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Gehlot-Dhankar Spat Explodes As Jostling For Jat Vote Intensifies In Rajasthan

Opinion: With elections round the corner, both Congress and BJP are crafting their caste-based electoral strategies.

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What exactly has gone wrong between the Rajasthan Chief Minister and the Vice President of India? The unsavoury spat between Ashok Gehlot and Jagdeep Dhankar has made some allude to personal animosities, while others stress the need to observe constitutional decorum and propriety.

However, political circles are buzzing – and the root of the row lies in the intense jostling for the powerful Jat vote in the upcoming poll battle.

CM Gehlot’s offensive was sparked by Vice President Dhankar’s frequent trips to election-bound Rajasthan, which he visited seven times in the past month. On that particular day, when the VP was visiting five places in Rajasthan, Gehlot claimed the VP’s helicopter was hovering all over the state.

Piqued by numerous visits by Dhankar, who belongs to the Jat community, Gehlot stated, “You are welcome... We will felicitate you if you become president, but for the moment, please spare us.”

Objecting to Dhankar’s recurrent trips, Gehlot even remarked that “people understand why the VP is coming here again and again” and “they will give a befitting reply."

Clearly, the CM was insinuating that the visits amounted to indirect political campaigning – an unprecedented charge against a constitutional dignitary.
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What Explains Gehlot's Remarks?

Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) campaigns in most state polls and deploys key ministers for micro-management, constitutional figures have never been accused of electioneering or canvassing to ensure poll gains for a political party, as implicit in Gehlot’s tirade.

The attack on the VP seems out of character, as Gehlot normally takes good care to maintain constitutional decorum.

Political circles attribute Gehlot’s comments to his acute sensitivity to the Jat vote.

His political trajectory, from the high of winning 156 seats in the 1998 Assembly polls to a sharp decline for the Rajasthan Congress in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections in Gehlot’s first term as CM, is usually traced to the Jat agitation for OBC reservations that rocked the state in the late 1990s.

Traditionally, the agricultural community of Jats, wielding decisive influence in about 40 constituencies in Rajasthan, were considered Congress voters. However, it was the first BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s promise in the 1999 Lok Sabha polls that was instrumental in getting OBC status for Jats.

The Congress rout in the 2003 Assembly elections after Gehlot’s first tenure as CM is often linked to the crucial Jat factor, and in the attack on Dhankar, many felt the old trauma still haunts Gehlot.

Dhankar's Visit to Swing Jat Voters?

In a sharp counter, Dhankar defended his frequent visits to Rajasthan by citing his roots in the state. Since it is his native state, he claims the CM does not have to receive him as per protocol every time he visits. In a swipe at Gehlot, without naming him, he asserted that “some people make indecent comments on constitutional institutions, wearing political glasses.”

Dhankar’s logic, however, has hardly convinced too many, as he has been touring the state with a packed schedule of public events.
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Also, local media are busy analysing how his trips may swing Jat voters in favour of the BJP. Also, neither the VP nor his supporters have provided a valid explanation for why, instead of union ministers, it's Dhankar who is inaugurating numerous central government schemes in Rajasthan.

While 17 of his 40 trips as the VP occurred in election-bound Rajasthan, critics have also questioned Dhankar’s utterances. His potshots at the Opposition in general – and Rahul Gandhi in particular – may have triggered Gehlot’s outburst and are in sharp contrast to Dhankar’s open admiration for the BJP-led central government and PM Modi.

For instance, when Rahul Gandhi alleged that structures of Indian democracy are under “brutal attack” and there is a “full-scale assault on the institutions” of the country during his UK trip in March, Dhankar slammed the Congress leader. Taking a dig at Rahul, the VP asserted, “It hurts when some of us go to a foreign country and tarnish the image of an emerging India.” 

Significantly, in his recent trip to Rajasthan, Dhankar’s description of the Women’s Reservation Bill as ‘a game-changer’ seemed partisan since the Opposition claims the Modi government is delaying its implementation by tying it to the census and delimitation.

Also, his comment that “corruption was a killer of growth and democracy” and that “power corridors have been totally neutralised by power brokers in the last 10 years” hardly sounds non-political.

Even his interaction with students in Kota last week, where Dhankar lavished fulsome praise for Modi over the success of the Chandrayaan-3 mission, seemed a little unbecoming of a constitutional authority. 

No wonder Dhankar’s statements are being viewed as indirect support for the BJP in election season. For many in Rajasthan, his elevation as the VP after a controversial tenure as Bengal Governor was linked to the BJP’s keen desire to woo Jats, who form about 11% of voters in the desert state.
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Since Dhankar was a prominent figure in the campaign to get OBC status for Jats, Gehlot’s remarks stem from the calculation that Dhankar’s visits are aimed at wooing votes from his own Jat community for the BJP. 

Intense Battle For Jat Votes in Rajasthan

The Gehlot-Dhankhar spat reflects the intense battle for Jat votes in Rajasthan that is not limited to just the Congress and the BJP, but includes factors like the influence of Hanuman Beniwal and his Rashtriya Loktantrik Party (RLP). Beniwal played a vital role in the last two elections. During the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP left the Nagaur seat for him despite his sharp attacks on former CM Vasundhara Raje.

Later, the alliance collapsed due to Beniwal’s open support for the agitation against the Modi government’s farm bills. But he remains a potent force, especially due to his hold over Jat youth. 

In addition, the Jannayak Janta Party (JJP), an ally of the BJP coalition in Haryana, has announced it will contest about 30 seats in the state. With a lineage linked to Jat icon and former deputy PM Devi Lal, the Haryana-based JJP plans to make a splash in the Rajasthan polls and implies a fresh complexity in the battle for Jat votes.

Though bolstered by former Congress MP Jyoti Mirdha joining the saffron ranks, the BJP doesn’t have too many Jat stalwarts. Instead, it is primarily banking on former state BJP chief Satish Poonia, and political corridors are abuzz that Dhankar, despite his constitutional status, is being used by the BJP to enhance its appeal in the Jat community.

Threatening legal action unless Gehlot apologises for his remarks on the VP is the BJP’s attempt to gain an edge in Jat-dominated seats. 

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With elections two months away, the Congress and the BJP are diligently crafting their caste-based electoral strategies. Besides its core support base among Rajputs, Brahmins, and Baniyas, the BJP is keen to target the Jats to discover a winning formula.

The Congress, too, is working hard to woo various groups to get its caste arithmetic right – and the Jats figure prominently in these calculations.

The Gehlot-Dhankar feud signifies the fierce competition for Jat votes in Rajasthan. Since the community's electoral weight is often pivotal in determining the state’s political destiny, no punches will be spared in the bid to woo this key votebank. While it's a mystery which way the Jats will swing, the Jat vote may well have a decisive influence on the Rajasthan elections.

(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.)

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Topics:  Congress   Jat   Rajashtan 

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