The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Ironies abound in Indian politics, and the permutations and combinations that win or lose votes comprise some of the most striking ones. Rajasthan’s chief minister is a woman, for the first time in the state’s history. Projected as a Jat by the Bharatiya Janata Party, Ms Vasundhara Raje is also perceived as a princess who donned the clothes of the villager to woo her voters. For the defeated former chief minister, Mr Ashok Gehlot, the irony of this could be rather painful. During the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, the peasant community had objected to Mr Gehlot. It said that the Jats would not support the Congress until Mr Gehlot was replaced by a Jat. Although the Congress high command was confident that Mr Gehlot would be able to handle this, one of the main charges against him is that he did not do enough to reconcile the Jats. Mr Gehlot’s quick-fix gesture in May, proposing reservations for the poorer among the Jats, may have thrown the BJP into a bit of a tizzy for a while, but obviously did not have any long-term effect. The Jats are not the only reason the Congress lost, but they certainly are one of the reasons. The peasant community prefers an erstwhile princess as chief minister.

Traditionally, manipulating caste-divisions was one of the more important strategies of vote-winning in Rajasthan. But this time many other factors had equal play. A woman as chief minister-designate may have drawn much of the women’s vote. Far more important were the BJP’s strategies, which not only managed to project Ms Raje as a dynamic leader, but also marshalled all its forces to find out what the electorate wanted, conducted surveys, and focused its campaign according to region. Once again, the Congress failed here: it had had due warning. In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress had lost 129 assembly segments, and never really bothered to look into the loss. Perhaps the long habit of rule, only recently disrupted, makes it habitually complacent. But Mr Gehlot’s pride in development was turned on its head. Poor drought relief management was a major source of discontent; Rajasthan needs a magician who will solve its water problem. Clean governance did not matter in the vote, which is a lesson well worth learning. Mr Gehlot may have won from his seat while both his deputies lost, because of his “clean” image, but that is as far as it took the Congress. Maybe what was more important was the glitter and drama of the BJP campaign, promising dynamic change by its inventive, expensive approach.

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