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Castes to build the castle

Castes to build the castle
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Rajasthan like Uttar Pradesh follows the alternate-rule model, with BJP being replaced by the Congress in 2008, similar to how SP and BSP keep alternating to power in UP. But this time, the Congress’s best bet - Ashok Gehlot is trying his best to reverse this trend and keep his party in power. He faces stiff competition from former state chief minister and BJP’s ‘royal’ stake in the state – Vasundhara Raje. Gehlot is battling for the reputation of the Congress government which has been smeared with sex scandals. States former cabinet minister and leading Jat leader Mahipal Maderna and also a Congress MLA - Malkan Singh Bishnoi have been charged with kidnapping and murder of a nurse Bhanwari Devi in September 2011. Maderna and Bishnoi are already in jail in connection with this murder case. This scandal has been followed by another involving Babulal Nagar, minister of state for food and civil supplies. He has been arrested on charges of raping a woman who went to him seeking to redress her grievances.

In addition to the general feeling of anti-incumbency, Gehlot also faces challenges of massive faction-fighting. Party insiders feel that despite his cool and calm exterior, Gehlot too is subtly aggressive and dominating following the principle of – either with or  against him. Veteran leader from the state CP Joshi has been locking horns with him for long. Although like Ajay Maken in Delhi, the party high command has tried to mollify Joshi. He has been made a general secretary in charge of a few states, as well as a berth in the CWC.

In January this year, their feud came out in open during a meeting of the state Congress committee. Joshi questioned Gehlot’s style of working and asked him to take others along with him. Even though Joshi’s closeness to Rahul Gandhi is well-known, Gehlot has his chips high with his proximity to Congress President Sonia Gandhi, being a party loyalist for decades. Also as a general perception Gehlot is seen as a low-profile, humble, easily accessible and very media-friendly leader, unlike Raje who is viewed as a high-society socialite and blue blood with a feudal outlook. In fact she is viewed as a dictator by some, similar to Mayawati’s way of functioning. What works for her at the same time is her charismatic personality. She has a star appeal which attracts crowds, exclaims a political observer. Even the caste combination (Jat and Rajput votes) factor sometimes works for Raje. With this formidable advantage in her kitty, Raje might just sail through the state, if
all works well.

The bahu-beti mix suits her perfectly, as she is the bahu of a Jat family and the beti from a Rajput one. What might go against her is the lifestyle she adopted during her last stint as the chief minister. In fact some BJP insiders dubbed this phenomenon as ‘After 8 pm, No CM’ [referring to her evening parties]. Also what’s not forgotten is her close association with Indian Premier League’s former chairman Lalit Modi. This time Raje also doesn’t have the support of a Pramod Mahajan who had successfully ‘managed’ her campaign in 2003 election. Party insiders say that the role is now being subtly played by senior leader Arun Jaitley from the backroom.

Apart from the Joshi factor, what goes against Gehlot is his publicised spat with Sonaram, a retired Indian Army colonel, who is also a three-time Congress MP from Barmer, winning in 1996, 1998 and 1999. When the 2009 Lok Sabha election arrived, Sonaram demanded a ticket. Even though the Congress leadership was willing to give him the ticket, it was Gehlot who permited it. Instead, Gehlot ensured the ticket went to his protégée Harish Chowdhary. Even this time, ticket distribution is expected to be a huge issue to tackle for the Congress.

Gehlot despite these shortcomings enjoys a statewide appeal. Some political observers feel this is something in which Vasundhara lags behind. Gehlot also initiated several social welfare schemes including the old-age pension scheme, distribution of free medicines and free medical treatment in government hospitals as well as special scholarships for female students. These are likely to reap some harvest in electoral terms.

In 2003 elections, out of the 200 constituencies the BJP managed a massive number of 120, while the Congress got 56, BSP got 2, Independents managed 13 seats. While Indian National Lok Dal got 4, Janata Dal (United) -2, the CPI(M), Rajasthan Samajik Nyaya Manch and  Lok Jan Shakti Party got one each. Tables turned in 2008 as the Congress got 96 seats, while the BJP came crashing down to 78 seats, the BSP managed 6. While the CPI(M) got 3 seats, Independents managed 14, Janata Dal (United), Loktantrik Samajwadi Party and Samajwadi Party got one each. This time is an interesting election to watch out for as the Congress and BJP wrestle it out.

One vote-bank which is crucial for both the parties is that of the Jat community. They hold key to 36 seats in the state. In 2003 they had swung it for Vasundhara Raje. They came back to Congress in large numbers in 2008. The other electorally dominant communities are – Gujjars and Meenas. In the last election, the Congress won more Meena seats, where as the Gujjar seats were more or less evenly divided between the two parties. The votes from these two warring groups could decide for either of the two parties.
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