A Dalit Leads Opposition in Rajasthan Now: Will Congress’ Caste Arithmetic Work?

By promoting Jully, the Congress hopes to counter the Bhajan Lal effect & revive its popular base in East Rajasthan.

5 min read
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Ever since the Rajasthan Assembly results were declared on 3 December, Congress corridors had been abuzz with suspense and speculation over who would be the new Leader of Opposition (LoP).

Six weeks after a disappointing defeat in the Rajasthan elections, the Congress party has made a surprising but significant move by appointing Tika Ram Jully as its legislative party leader. With this landmark decision, the 43-year-old Tika Ram becomes the first Dalit MLA to be elevated as Leader of the Opposition in the Rajasthan Assembly.

Jully’s ascent is a major milestone for socio-political inclusion almost as big as the appointment of Jagannath Pahadia as the first Dalit Chief Minister of the state nearly 43 years ago.

Initially, Sachin Pilot was seen as the frontrunner but once he was made All India Congress Committee (AICC) General Secretary and in-charge for Chhattisgarh, he was rendered out of the LoP race.

How Pilot-Gehlot Friction Impacted LoP-Elect

The Congress High Command’s inability to finalise the LoP for six weeks sparked lots of speculation in political circles and on social media. The inordinate delay triggered an intense debate that the decision for the coveted post was caught up in the tussle between former CM Ashok Gehlot and his chief rival Sachin Pilot.

The delay led to names of several contenders being floated. While the Pilot camp was said to be supporting Jat leader Harish Choudhary, the Gehlot faction was said to be backing former ministers Mahendra Jeet Malviya and Shanti Dhariwal.

Finally, by naming Jully as the LoP, the Congress High Command has tried to move beyond the Gehlot-Pilot frictions that have crippled the state unit for years.

Though he’s a three-time MLA from Alwar Rural seat and was a cabinet minister in the Gehlot government, Jully is a low-key leader who is not identified with either of the two camps. Instead, he is considered close to Bhanwar Jitendra Singh, a key Rahul Gandhi confidante for years.

Singh is the head of Alwar’s former royal family and Congress insiders claim he has played a major role in Jully's elevation. With the party high command brainstorming for an effective LoP, Jitendra Singh reportedly put forward Jully's name and lobbied for the Dalit leader to get the coveted post.


Can Jully Be Congress’ Answer to Bhajan Lal?

In addition to his Dalit origins and support from Jitendra Singh, the choice of Jully as the LoP is based on other key factors. Besides a 25-year track record in politics, he has risen from the grassroots in Alwar district in East Rajasthan, a region where the Congress fared poorly in the recent elections.

In contrast, the BJP has turned a leader from this region, Bhajan Lal Sharma as the CM. By promoting Jully, the Congress hopes to counter the Bhajan effect and revive its popular base in this vital region.

Significantly, Jully as a minister in the Gehlot dispensation had performed effectively in the State Assembly. His well-prepared answers especially in the crucial Question Hour in the State Legislature, are said to have been a prime factor in appointing him as the LoP.

Moreover, besides bypassing the Gehlot-Pilot rift, the Jully elevation has other political aims and calculations.

In the recent Assembly Polls, the BJP had inflicted a blow to the Congress by breaking into its traditional Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe vote banks in Rajasthan. As it returned to power, the BJP won 22 of the 34 SC reserved seats while the Congress got just 11 seats.

In addition, after the electoral victory, the BJP has promoted a first-time Dalit MLA Prem Chand Bairwa as the state’s deputy CM. Jully's appointment now aims to check the BJP from making further inroads into Congress bastions and grabbing Dalit/backward votes.

A Decisive Shift in Leadership in the Desert State

Jully's promotion comes at a critical juncture when the political landscape in Rajasthan is witnessing significant changes as the two leaders – Ashok Gehlot and Vasundhara Raje – who have dominated the state for over 25 years are being pushed to the margins.

Following the Congress defeat in the recent Assembly Elections, the new BJP government under CM Bhajan Lal Sharma has marked a decisive shift to a younger generation. At 43, Tika Ram Jully is one of the youngest leaders in the state to be a three-term MLA.

By appointing Jully as the LoP, while retaining 59-year-old Govind Singh Dotasara as the party's state President, the Congress too has virtually ushered in a generational change in Rajasthan – away from the Old Guards of the Gehlot generation most of whom are now in their 70s.

Fundamentally, of course, the appointment of Jully holds immense symbolic significance in the larger quest for social justice. The Congress is trying to make a bold statement about its commitment to social justice and the empowerment of marginalised communities.

Jully's promotion enables the Congress to send out a message about pursuing inclusive politics and providing a platform for leaders from backward sections to hold prominent posts and play key roles.

Can a Jat-Dalit Combination Reap Benefits for Congress in 2024 Polls?

Beyond social engineering and political symbolism, the Congress hopes the Jully elevation will help the party to fill up the vacuum created by the BSP-Mayawati weakening in Eastern Rajasthan. In the recent Rajasthan polls, the BSP could win just two seats though in earlier elections it had bagged a much larger number.

Jully comes from a village bordering Haryana and the Congress plans to encash his appointment to revive and strengthen its SC base in other North Indian states.

By empowering a Dalit leader in Rajasthan, the Grand Old Party hopes to boost its bid to consolidate Dalit votes in other neighbouring states like Haryana, MP, and UP.

In effect, the Congress seems to have adopted the formula of a Jat-Dalit combination for the Lok Sabha battle looming ahead. With Jat leader Dotasra retained as state chief and Julie as the new LoP, the Congress is employing a Jat-Dalit formula after a long time.

It’s sending out a strong message to two big vote banks in Rajasthan before the Lok Sabha polls to counter the BJP’s choice of a Brahmin CM and two Rajput-Dalit leaders as Deputy CMs. The caste arithmetic through the Jully elevation has become far more complex and tantalising for the Lok Sabha face-off in Rajasthan.

Ultimately, leadership decisions often demonstrate the political will of a party and the Jully promotion indicates the Congress Party's determination to take tangible steps to address historical imbalances in political representation.

Jully's appointment is a multi-faceted move to shape a better political narrative and engage with diverse voters in a state where the Grand Old Party has just been hammered in State elections.

How well this choice resonates with voters will be clear in the summer but it has certainly made the Lok Sabha battle in Rajasthan far more intriguing!

(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:  Rahul Gandhi   Sachin Pilot   Dalit 

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