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Why Rajasthan is key to the Congress’s chances of revival

It is among the only States where the party’s cohort of leaders is so far intact — can the Congress do a better job in resolving State-level rivalries here than it has done in its erstwhile strongholds like Punjab? 

August 29, 2022 12:33 pm | Updated 10:54 pm IST

Rajasthan Chief Minister and senior Congress leader Ashok Gehlot. File

Rajasthan Chief Minister and senior Congress leader Ashok Gehlot. File | Photo Credit: PTI

The political equations are full of new variables in Rajasthan with Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot expected to succumb to pressure from the Gandhi family to take over as national president of the Congress in place of the ailing Sonia Gandhi, and after former Congress president Rahul Gandhi refused to step in. Interestingly, this possibility presents itself at a time when Rajasthan is more important to the Congress’s overall electoral fortunes than it has ever before been in the party’s history.    

Arc of Ashok Gehlot’s career

Mr. Gehlot, 71 years old and Chief Minister of Rajasthan for the third time, is regarded as a sharp political mind. Each of three times (1998, 2008 and 2018) he managed to manoeuvre himself into the Chief Minister’s chair, it was against strong opponents. He was para-dropped into the Chief Minister’s post by the central leadership of the Congress at the age of 47 in 1998 against the advice of the State’s leaders, who were batting for Parasram Maderna. In 2008, C.P. Joshi was slated to occupy the chair, but lost his own seat by a single vote, giving Mr. Gehlot the clear path to return. Similarly, after the 2018 Assembly elections, the then State Congress chief, Sachin Pilot, had been credited with pulling the party out of a rut and was thus widely expected to take the reins — but once again Mr. Gehlot stole the march, pleading with the ‘high command’ that it was his very last innings. 

Mr. Gehlot may now have finally been presented with a fait accompli — should he, indeed, take over the national leadership of the Congress, he would likely leave the Chief Minister’s office a year or so before Assembly elections are due. 

A tough election ahead

His potential exit has set the political corridors of Rajasthan abuzz with talk of several possibilities. Will he set the condition of ‘anyone but Sachin Pilot’? In such a scenario there would likely be two contenders, Mr. Joshi and Harish Chaudhary, who is in charge of the Congress party in Punjab. But even if Mr. Pilot, who has been restive for quite some time, finally manages to get the job, he would have just about a year to turn around the narrative in the State, where the party finds itself on the back foot.

The gruesome murder of a tailor, Kanhaiya Lal, by two Muslim men for allegedly supporting Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Nupur Sharma, who had made controversial remarks on Islam, has further widened the communal divide, with the polarisation expected to benefit the BJP. Historically, the Hindu right has found support in Rajasthan since the very first Assembly elections of 1952. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), predecessor of the BJP, had got eight seats and 5% vote share then. In 1962, this increased to 9.15% when it won 15 seats. In the same elections, the centre-right Swantantra Party, backed by royals, got 36 seats.

Nonetheless, in an unbroken stint, the Congress ruled in the State till 1977, when post-Emergency it was wiped out in the northern States. Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, contesting on a Janata Party ticket, rode to power in the State, becoming its first non-Congress Chief Minister. It was an emphatic victory, with the Janata Party mopping up over 50% of votes. 

In 1980, the Congress returned to power in the State and won the next election in 1985 too. However, given the internal politics of the party, between June 1980 and March 1990, the Chief Minister was changed six times, with Hari Dev Joshi occupying the chair twice. The uncertainty was so acute that Congress leader Hira Lal Devpura was in the post for just 15 days. In 1990 Shekhawat was back in power, and after a year-long interlude of President’s rule, in Assembly elections held in 1993 he retained the Chief Minister’s post.

The trend of regular oscillation of political power between the BJP and the Congress started in 1998 when Mr. Gehlot became Chief Minister for the first time. The Congress won 153 seats in the 200-member Assembly, a result that it has not matched since.

The 2003 elections in the State were a watershed for many reasons. With the resounding slogan “ Chappa, Chappa Bhajpa (BJP everywhere)”, the BJP for the first time crossed the 100 mark on its own, with 120 seats. And the State got its first woman Chief Minister, Vasundhara Raje. In 2008, the Congress wrested the State, but the BJP was back in power in 2013, and then the Congress returned in 2018. Interestingly, both in 2008 and in 2018, the Congress’s victory margin was extremely narrow. In fact, in 2008, Ms. Raje’s power struggle with Kirodi Lal Meena was seen to have cost the BJP the State. 

In 2018 too, the results were projected more as the BJP’s, and specifically Ms. Raje’s, defeat rather than the Congress’s victory. The slogan, “ Modi tujse bair nahi, Vasundhara teri khair nahi (Modi we have no complaint with you, but Vasundhara we won’t spare you)” reverberated across the State — and sure enough, the BJP swept Rajasthan in the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. 

The Congress’s electoral map

In the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress faces a real danger of losing its pan-Indian parliamentary presence and being reduced as a party with a few regions of influence. This makes winning each seat very crucial. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress won 52 seats, 15 from Kerala, eight from Punjab and eight from Tamil Nadu. Defending all these may not be easy, especially in Punjab.

Against this backdrop, every seat will count, and the Congress will especially have to claw its way back in States like Rajasthan, where in two consecutive general elections (2014, 2019) it has drawn a blank. 

The inability of the central leadership to settle the fight between Mr. Gehlot and Mr. Pilot has made the Congress’s position more precarious. The party would be especially wary of precipitating an internal clash, as happened in Punjab recently. Equally it would be conscious of keeping its flock together — Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh are the only major north Indian States where it has not yet seen crucial, high-profile exits. 

Ultimately the outcome of the Assembly elections, due by end-2023, may well depend on two things: the Congress’s ability to resolve the Gehlot-Pilot tussle and the BJP’s to prevent a rebellion by Ms. Raje. Whatever be the result then, for the parliamentary elections the BJP has shown its capacity to change the narrative to a national level and override the local dynamics. The Congress, however, cannot count on anything like that.

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