With less than five months to go for elections to the 200-seat Rajasthan Assembly, the contest to rule the desert state for the next five years is boiling down to this: Will Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot beat the trend and be the first incumbent in four elections to retain power in the state? Or will the dapper Vasundhara Raje, who has been in political wilderness for five years, pack enough punch to be the proverbial comeback kid?
The elections in the border state due in November are also crucial for another reason. On the past two occasions whichever of the two parties — Gehlot’s Congress or Vasundhara’s BJP — won the Assembly election also went on to knock up the bulk of the state’s 25 Lok Sabha seats. So when Gehlot wrested power from Rajasthan’s first-ever woman CM in 2008, the Congress swept 21 Lok Sabha seats in the General Election six months later. In November 2003, Vasundhara routed Gehlot in the state election, and then led the BJP to win in 21 Lok Sabha seats in 2004. The feisty challenger is confident she will repeat the magic this time.
“People are turning out in tens of thousands and standing for four hours in the pouring rain,” Vasundhara, who has already hit the road, told TEHELKA this week about the response she has received from the electorate to her ongoing statewide pre-election campaign tour. “I am focussed on the very basic rights of people in my campaign — drinking water, electricity, roads. In the past five years, all of these indices have slid.”
Her tour, named Suraaj Yatra (march for good governance), launched in April has planned over 1,000 small and 200 big public meetings across the state’s 33 districts. Eventually, she will have visited every one of the 200 constituencies. Her son Dushyant Singh, a Lok Sabha MP from Jhalawar, and Bhupendra Yadav, a BJP MP in the Rajya Sabha from the state, are by her side throughout. Her team has projected her as a “queen” who has left the comfort of her “palace” in Dholpur city to rescue a suffering populace from Gehlot’s misrule. And now that she is the chief ministerial candidate, party strongmen hoping to be named candidates are bringing hordes to her rallies.
And it is not just Vasundhara raising the issues of basic amenities and poor governance that are giving Gehlot headaches. Muslims are miffed at his failure to rein in communal violence, the most recent of which occurred two weeks ago that saw a boy die from a teargas canister fired by the police. The caste maths is also awry, with dominant communities such as the Jats threatening to end their support because, in their view, the chief minister failed to address their issues. Also damaging Gehlot is the massive infighting in the Congress. Detractors say the party stares a defeat because of his lacklustre leadership. Others are angry because, well, he didn’t make them ministers.
The simmering anger erupted at the Congress’ Chintan Shivir at Jaipur in January. Dissidents told the Congress’ national leadership that the party would at the most win 40 Assembly seats. They slammed Gehlot for his failure to deliver populist promises and for a rising crime graph. A survey by the party in the state confirmed the dissidents’ views. The bosses told Gehlot to shape up or ship out. The jitters are not unreasonable.
In 2008, two of every five seats in the Assembly were won and lost by 5,000 votes or less. The closest was a one-vote win. Though the Congress scored 96 of the 200 seats, many were wafer-thin victories. Even a slight change in the voting pattern, which anti-incumbency might well herald, could lose the Congress the election. The party is therefore defensive. “I won by 600 votes the last time but that does not mean that I cannot win again,” says MLA Rajendra Bidhuri who is Gehlot’s Parliamentary Secretary. He explains that in 2008, Congress candidates were named only 13 days before nomination papers were filled. “Yet, I emerged victorious. It is the win that counts.”
January’s dressing down and the looming spectre of Vasundhara had a telling effect on Gehlot. In March, an alarmed chief minister brought a populist welfare budget. “It was one of the best election budgets in the state’s history,” says an Opposition leader, declining to be named. Importantly, the budget freed up an existing monthly pension scheme for widows that denied the benefits to women with sons aged 25 years old or more. When the measure was announced in the Assembly, even BJP MLAs began to clap.
The budget also reduced the eligibility for old age pension for men from 60 to 58 years and for women from 58 to 55. The pensioners had earlier needed income certificates from the district magistrate’s office to be eligible. Millions of old people failed to get past the red tape. This year’s budget did away with that requirement. It ruled that a pensioner could now self-certify his income countersigned by any government employee or a public representative, including an MP, MLA, district or panchayat members. With this easing, the number of pensioners shot up from 1.2 million to 3 million.
The government started camps at panchayat levels and finished the paperwork for the beneficiaries. That Gehlot took his admonition seriously was evident in the way he handpicked officers and ordered them to cut the red tape. When the postal department said it lacked the manpower to process 3 million money orders, the government outsourced data entry. Money order forms were quickly printed. Even the government’s most ardent supporters were surprised when the increased pensions reached the beneficiaries in June, less than two months after the rules were amended. But July is nearly over, but the June pensions are yet to arrive. “Public delivery has failed the state government’s good intentions,” says State Planning Board Chairman VS Vyas.
With an eye on the election, Gehlot kept going. Education right up to post-graduation is now free in government-owned institutions. Special scholarships are given to female students. Government hostels don’t charge for accommodation. Healthcare in government hospitals is free, including medicines, tests and surgical operations. The government pays for the last rites when a patient dies. Women avail a 30 percent discount on government bus fares. In the offing are free laptops for 1,500 journalists. Flats at government- fixed “circle” rates have been promised to 600 journalists. And last but not the least, Gehlot is keen to open the ambitious Rs 1,250-crore Jaipur Metro rapid rail transport services before the Assembly election dates are announced.
The BJP, of course, dismisses the schemes as gimmicks. “What is the use of free medicines if there are no doctors in the hospitals?” asks BJP MP Yadav. “The government has woken up in the past six months, but it has no infrastructure and hence its schemes are falling flat.” He points out that the Gehlot government has failed to conduct any survey of the people living the Below Poverty Line (BPL) since 2008.
The worst sting for Gehlot comes from the Muslims, who are some 8 percent of Rajasthan’s nearly 70 million people. According to the Rajasthan Muslim Forum, an umbrella outfit, the state has seen as many as 46 instances of violence against Muslims in the past five years. “The Congress government has been the B team of the BJP in its dealing with the minorities,” says Salim Engineer, a Muslim activist. Their biggest grouse is that none has been punished for the police firing that killed 10 Muslims inside a mosque two years ago in Bharatpur district. The killings forced Congress chief Sonia Gandhi to despatch a fact-finding team, which found the state guilty of serious lapses. Although Gehlot suspended the SP Hingjal Dan and DM Krishna Kunal, the Central Administrative Tribunal reinstated both.
Following the party panel’s report against him, Gehlot nearly lost his job and was saved at the last minute thanks to a meeting at Sonia’s residence in October 2011. He even refused to sack Home Minister Shantilal Dhariwal. It was only after the party’s national leaders intervened that all ministers resigned and portfolios were reshuffled. Unsurprisingly, Dhariwal landed another ministry, of urban development. A CBI inquiry is still incomplete, fuelling further anger among Muslims. Sources say DM Kunal told his fellow officials that Gehlot was informed that the police were about to fire but the then Chief Secretary Salahuddin Ahmed advised him to keep the matter under wraps.
On 12 July, policemen along with the personnel of the Rapid Action Force and the Special Task Force stormed a mosque in Tonk district, and fired teargas after an altercation between members of two communities over a wedding band playing near the mosque led to the pelting of stones. In April, a fight over motorcycle parking escalated into communal violence in Sanganer town adjoining the state capital, Jaipur. Factories were set on fire. Just two weeks later, stones were hurled at a Hindu religious procession passing a Muslim area leading to a clash. In both instances, fact-finding by NGOs blamed the administration for failing to act quickly. Six incidents occurred in April alone. The pinch, of course, is that Vasundhara’s reign of 2003-08 saw fewer incidents of Hindu-Muslim violence even though the Congress labels the BJP as anti-Muslim.
The other problem being faced by Gehlot is internal dissidence. Many party MLAs complain that he demands total subservience. There is no freedom of expression inside the party. Partymen also resent what a Congress leader describes as the state’s “uncontrolled” bureaucracy. “Not only is the bureaucracy not implementing the policies promised in our election manifesto but has become a law unto itself,” he says. Some dissidents who have nursed grievances for long are directing their sniper fire at Gehlot.
Sonaram, a retired Indian Army colonel, is a three-time Congress MP from Barmer, winning in 1996, ’98 and ’99. However, he lost in 2004. In 2008, he contested the Assembly election and won. When the 2009 Lok Sabha election arrived, he demanded a ticket. The Congress leadership was willing but Gehlot spiked it. Instead, the ticket went to a relatively unknown protege of Gehlot named Harish Chowdhary. An upset Sonaram gave in after Gehlot promised to make him a minister. Chowdhary won. But Sonaram is yet to occupy a minister’s office. “As a Jat leader, Sonaram has enormous influence in the entire belt of Barmer,” says a party insider. “His humiliation will definitely damage the prospects of the Congress in these areas.”
Revenue Minister Hemaram, who also hails from Barmer, has sent in his resignation, adding to Gehlot’s woes.
The story is repeated in Jodhpur division. Of its 32 Assembly seats, the Congress won half the last time. But now the Jats blame Gehlot for the misfortunes of their influential leader, former water resources minister Mahipal Maderna. Gehlot sacked Maderna in 2011 after it was publicly alleged that he had ordered the abduction and murder of a midwife who was reportedly blackmailing him by threatening to publicise their sexual relationship. “Many Jats believe that Maderna was trapped in the case,” says a party insider. It is believed that rivals within the Congress mailed CDs allegedly containing incriminating evidence to news organisations.
The displeasure of the Jats is not good news for the Congress as they are a formidable 18 percent of the electorate. Though present across the state, they are especially strong in the Marwar region in the state’s southwest, which includes Jodhpur, Pali, Barmer and Jalore. “Gehlot knows he can’t afford to lose them,” the leader says. And indeed he knows. In March, Gehlot embarked upon a tour of his own, dubbed the Sandesh Yatra. Like Vasundhara, he, too, has set out to travel to all the 200 constituencies and hold one public rally in each along with the local Congress leaders. To his credit, Gehlot has already covered 114 Assembly seats. But infighting rages.
Congress general secretary Gurudas Kamat, who was recently given charge of Rajasthan, got a taste of the deep divisions on a recent round of district-wise meetings with Gehlot and Chandrabhan, who heads the party in the state. At one meeting, dissidents targeted not only MLAs and ministers but even party MPs close to Gehlot. The party’s Chief Whip in the state, Raghu Sharma, who is anti-Gehlot, blamed the ministers. “No one has toured the state to figure out the people’s problems,” he thundered, according to a leader who attended the meeting. Sharma accused Kamat of taking feedback only from those who “are going to lose the election”. In the same meeting, PWD Minister Bharat Singh said he would not contest the election as the District Congress Chief had been imposed upon him without his concurrence.
Union Minister of State for Corporate Affairs Sachin Pilot, who is a Lok Sabha MP from Ajmer, as well as Jyoti Mirdha, Lok Sabha MP from Nagaur, too, were not spared. Angry words were exchanged between Mirdha and a Congress MLA, Ruparam Dudi, over a written complaint that Dudi had submitted accusing Mirdha of supping with the BJP workers and ignoring the Congress cadres. The discussion on Ajmer saw the anger erupt against Pilot. Ramchandra Chaudhary, a Congress leader who is the chairman of Rajasthan Dairy, said Pilot was an outsider and should be denied the ticket.
Then there is corruption. In October 2011, Bharosi Lal Jatav, the then minister for motor garages, found himself accused of illegally acquiring mining lease in forest areas. An inquiry ordered by the high court is still going on. Vasundhara is having a field day raising these issues in her public rallies. “There is a mining mafia, a water mafia, every kind of mafia in Rajasthan,” she told TEHELKA. A water crisis has beset the state due to its failure to draw a fair share from the Bhakra Nangal Dam, which also supplies water to Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. Currently, Rajasthan is unrepresented on the board of the Bhakra Beas Management Board, which administers the project. When the BJP was in power, it had started talks with the Gujarat government to ensure that water of the Mahi river is shared between Gujarat and Rajasthan. Since Gehlot came to power, there has been no progress on that front too.
Gehlot is accused of failing to boost investment in industry, education and healthcare. According to PHD Chamber of Commerce, the increase in industrial investment has been just 1.71 percent from 2006 to 2011. The only development in industry has taken place is in the expansion of the Delhi-Jaipur highway, says Surjeet Singh of the Jaipur-based Institute of Development Studies. Singh adds no FDI has come to Rajasthan. “The state has hovered between ranks 12 and 14 out of 17 states surveyed by the National Sample Survey Organisation,” he says. “It has not even made to the top 10.” Although, he says, literacy has slightly increased and mortality rate decreased on Gehlot’s watch. In agriculture, Singh says, the state government is “lucky that there has not been a drought in the past four years”.
The anti-Gehlot lobby in the state Congress unit is bitter that the party’s central leadership has adopted an ostrich-like attitude. In 2011, the then general secretary in charge of Rajasthan, Mukul Wasnik, was initially sympathetic to complaints against Gehlot. But then Wasnik did a Uturn, assuring Gehlot of his support. After the reshuffle in the Congress organisation this year, Kamat replaced Wasnik. The inheritance of Kamat has been a divided state Congress with elections less than six months away.
Corruption charges have also surfaced against Gehlot. It is alleged that he allowed a 32 percent share in the revenue of the state-owned Rajasthan State Warehousing Corporation to a private company, Shubham Logistics of the Kalpataru Group. Shubham Logistics was given the right to fix rents and manage 38 top warehouses. It has also been alleged that Gehlot went out of his way to accommodate companies that hired his son, Vaibhav. These include companies such as Om Metals and Triton Hotels. When the Congress came to power in 2008, it awarded a 457 crore contract to Om Metals to construct a dam on the Kalisindh river near Kota. Om Metals was granted another Rs 250 crore contract to build a two-lane 200-km stretch of the state highway between Jaipur and Bhilwara. Kalpatru is a real estate company owned by Mofatraj Munoot, a close friend of Gehlot. Of course, the CM denies any wrongdoing.
Gehlot’s political opponents claim that his popularity on the social media is ‘fake’ and question how a majority of his followers can come from Istanbul. BJP leaders have alleged that he has bought ‘Likes’ for his official Facebook page, which is operated by his team. Gehlot’s Facebook page had 2,14,639 ‘Likes’ until 30 June. And then there was a steady jump in ‘Likes’ due to which the city with the highest number of followers changed from Jaipur to Istanbul. The BJP has further alleged that he had bought ‘Likes’ in bulk from it firms in Istanbul.
Despite Gehlot being embattled on multiple fronts, the road ahead for Vasundhara is not all that easy. Key leaders in the state BJP unit dismiss her as an outsider. They grumble she has travelled more overseas than to Rajasthan. When noises of dissent from former home minister Gulab Chand Kataria and former education minister Ghanshyam Tewari became too raucous, an alarmed RSS intervened, forcing Kataria to join Vasundhara on the roadshow. But insiders say their differences persist.
Last year, the BJP’s national leadership came to Vasundhara’s support after Kataria announced a statewide political march, named the Lok Jagran Yatra. Vasundhara objected to it and stormed out of a meeting of the BJP’s core committee in Jaipur. After the intervention of senior leaders, the yatra was called off, but the simmering remained.
But tackling Tewari was not that easy. Enter Baba Ramdev. The yoga guru and Tewari go back a long way. Under the former’s influence, Tiwari had introduced compulsory yoga classes in all government schools. Ramdev gave free training to yoga teachers of the government schools.
On 13 July, Tewari had invited Ramdev for a family function. Afterwards, Ramdev spoke to Tewari about the need to resolve his differences with Vasundhara. He stressed that the BJP can defeat the Congress only if it puts its house in order. But Tewari resisted, pointing out that Vasundhara was high-handed. He turned down Ramdev’s plea that he, too, join her statewide tour as Kataria has done.
Speaking to TEHELKA, Tewari denied any differences with Vasundhara. “I had reservations on some policy matters when we were in the government. But we have always been together,” he said. The BJP has tasked him to write the manifesto. The party feels that winning the state’s Lok Sabha seats would be easy if it can beat Gehlot in the Assembly polls. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who heads the party’s national campaign team, sees Rajasthan as a key state for the 2014 election.
The BJP is working hard on getting the caste equations right. “As far as the Jats go, they are with me,” says Vasundhara confidently. The 3 percent Bishnois, too, she claims, are now disillusioned with the Congress, quite like the Jats. Another influential caste group, the Meenas, who are 12 percent, too, are expected to split between the Congress and its rebel leader, Kirori Lal Meena, thus indirectly benefiting the BJP. So, the Congress is left with some Brahmin votes and a majority of the Muslims, which won’t be enough to bring Gehlot back to power. The BJP is therefore pulling out all stops.
BJP chief Rajnath Singh, Modi and Vasundhara will hold a joint rally in Jaipur as part of the election campaign. The BJP cadres have already started planning for this mega event. “Over half of Rajasthan’s 40 million voters are the youth,” says Ashok Lahoty, former president of the BJP’s youth wing, the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha. “We are confident that they will overwhelmingly vote for the BJP.”
For the moment, Vasundhara has been able to paper over personality issues. In her last stint as chief minister, she was considered arrogant and autocratic. She had severely restricted the political movements of leaders like Rajya Sabha MP Lalit Kishore Chaturvedi, who was a minister in her government, as well as Tewari and Kataria. Kataria has been smarting since his name cropped up in the 2005 encounter killing in Gujarat of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, a local criminal from Rajasthan. “These leaders did not have power at the state level and then Vasundhara began uprooting them at the local levels, too,” a BJP leader told TEHELKA requesting anonymity.
There are allegations that during her tenure, three individuals carried extra constitutional powers. These were industrialist Lalit Modi, who is in self-exile in London since 2010 after he was accused of graft in organising the Indian Premier League; SN Gupta, a chartered accountant who used to look after her constituency; and Ajay Pal Singh, who was initially associated to a builder group known as UDB but was made chairman of the Rajasthan Housing Board (RHB). Sources say Modi vetted important files and even summoned senior officials and dictated orders to them.
The allegations against Ajay Pal Singh are that right before the RHB under him would announce a scheme, his associates would buy land around the project area at cheap prices, to make a killing once the scheme’s announcement pushed up the prices. The state BJP leaders opposed to Vasundhara went out of its way to ensure that these issues come to light. Now Gupta has fallen out with Vasundhara.
In the final scheme of things, the leader who is adept at quelling rebellion is likely to triumph. If the current mood is anything to go by, Gehlot is losing this race. Barring a miracle, he faces his turn in the wilderness.
With inputs from Revati Laul