The results in Ajmer, Alwar and Mandalgarh bypolls clearly show that the Vasundhara Raje government is on a sticky wicket, and that sans development, the BJP’s poll strategy of polarisation may not always work.
“We do not believe in the politics of appeasement which is vote bank politics. We have removed dynastic politics from India. We believe in the politics of performance”, BJP president Amit Shah had proudly claimed last year, countering Rahul Gandhi’s speech at University of California, Berkeley. Well, if the campaigning for the recently concluded Ajmer parliamentary bypoll is anything to go by, then the duplicity of Shah’s assertions was quite remarkable.
The death of Bharatiya Janata Party MP Sanwar Lal Jat, who was serving as the minister of state for water resources in the Narendra Modi-led central government, had necessitated the Ajmer by-election. The deceased parliamentarian hailed from the Jat community, which represents the second-largest voting bloc in the constituency. Evidently, the BJP was in no mood to strain its relationship with this sizeable vote bank, keeping in mind the Rajasthan assembly elections scheduled to be held later this year. The ruling party at the Centre and state chose to select a candidate from the same community, knowing very well this would further strain their already tense relations with the agitated Rajput community.
Among a pool of deserving candidates, Ramswaroop Lamba, the son of late Sanwar Lal Jat and an apparent protégé of the latter, was picked for the Ajmer contest. The Congress accused him of being a political greenhorn, lacking any distinct credentials to showcase. On being asked about the BJP’s reason for selecting Lamba above other aspirants who had performed commendably at the grassroots level, BJP district president B. P. Saraswat – a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) veteran who previously served as the prant mantri in Vishwa Hindu Parishad – defended the move. Lamba, Saraswat pointed out, had served as the BJP’s youth wing’s general secretary for four years.
Paradoxically, no aspect of Lamba’s so-called track record was highlighted while BJP canvassed support from voters. Vasundhara Raje, the chief minister of Rajasthan who left no stone unturned to woo the Ajmer electorate, made an impassioned appeal for Lamba, “He is a sidha ladka and bhola manas (simple boy), speaks little and has no bad habits, so vote for him”. None of the BJP’s key functionaries in Ajmer were found underlining Lamba’s performance as an able administrator and a dedicated young politician. The presentation of the BJP candidate rendered Shah’s self-assured declaration of his party practicing ‘politics of performance’ hollow.
During the Ajmer election campaign, the BJP launched blistering attacks against the Congress. Taking a jibe at the virtually non-existent presence of Congress in the state assembly, the BJP cautioned voters that the former’s fortunes would plummet further to a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ and it would be futile to waste even a single vote. Raje had a huge roadshow on the last day of the campaigning, covering the city’s key localities. The election material, displayed on her campaign route, was liberally installed to give Ajmer a saffron appearance. Surprisingly, the deafening decibel levels of the loudspeakers had nothing positive to communicate other than the blatant acceptance of the growing numerical strength of RSS and BJP in India. One of the high-pitched recordings constantly harped on Hindu pride, saying “Raj tilak ki karo tyaari, aarahe hai bhagwadhaari. Bharat ka abhimaan hai hindu, matrabhoomi ki shaan hai hindu.” By no means did the message impart the efforts the Raje government had undertaken in rolling out development schemes for the marginal.
The BJP’s electoral strategy in the Ajmer bypoll exemplifies that the cruelest derider of their message of development for all isn’t the Congress but they themselves. The conch blown before the campaign begins with an idea of all-inclusive development, and as the election date approaches, the party does an unreserved volte face and the ugly head of polarisation rears up. By abandoning all talk of development and the prime minister’s pet slogan – sabka saath sabka vikaas – the BJP disowns its most essential idea of development. It preaches an exclusivist ideology, which simultaneously segregates and integrates, divides and unites. This gives an impression that BJP’s social, economic and political policies are generally a mask, which is changed at appropriate moments to suit its political needs. The BJP has so far successfully employed this tactic to nullify caste equations with the powerful coalescing effect of identity-driven majoritarianism.
However, the victory of Congress in the Ajmer parliamentary bypoll signals the Rajasthan voter’s aversion towards the BJP’s message of polarisation.
The Congress countered the BJP with a positive campaign, providing an outline of an alternative empathetic model of governance, and exposing the various failures and false promises made by Raje government. It tapped into the growing resentment among the electorate over rising agrarian distress, arbitrary privatisation of key public infrastructure and strikes by doctors and revenue services staff demanding improved work conditions and salary benefits. Other key issues exercising the Ajmer voter’s mind this time included the underwhelming progress on the Smart City project, price rise and compliance challenges faced by the trading community owing to the poor implementation of the Goods and Services Tax.
Another key driver of the Congress’s victory was the leadership and popularity of state unit chief Sachin Pilot, who infused a sense of direction and confidence in the rank and file and mined the building-up mood for change in the electorate.
Clearly, the dynamism of Congress’s positive messaging obliterated the vile politics of polarisation. The BJP thought that by putting up the son of a deceased parliamentarian, it would garner sympathy votes of a particular caste and get the rest on board by resorting to divisive politics. The BJP was prompted to embrace the divisive formula which had yielded rich political dividends for them in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and even Gujarat. But the electorate in Ajmer repudiated this strategy hands down.
The results in Ajmer, Alwar and Mandalgarh clearly show that the Raje government is on a sticky wicket. It is losing popularity and support considerably by the day. Perhaps, it’s time for Raje to remind herself of Shah’s claim regarding BJP promoting ‘politics of performance,’ which it very conveniently has chosen to forget. To conclude, a disgruntled young government in-service doctor in Ajmer assuredly shared his displeasure, saying, “Modi se bair nahin, Vasundhara teri khair nahin (We don’t oppose Modi, but won’t spare Vasundhara).”
Vandana Seth is a Research Scholar who covered the Ajmer bypoll.