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The Greater Showman in Rajasthan Elections: How Modi Magic Stumped Gehlot’s Act

BJP's strong win in the desert state reflected that in the Hindi heartland, Brand Modi remains impregnable.

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Billed as a direct 'PM-CM clash', the Congress-BJP showdown in Rajasthan was an electoral battle like no other. In the gladiatorial battle between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, the Jadugar of Rajasthan politics was unable to summon a winning trick.

Instead, Modi Magic trumped Gehlot’s welfare push, enabled the Bharatiya Janata Party to pull off a strong win, and reflected that in the Hindi heartland, Brand Modi remains impregnable.

As CM Gehlot strove to break the state’s revolving door tradition through a slew of welfare schemes, the Prime Minister – or 'Modi ki Guarantee’ as the BJP poll slogan put it – proved a hurdle too tough to overcome.
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A Flawed Ticket Distribution System

Beyond Modi Magic, however, why and how did Gehlot fail in his bid to change history in a state where no party has formed consecutive governments for the past 30 years? What factors prevented him from propelling the Congress to rewrite history will be debated for weeks, if not months. But some initial ideas and reasons are worth jotting down about why Gehlot has achieved the dubious hat-trick of leading the Congress to defeats at the end of each of his three tenures as CM.

In any serious analysis of the Rajasthan verdict, it needs to be underlined that much of the Congress defeat was scripted at the stage of ticket distribution. Gehlot’s welfare schemes had softened anti-incumbency against his government but not against Congress MLAs, many of whom were seen as corrupt and arrogant.

Despite clear warnings of public anger against the MLAs, the advice and surveys of Poll Strategist Sunil Kanugolu were ignored at Gehlot’s behest.

While gratitude towards MLAs who helped to save his government can be understood, not being clinical in ticket distribution has cost Gehlot dearly.

Despite their flaws and negative image, the failure to drop dubious MLAs and ministers has been a prime factor behind the Congress defeat.

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Gehlot-Pilot Rift Worsened Congress’ Case

More significantly, the deep rift between the camps led by Gehlot and Sachin Pilot dented Congress's chances in Rajasthan. Despite the truce effected by Rahul Gandhi and Congress Chief Mallikarjun Kharge in the last six months, the feuding duo were rarely spotted together even during the campaign.

Besides the negative buzz plaguing the party for years over this factionalism, BJP stalwarts often targeted the Gehlot-Pilot feud which they claimed had stalled the progress of the state.

In the final phase of the campaign, PM Modi even asserted that Sachin was being punished for his father Rajesh Pilot’s defiance of the Gandhis several years ago. Though the Gehlot-Pilot duo gave a sharp response to PM Modi’s charge, it was a case of too little, too late.

While the Congress dismissed Modi’s allegations as a ploy to woo Gujjar votes, public perception of a Gehlot-Pilot rift remained strong and was a major hurdle for a Congress win.
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Paper Leaks Deterred the Youth Votes

The Gehlot-Pilot rift was worsened by the failure of the Congress High Command to settle their disputes till too late. Even after the truce in the summer, Pilot was given no position and had no defined role in the campaign.

Ignoring Pilot cost the Congress heavily due to the Gujjar anger. While the Congress tried hard to show a united front and even Pilot appealed to voters to back the party, results show that the message did not go across effectively. Of the 59 seats in 11 east Rajasthan districts, the BJP won 38, gaining around 20 seats as compared to 2018. In contrast, the Congress managed to win just 19 out of 59 seats this time.

Besides Gujjar votes, Pilot’s sidelining prevented the Congress from encashing his appeal among the youth. With an unprecedented 22 lakh first-time voters this time, the youth vote was critical in Rajasthan and the BJP exploited the paper leak saga strongly.

Papers of several exams for recruitment to government jobs got leaked in recent years impacting lakhs of unemployed youth. But Pilot’s marginalisation implied that the Congress could not contain youth anger on the issue.

Though the Congress argued that paper leaks haunt almost all big states, the issue gained traction and the Gehlot dispensation could neither address nor shape the narrative on an issue that seems to have been a critical factor for the youth.

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Publicity Drive Failed To Compensate for Half-Hearted Efforts

Moreover, in a bid to compete with PM Modi, Gehlot not only initiated a massive publicity overdrive but ran his government as a 'one-man show', borrowing a page from the Modi playbook. Also, Gehlot cultivated an image of a “Mazboot, Dabangg Neta”, a strong fearless leader, much on the lines of PM Modi. But in doing so, he virtually ran the Congress in Rajasthan as a ‘one-man show’ and Gehlot’s dominance reeked of over-centralisation.

Besides Pilot, even Gehlot’s hand-picked State Chief GS Dotasara was upset at being ignored in all publicity materials which sparked a public spat with Naresh Arora, the founder of the PR firm hired by Gehlot. The situation reached such a boiling point that Gehlot had to visit Dotasara’s home to mediate. Such was Gehlot’s dominance that till the last fortnight of the campaign, his image was the only one on all Congress posters and billboards.

In the factional fights, the organisational integrity of the Congress in Rajasthan turned less than optimal. After the Pilot revolt of 2020, district Congress units were disbanded but they could not be replaced by new officials for three years.
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The last-minute appointments of state office-bearers and district presidents limited their effectiveness in forging a connection with the masses. The extent of disarray in the party organisation can be gauged by the simple fact that despite elections for Youth Congress at the start of the year, and the top three aspirants being interviewed many months ago, the appointment was stalled by the Gehlot-Pilot tussle. Ultimately, the ruling party went into the elections without a Youth Congress President being named! 

In addition, despite massive campaigning in the last phase by BJP biggies from PM Modi, to Union Minister Amit Shah to party CMs like Yogi Adityanath and Himanta Biswa Sarma, the Congress appeared a bit lackadaisical.

Only Party Chief Kharge and Priyanka Gandhi were active in October and early November.

In contrast, the party’s biggest drawback, Rahul Gandhi did not even visit Rajasthan from end-September to mid-November. His long absence created a public buzz that even Rahul was upset with Gehlot and further weakened the Congress campaign. 
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Fresh Leadership Warranted

Though Gehlot’s schemes and political smarts kept the Congress in the fight, ultimately he could not ensure a triumph for his party. Having lost an election where his credibility and legacy were on the line, Gehlot now faces an uncertain future.

In his new aggressive Avatar of recent years, he even ensured a ruthless takedown of the Congress high command’s attempt to replace him as Chief Minister in September 2022. 

As he introspects on a disappointing defeat despite his welfare schemes and attempts to neutralise Hindutva’s emotional appeal among voters, hopefully, the aging veteran will realise that for effective revival, the Congress desperately needs fresh blood.
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If Gehlot can honestly encourage a younger generation of leaders, including his bete noire Sachin Pilot, to take the Congress forward in Rajasthan, the Jadugar may yet provide some grand service to the Grand Old Party! 

(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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