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Gehlot on his mark to come up trumps

Even a year ago, the Congress looked like a write-off in Rajasthan. But the party’s first chief minister since Mohanlal Sukhadia to complete a five-year term has put it in the lead. Pre-poll surveys, except for one commissioned by the BJP, indicate a return to office.

There is still the burden of anti-incumbency at the constituency level. The fear of rebels prevented more than 20 of 153 Congress MLAs from being replaced. Rebels have always been critical in the state: in 1993, they helped Bhairon Singh Shekhawat to form and then run a government.

His absence is keenly felt at every turn, though the reason goes well beyond his own personality. Shekhawat contested from as many as eight different seats in a career in the electoral arena spanning nearly five decades. In a sprawling state that covers a tenth of India’s land area, he developed an extraordinary grasp of local diversity.

The BJP’s base is both deeper and weaker than a quick look would suggest. The party’s lineal ancestor, the Jan Sangh, struck root soon after Partition with L.K. Advani himself doing a stint as general secretary. In a state with a vibrant tradition of commerce and with a large Rajput population, perhaps a tenth, it had a core constituency.

But the party has never polled more than 38.43 per cent in an Assembly poll. This is the highest it has ever got: in 1993, Shekhawat gained from his subsidy on ammonium phosphate fertiliser. The Congress closed ranks five years later and the BJP paid a heavy price. A dip of 5 per cent reduced it to a mere 33 seats in a 200-strong Assembly.

Gehlot’s party has more stacked in its favour in terms of the social make-up of the state. The adivasis make up 12 per cent, especially along the border with Gujarat in the south. Princes and warriors may dominate the imagery of the state, but Dalits and Muslims together make up a fourth of the electorate.

What is significant is that the Congress is headed by a chief minister who is from a small, numerically insignificant caste of Malis, an OBC community. But his appeal lies in secular issues, not caste-based vote banks.

The construction of roads and bridges, and the surge in power production are undeniable. Equally so are the vast scale of the drought relief works and the extent of the mid-day meal programme, both of which are larger than in any of the nine Hindi-speaking states.

Surveys may err in predicting a dream run. Vasundhara Raje covered nine of every 10 constituencies on her parivartan yatra. The promises of restoring perquisites and DA are crafted to appeal to the 7 lakh-strong government employees. Loans of over Rs 10,000 to farmers will also be waived.

The BJP has also tried to undercut savarna anger by promising a constitutional amendment to facilitate reservation for the upper-caste poor.

Her problem is not the lack of energy or a message. It lies in her tenuous equation with the sangh, which even denied close associate Pratap Singh Kachariawas a ticket in Bani Park, Jaipur. Rebel candidates afflict both parties, but being a relative newcomer to the intricacies of provincial politics, her problems exceed those of her rival.

Both parties are apprehensive of how caste equations will play out. The BJP is anxious that Devi Singh Bhati’s Social Justice Front of the forward classes will cut into its own core vote base of upper castes.

Gehlot worries about growing anti-Congress sentiments of the Jat peasantry, long a trusted support base. In 1998, in the Shekhawati belt, the Congress took all but seven of the 48 seats. The climb now is a tougher one.

To make the picture more complex still, Haryana chief minister .P. Chautala has put up as many as 55 candidates. If the margins are close, a third party candidate or rebel can throw a spanner in the works.

Two of the last three Assembly elections did not throw up a clear majority. The BJP’s best hope might be its expert manager; Pramod Mahajan can help cobble a majority if no party touches the 100-seat mark.

The Congress is more cohesive. The chief minister’s stamp on the candidate list was unmistakable. His demeanour should not mask his ability to take tough decisions, as on power pricing or more recently on banning the programmes of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

No former ruler has ever become chief minister. The longest innings was by Mohanlal Sukhadia. Shekhawat’s years in power total less than half of the former’s 16 years.

Gehlot may yet break the latter’s record.

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