained mostly free of communal riots during the tenure of the present Government. Even at the time of the riots in neighbouring Gujarat, Rajasthan had remained calm.

Even while accepting that the new State president of the BJP, Vasundhara Raje Scindia, did well for herself given the little time she had after taking over, things are not under her control in her own party. Many of the senior leaders, including the national treasurer of the BJP, Ramdas Agarwal, are not with her wholeheartedly in her effort to become the first woman Chief Minister of Rajasthan.

The presence of other parties — the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Janata Dals, the Lok Dals, the Samajwadi Party, the Nationalist Congress Party, the Left parties and the newly formed Rajasthan Samajik Nyay Manch — — is not going to make much difference either way.

The BSP being more favourably inclined may help the Congress marginally. On the other hand, the Indian National Lok Dal of Om Prakash Chautala has fielded a good number of BJP rebels though the two parties are allies at the Centre. Both the INLD and the Rajasthan Samajik Nyay Manch could prove a drain on the BJP vote; the Manch may in some places also take away a share of the Jat votes from the Congress.

Officially the BJP has aligned with the Janata Dal (U) in three seats — Danpur, Kushalgarh and Bagidora — where the latter has sitting MLAs. Left on its own, the Janata Dal(U) would have found it difficult to fend for itself against the Congress even as the BJP itself was not in a position to win the seats.

There are, however, some imponderables for the Congress too in the run-up to the elections. After performing extremely well in 1998 Assembly polls, the party had fared poorly in the Lok Sabha elections which followed the next year.

Also, even when the Congress is vociferous about the support it gets from all sections of society, its leaders are diffident when talking about the seven lakh State Government employees. They have been denied bonus and were also humbled when their indefinite strike was crushed during the Congress' initial days in power.

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