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Rajasthan Campaign Ends, Leaving Voters to Pick Communalism or Livelihoods

As Congress leader Rahul Gandhi faces an ECI notice over his remarks on panauti and pickpocket, a look at what flew under the election watchdog’s radar.
Rajasthan Campaign Ends, Leaving Voters to Pick Communalism or Livelihoods

Representational Image. Image Courtesy: PTI

The postponement of polling in Rajasthan by two days to 25 November allowed parties enough legroom to intensify their campaign in the state—the extra time has made the divergence in the pitch of the two main antagonists more than transparent. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led a shrill, sectarian and disingenuous campaign, while the Congress party has stuck to the bread-and-butter issues that served it well in Karnataka earlier this year. 

That is the light under which the 23 November notice sent by the Election Commission of India (ECI) to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi over his remarks on ‘panauti’ and ‘pick-pocket’ targeting Modi must be scrutinised. For, having nothing to show for their almost decade-long stint in power, Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah ratcheted up the communal and majoritarian tone of their campaign, which the ECI never seemed to notice. The Congress government in Rajasthan, meanwhile, rolled out a welfare agenda—but it has been bedevilled by allegations of corruption and leakages down the line.

Modi, Shah and a few other ‘star’ campaigners from outside the state have provided the main thrust of the BJP’s campaign. In practically every rally, the Prime Minister and Home Minister have raised the majoritarian pitch, taking time off only to mock Rahul Gandhi and prevaricate.

Let us take two instances of majoritarian and communal incitement that seem to have unsurprisingly flown far below the radar of the ECI.

On 21 November, Modi and Shah rammed home the BJP’s ‘Ram’ leitmotif. While Modi urged the crowds at rallies in Jaipur and Sawai Madhopur to knock on doors and convey his ‘Ram-Ram’ greetings to people, Shah asked a crowd in Sikar whether they would like to visit the under-construction temple at Ayodhya and then said, “Travelling to Ayodhya involves a cost. So, I want to tell you that just elect a BJP government here, and [it] will arrange a free visit for darshan of Ram Lalla.” If that isn’t a violation of the campaign code as well as a rewri, well.

At the very least, it speaks volumes about the bankruptcy of the BJP’s politics. What Shah’s boss did was significantly worse, however. On 15 November, Modi segued into hate speech at an election meeting in Barmer. “You have got an opportunity to punish them. Press the button with the lotus symbol so that their punishment is ensured. Press on the button with the lotus symbol as if you are sentencing them to [death by] hanging,” he said. 

Unprotected by parliamentary privilege, this speech should have invited legal action. As it happens, in India’s hollowed-out polity and shattered version of constitutional rule, it didn’t even attract strictures from the ECI, which, well. These are two of the more egregious instances of campaign violations, but appeals to religion, prohibited by the Model Code of Conduct (MCC), were so numerous they can scarcely be tallied.

And, of course, there was the constant recourse to trifling with the truth. Left with little wiggle room in the concrete achievements department, the strategy was to traduce the Opposition. Thus, on 20 November, Modi first accused the Congress and the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) of wanting to “destroy Sanatan”, referencing Hinduism. The sleight of hand lay in twisting the statement made by Udhayanidhi Stalin, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin’s son and minister in his government, on 2 September calling for eradicating social injustices perpetrated through “Sanatan Dharma”. The reference was to caste inequalities and is understood as such—it is not a synonym for Hinduism.

In the same speech, Modi claimed that the Opposition had started a campaign against women ever since his regime had “given” reservations to them. Everybody knows that is a lie. Legislation has been passed promising reservation, but it has effectively been put on ice at least until 2029. Given the logistics involved, the wait could be much, much longer. It is a promissory note of doubtful value, like the many jumlas—false promises—of the Modi regime, in Shah’s words.

The Congress party has largely kept its focus on issues relating to performance—contrasting their own relatively successful terms in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh with the BJP’s disastrous management of the economy at the Centre and in the states—and the quality of life provided to citizens in ways encompassing arenas other than the merely economic.

Which is not to say that it has an unblemished record. Fundamental reforms in the delivery of basic necessities—foodwater, shelter, healthcare and education—remain unaddressed. As is the issue of corruption, a structural impediment to enhancing public welfare. But shining a light on material issues is a start.

It seems at the end of the campaign trail that the Congress has managed its issues better by reconciling the ambitions of the insurgent leader, Sachin Pilot, with Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s incumbency. It has been aided perhaps by the fact that in his mid-40s, Pilot has time on his side, while the disaffected Vasundhara Raje, whom the BJP high command is trying hard to sideline, does not and is clearly not amenable to being brushed aside.

Everyone trying to read the tea leaves refers to the pattern of alternation that has made Rajasthan the Kerala of North India beginning in 1993 and featuring three chief ministers—Bhairon Singh Shekhawat of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1993 and the BJP’s Vasundhara Raje (twice), and the Congress party’s Ashok Gehlot (thrice). But it is not exactly ineluctably logical, since this isn’t the world of natural phenomena, that the BJP will breast the tape.

There is some talk of Gehlot’s administrative acumen holding out the possibility that the Congress could break the pattern as the Left did in Kerala in 2021, upsetting a pattern that went back to 1977. There is also the issue of competitive factionalism in both parties. 

In terms of the nitty-gritty of the BJP campaign, in all three North Indian states in the midst of elections, the party has forborne the option of projecting a local leader as the probable chief minister in the event of a victory. Battling voter fatigue in Madhya Pradesh, it has been forced by exigency to give Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan a high profile, but in Rajasthan, it has not projected anyone’s claim, effectively attempting to sideline Raje. It has, instead, gone into electioneering mode with Modi as the battering ram, as it has done so often, in the hope that it will thus succeed in breaking open the door to the chief ministerial office.

That this strategy hasn’t worked on numerous occasions is not the point, nor is this another attempt at predicting election results. We don’t know whether (or how) majoritarian consolidation and caste equations will trump livelihood and human development concerns. The fact that the latter won out in Karnataka by mobilising voters behind the Congress party is not of decisive salience. It is possible and to be hoped that a decade of kleptocratic authoritarianism will be rejected now and next year. 

The author is an independent journalist and writer. The views are personal.

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