The Congress finally raced ahead of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in naming candidates for the Rajasthan polls after releasing its fourth and fifth lists on Tuesday, 31 October. The 61 candidates named provide a mix of seasoned and young faces and bear a strong Ashok Gehlot stamp.
These lists take the total count of Congress candidates for the upcoming elections to 151, well ahead of the BJP which has so far announced 124 candidates. The Grand Old Party aims to defy the trend of incumbents being voted out in Rajasthan in the 25 November polls.
The names declared so far have an unmistakable stamp of Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot who has ensured tickets for most of his supporters. Given his stature as a three-time CM, this has been a dominant feature of the entire Congress list for Rajasthan, despite reservations of his bete noire Sachin Pilot and even some in the party High Command.
Critics Benched, Loyalists Promoted
While the buzz earlier was that around 50 sitting MLAs facing strong anti-incumbency in the surveys of poll strategist Sunil Kanugolu would be dumped, the lists show that Gehlot’s 'sitting-gating’ formula for MLAs is getting precedence.
Besides tickets for his loyalists, Gehlot’s clout is visible in the dropping of two of his most vocal critics though both were sitting MLAs. Among the six Congress legislators dropped in the current lists, two have been bitter Gehlot critics in the recent years: Bharat Singh, who wrote countless sharp letters to Gehlot, especially slamming corruption in the last five years, has been replaced by Bhanu Pratap Singh on the Sangod seat.
A former cabinet minister under Gehlot, Singh is known as a highly ethical, no-nonsense leader. Also, Khiladi Lal Bairwa, possibly the most outspoken among Pilot camp MLAs, has been dropped from the Basedi constituency though he was the Chairman of the state SC Commission. Bairwa was quick to slam the move as a "strange prize for saving the government.”
A majority of the dropped MLAs are from the Sachin Pilot camp but several of his supporters have managed to get tickets. Among these, the most prominent is former Assembly Speaker and sitting MLA Deependra Singh Shekhawat who has been retained from Srimadhopur seat.
Can Septuagenarian Leaders Impress Young Voters?
Shekhawat was among the MLAs who went to Manesar during the Pilot-led revolt in 2020. Citing health reasons, Shekhawat wanted the ticket to be given to his son but the Congress has reposed its faith in the 72-year-old veteran.
Deependra Singh’s candidature underlines the large number of 70-plus leaders the Congress is fielding for the upcoming elections. The party had already nominated over a dozen elderly leaders in its earlier lists. The new lists include another 10 from the elderly category such as 84-year-old Ameen Khan, 82-year-old Deepchand Khairiya, and 80-year-old Mahadev Singh Khandela.
Most of this elderly lot belong to the Gehlot generation and are known for close links to the CM. How many of these aged luminaries will impress the nearly 49 lakh new voters in Rajasthan is a key imponderable in an election where the youth vote may well decide the fate of the Congress and the BJP.
Mercifully, the Congress has fielded over two dozen fresh faces in the new lists. Among these, the most talked about is Gaurav Vallabh, the party’s national spokesperson who has been fielded from Udaipur on a seat that fell vacant after RSS strongman Gulab Chand Kataria was made Assam Governor this year.
An eminent economist – Vallabh is known for his work on the Congress’ economic agenda and is considered close to party chief Mallikarjun Kharge. He replaces veteran PCC chief Girija Vyas who lost this seat in the 2018 polls.
Another new face is Vikas Choudhary who has been fielded from Kishangarh. He was the BJP candidate for this seat in the 2018 polls but was replaced this time by Bhagirath Chaudhary, the BJP MP from Ajmer. A known Raje loyalist, 36-year-old Vikas then revolted and joined the Congress at a Priyanka Gandhi rally in Jhunjhunu district last week. Another notable inclusion is AICC National Secretary Dheeraj Gurjar, who lost from Jahazpur as the sitting MLA in 2018 but has been fielded again.
Interestingly, Manvendra Singh, the son of late BJP stalwart Jaswant Singh, has been fielded from the Siwana seat in Barmer though he was seeking a ticket from a Jaisalmer seat.
He was one of the most talked about candidates in 2018 when he had switched from the BJP and was pitted against the then-sitting CM Vasundhara Raje. The Congress has also fielded seven women candidates in the current lists but six of them are new faces.
Limited Options for Congress?
The Congress has now fielded 12 Muslim candidates with three more added to the new lists. The party has declared Imran Khan as its candidate in Alwar district’s Tijara seat to challenge BJP MP Baba Balak Nath.
A few weeks ago, Khan was announced as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) candidate from Tijara but now he has replaced sitting MLA Sandeep Kumar.
With a hardline Hindutva leader like Balak Nath, considered close to UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath pitted against Imran Khan, Tijara could well see the most shrill, polarised battle in Rajasthan.
Significantly, the Congress is also repeating over a dozen of its defeated candidates. Among these are Bhimraj Bhati who has lost five elections from Pali and Rafique Mandeliya who lost two assembly elections in 2013 and 2018 and two Lok Sabha polls in 2014 and 2019.
With a number of others who have lost 2-3 elections also being fielded, many are wondering whether the Congress has no new options. It also raises doubts about how well the party is nurturing younger leaders despite Rahul Gandhi’s repeated stress on young/fresh faces.
A ‘Gehlot Congress’ Prospectus
Despite five lists, the Congress hasn’t yet announced a candidate against two-time former CM Vasundhara Raje from Jhalarapatan, a seat she has won continuously since 2003. That year, Sachin Pilot’s mother, Rama Pilot lost to Raje, and in the last polls, Raje had defeated Manvendra Singh. Who will now confront her will be interesting to see given the buzz of a Raje-Gehlot secret understanding in the last few years.
Suspense still persists over the fate of three close aides of CM Gehlot –ministers Shanti Dhariwal, Mahesh Joshi, and RTDC Chairman Dharmendra Rathore. The trio is widely believed to have engineered the revolt on 25 September last year when over 80 Congress MLAs did not attend an official legislature party meeting in Jaipur which was expected to pass a resolution authorising the then Congress Chief Sonia Gandhi to appoint a successor to Gehlot. Instead, they held a parallel meeting at Dhariwal's residence.
Despite the numerous tickets he is swinging for his loyalists, if Dhariwal, Joshi, and Rathore are denied tickets, it will be a jolt to Gehlot's prestige. The tussle over their fate has turned the tricky task of ticket distribution into an acid test for the Congress.
Ultimately, the Congress list of candidates for Rajasthan reflects a deepening stamp of CM Gehlot. Many say that the buzz in political corridors is that the Grand Old Party has now become a 'Gehlot Congress’ in the desert state.
With most nominees being his choice and welfare schemes of his government being regarded as a winning mantra for the Congress, Gehlot is the pivot for the party in the desert state.
While results on 3 December will reveal the success of this electoral strategy, for the moment, it's Gehlot all the way for the Congress in Rajasthan. But in an election where Gehlot’s prestige and future are at stake, whether these are the best candidates that the Congress could have fielded is, of course, a rather different question!
(The author is a veteran journalist and expert on Rajasthan politics. Besides serving as a Resident Editor at NDTV, he has been a Professor of Journalism at the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur. He tweets at @rajanmahan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)