The state election has turned into a battle between a very popular Prime Minister and an equally well-liked Chief Minister. It will also be a key test of the BJP’s strategy of sidelining popular state leaders—and relying entirely on the Modi card.
Researched by: Rachel John & Anannya Parekh
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Rajasthan: a quirky electoral history
The numbers: Rajasthan has only one house—which has 200 seats. Of these, 59 are reserved for members of Scheduled Castes and Tribes. The majority mark is 101. Also key: It sends 25 MPs to the Lok Sabha—and has 10 Rajya Sabha seats.
An unruly pattern of voting: Rajasthan is infamous for kicking out the ruling party in every election. Since 1993, no government has won a reelection. But, but, but: This is not true for Lok Sabha elections. The state has faithfully voted for the BJP since 2014—when Modi first became PM.
But not much choice: In the 11 elections in its history, the political contest has always boiled down to Congress and the BJP. And in the last 33 years—since 1998—the state has had only two choices for Chief Minister: Ashok Gehlot or Vasundhara Raje. Gehlot will now complete his third term in power—if he wins reelection he will beat the 17-year record held by Mohan Lal Sukhadia.
The good news: Although there have been hung elections, the party with the largest number of seats—if not a majority—has always held on to power. There have been no instances of “resort politics”—using defections to topple a government.
Point to note: However, there is no shortage of party-hopping before an election. The number of defections this time around have been exceptional—with leaders getting tickets from their newly embraced party within hours of their exit. In a number of seats, the contest is between the same two candidates—except they have now swapped parties lol!
The 2018 elections: Both Congress and the BJP failed to win a clear majority. Congress came up two seats short—with a total of 99. The BJP ended up with 73. Gehlot became CM with the support of smaller parties. But Congress has since increased its total to 107—thanks to defecting Bahujan Samaj Party MLAs and a byelection win. The BJP tally is now 70.
What’s most notable: The outcome was determined by extremely close contests. In 2018, 38 candidates won by a margin of less than 5,000 votes. In nine, the difference was less than 1,000.
In this corner… Ashok Gehlot
The one-man show: Gehlot has spent the past five years sealing his pole position in the state party. He has ruthlessly squelched a rebellion by his rival Sachin Pilot—a Rahul Gandhi acolyte. And he has openly defied the Gandhi family’s ploy to ease him out of the state—refusing to run for national party president in 2022. Though you can still see signs of ruffled feelings in this awkward moment—during Gandhi’s recent trip to Rajasthan:
The CM who cares: Gehlot has staked everything on his reputation as the ‘welfare Chief Minister’. As he proudly declares:
My agenda since the very beginning has been pro-poor and welfare oriented. It is associated personally to me because I firmly believe in the policies my government is implementing for the citizens of the State.
He boasts of the Rajasthan Model—“a unique and new architecture of welfare and social security.”
The seven guarantees: In this election, Gehlot is running on the promise of delivering ‘seven guarantees’:
- An annual honorarium of Rs 10,000 to women heads of the family.
- A promise to buy animal dung at Rs 2 per kg to help farmers.
- A laptop or tablet for every student joining a government college.
- Expand the Chiranjeevi health insurance that covers up to Rs 25 lakh in medical expenses to include accident insurance of Rs 15 lakh.
- Free English-medium schooling for all.
- Increasing the number of families who can buy gas cylinders at the subsidised price of Rs 500 from 7.6 million to 10 million.
In response, the BJP has hastily unveiled “Modi’s guarantees”—which are very similar.
Mr Popularity: Rajasthan voters agree with Gehlot’s assessment of his tenure. In an October-end survey, a staggering 71% said that they were satisfied (fully or somewhat) with the Gehlot government’s work. And that includes BJP supporters:
Traditional BJP voters admit it too: “Kaam to kiya hai (The government has indeed worked)” before asserting, “Lekin Rajasthan mein sarkar to palategi (But in Rajasthan, the government will change for sure)”. Very few people speak ill of Gehlot, who is seen as a trustworthy and pro-people leader. The CM’s rivalry with Sachin Pilot is not at the top of peoples’ minds.
So much so that a BJP MLA candidate was caught on camera—asking Amit Shah not to badmouth either man at a rally:
Uniter not a divider: Gehlot has managed to cleverly position himself as offering something to everybody:
He plays on his reputation as a magician and his Mali—the OBC gardener caste—origins. He stands out with his mastery in juggling ideas, interests and people around him… He moves from messaging on cow protection to English-medium schools; can subtly foreground his OBC badge without remotely offending other caste groups. He wears his Hindu identity lightly and visibly; but Muslims and tribal communities swear by him.
But, but, but: None of this guarantees a Gehlot win. One reason is that he has stubbornly given tickets to every MLA who remained loyal to him in the battle against Sachin Pilot. These include netas with dubious reputations—which accentuates the anti-incumbency impulse of Rajasthani voters. Also: thin margins mean that every seat counts. Gehlot could have sought an alliance with smaller parties—with hyperlocal clout. He chose instead to give those tickets to his supporters.
Also this: Many Rajasthani voters appear to be comfortable with the gaddi switching hands every five years: “We have been happy with Gehlot ji once and then Vasundhra ji. It’s a good democratic tradition, we must follow it as it has worked for Rajasthan.”
Then again, Muslim voters point out they have no such luxury—given BJP’s Hindutva messaging. And others are tired of switching sides for no good reason: “This isn’t a cricket game kee ab kis kee batting kee baari aayegee (who’s turn is it to bat now), changing a government just because it’s what we’ve done for a quarter of a century is stupid.”
And in the other corner… Narendra Modi
As in Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh, the BJP has placed all its bets on Modi’s popularity. It’s the old ‘double engine sarkar’ argument—vote for the BJP at the state level, and Modi’s government in Delhi will take care of your state.
This may be a winning ploy since Modi is more popular than Gehlot: “Asked to choose between the two leaders, the Prime Minister scored a narrow win—37% to 32% who opted for Mr Gehlot. The key will likely be the 20% who said 'both'.” Not moving the needle one teeny bit: Rahul Gandhi.
Number to note: Modi has made nine trips to the state till July this year—the highest among the five that are holding elections this month.
If there were still any doubts, Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeated at a rally in Jaipur on Monday, “I want to tell every BJP worker that our identity and pride is only the lotus.” While women remained the highlight of the event – other than the PM himself – former CM Vasundhara Raje was conspicuously not given an opportunity to speak. Nor did the PM mention her government and contrast it with the incumbent Congress government of CM Ashok Gehlot even once during his half-an-hour address.
The party has once again opted for “collective leadership”—i.e not declaring a CM candidate.
But, but, but: The state BJP has paid a heavy price for it—as Raje has mostly stopped showing up, be it for elections or campaigns. And her absence has taken its toll:
Of the nine bypolls since 2018, the Congress won seven and the BJP one… More recently, the BJP’s just concluded Parivartan Yatras did not receive the response the party was hoping for. From various places, including Jodhpur, Fatehpur, Merta, Dausa, Dholpur etc, came pictures of empty chairs. Normally, ticket aspirants would be queuing up at the events to showcase their strength.
History to note: The decision to kick Raje out into the cold doesn’t have much to do with her losing the last election. Delhi’s distaste is based on what she did when she was in power:
Raje’s tiffs with the RSS started soon after she first took over as chief minister in December 2003, with her appointment of close associates to senior posts rather than Sangh apparatchiks… The RSS had reportedly requested Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat to intervene, an interference Raje refused. The situation worsened in Raje’s second term, when 65 temples were demolished in Jaipur for the expansion of the Jaipur metro and ring road.
New Delhi has very little patience for leaders who have an independent power base—and don’t share its ideology. And it’s willing to lose elections to undermine them. See: BS Yeddiyurappa in Karnataka.
Quote to note: A BJP leader says:
There is no question that if Vasundharaji had been projected, we would have won a two-thirds majority in Rajasthan. We believe we are winning this, but we would have been on surer footing if she was our CM face.
What the numbers say: Most opinion polls predict a narrow win for the BJP—with only two outliers that say otherwise. But the numbers are well within the margin of error. In other words, Rajasthan remains too close to call.
The bottomline: The BJP has followed the exact same strategy in the three Hindi belt states that went to polls this month—Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Taken separately, none of the outcomes will have an impact on the Lok Sabha elections. But if the BJP does poorly in all three, the narrative will change—as will the ‘hawa’ (momentum).
Frontline offers a good overview—log in required. Indian Express and Hindu Business Line look at the impact of sidelining Raje in Rajasthan. Yogendra Yadav in The Print parses the opinion polls. The Hindu has a great profile of Gehlot and lots of data on the last election. The Wire has a good ground report from the state.