The 2014 Lok Sabha polls wiped out the Congress from Rajasthan, reducing its numbers to zero. Now, after three-and-a-half years, the party has finally opened its account in the lower house of parliament.
The results of the Rajasthan bypolls – on two parliamentary and one assembly seats – are good news for the Congress. However, it is no ‘sudden’ striking development. The party, under the leadership of state president Sachin Pilot, has made steady gains since 2013, when it was voted out. Of the eight bypolls held in the state since 2013, the Congress has won six.
While the results ring alarm bells for the BJP leadership, the Congress has its own challenges, chief among them is the ‘open secret’ tussle between the Pilot and Ashok Gehlot factions over the post of chief minister.
Pilot, who is being credited as the architect of the bypoll win, spoke to The Wire about the results and what they mean for the party’s chances in the state assembly elections, which are scheduled for later this year.
It is generally said that bypolls are a foregone conclusion as the ruling party often wins comfortably. How did you manage to pull this feat in Rajasthan?
Nobody can win an election by campaigning for two weeks. It takes months and years of campaigning to endear yourself to the electorate. We have been in election mode for the last four years. And we have been seeing a lot of disenchantment with the ruling dispensation (and) people are seeing the Congress as a better option. A lot of people who had been swayed by the BJP’s propaganda have now returned to the Congress.
We won in all 17 assembly segments which means the mandate was not limited to one caste or religion or geographic location.
A lot of credit is being given to your booth-level management. What exactly did ‘Mera booth, mera gaurav‘ achieve?
We started ‘Mera booth, mera gaurav‘ (the Congress’ booth management strategy) to ensure that local leadership is strengthened to take on the administrative machinery of the government. These people worked really hard to ensure that voters were not persuaded or coerced by the BJP. Our strategy was multifold; one thing we did was stay away from grand, in-your-face campaigning. We focused more on subtle, intimate, one-on-one messages. We had senior leaders present at the panchayat level along with 400-500 workers. They worked there for a month.
Rajasthan Congress has finally managed to open its account in the Lok Sabha after almost four years, don’t you think that’s too little, too late?
Its neither too late, nor too little. These elections will have ramifications not just in Rajasthan, but across India, because looking at our margins, people seem to have clearly rejected the BJP.
All these seats are spread apart geographically… Alwar is in the National Capital Region, Ajmer is in central Rajasthan; Mandalgarh in southern Rajasthan bordering Madhya Pradesh. This shows that the sentiment is the same across the state.
While this mandate is against the Vasundhara Raje government, people still seem to have faith in the BJP when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is its face. Will that be a challenge for the Congress? Do you agree about the possibility of the Modi wave coming to the BJP’s rescue in Rajasthan later this year?
You can’t delineate Raje from Modi. They’re both BJP. The people have rejected BJP. Issues like faulty implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), and demonetisation affected urban voters, the small businessmen. We managed to (lay a siege in) the BJP’s traditional electorate. Raje has lost the moral ground to continue. She must resign.
When she first came to power, bypolls were held and we won three of four. Now when she’s finishing her term, we have won three of three. So there is no hope for the BJP now. They have been totally derailed and there won’t be any miracle to get them back on track. People have made up their mind. Rajasthanis gave a huge mandate to the BJP, but they squandered it.
In Alwar, which over the last one year emerged as a major laboratory for Hindutva politics, the results were striking. Is it a one-off case or do you think its a clear mandate against Hindutva politics in the state?
Absolutely. People were wise enough to not fall into the trap of BJP’s strategy of blatantly communalising and polarising people… Especially in Alwar. You should have heard the inflammatory statements from BJP leaders.
Of the eight bypolls held in the state since the BJP came to power in 2013, the Congress has won six. That’s a really impressive figure. How did you manage that?
Even though we lost the elections, we did not sit back. We have been in election mode since day one. People have not just rejected the BJP, but they have clearly chosen the Congress as the party they trust with their future.
I became the PCC president in 2014. Since then, I have been in election mode. The party workers also see that, if you spend time with them, emotionally bond with them…all the dharnas, gherao, rallies, padyatras…they saw it. You endear yourself first to the worker and through them to the people.
While these results are encouraging, the Congress has been struggling with intra-party challenges. Reports about factionalism keep surfacing. There is the Sachin Pilot camp, the Ashok Gehlot camp and the C.P. Joshi camp. Can that hurt the party’s chances in the assembly polls?
We are, have been and always will be united. This propaganda (factionalism) is (a part of) the BJP’s cheap tricks. Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi are our leaders and we work under their stewardship.
Did the Gujarat campaign (led by former Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot) have any bearing on the bypolls?
We won Punjab, contrary to what people thought. In Gujarat, too, we increased our tally. I think Mr. Gandhi’s campaign and his becoming party president has galvanised the young workers in the party. (Now, these results) will have a bearing on the Karnataka elections and so on…so it (Gujarat) has been a positive impact.
The BJP’s star campaigners list had prime minister Modi and Amit Shah, although neither showed up. But the Congress relied entirely on local leadership. Was that strategic?
Bypolls are usually local affairs. No Congress party president has ever campaigned for bypolls. In fact no Prime Minister has ever campaigned for a bye-election. It’s the first time that they (BJP) put up (Modi’s) name as the star campaigner. Of course, he didn’t show up because he is smart. He knew they were going to lose.
Based on the trend of these 17 assembly segments, there are a few projections that say the Congress is likely to win 153 seats. What is your projection?
I don’t want to go with any projection but I know that the people are with us and we will get a resounding mandate to serve the people. These results have placed an extra burden on our shoulders…this will make us more humble and make us work even harder in the next few months to reach out to the people, to hold hands with them and to make sure the BJP is defeated.