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Rajasthan Polls ‘23 Is Gehlot’s Toughest Test: Will the 'One-Man Show’ Sustain?

With opinion polls suggesting a tight BJP-Congress clash, gauging the public mood on Gehlot dispensation isn’t easy.

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As the cacophony of campaigning ends in Rajasthan, it's clear that voting on 25 November will be most critical for the political destiny of one man – Ashok Gehlot. Ever since he led the Congress to a historic mandate in 1998, Gehlot has been called the Jadugar (magician) of Rajasthan politics.

A magician’s son, Gehlot is considered a Jadugar for his special knack for outwitting opponents – far removed from his soft-spoken image of Gandhian simplicity. As the Congress veteran battles to save his government and become the Chief Minister(CM) for the fourth time, Gehlot is using every trick in his political toolbox.

But the big question remains – can Gehlot buck the trend of incumbents being voted out in Rajasthan and ensure a Congress victory?

There are no easy answers to this seemingly simple yet complex query.

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Gehlot’s Mission-156: A Gift That Keeps Giving?

Over several decades, Gehlot has pulled off many magic-like tricks to rein in rivals and rise rapidly in his political career. But to retain power, the desert fox desperately needs to summon a winning trick. In a sense, history itself is ranged against Gehlot for Rajasthan has never voted the same party to power for two consecutive terms in the past 30 years.

With most opinion polls suggesting a tight BJP-Congress clash, gauging the public mood on the Gehlot dispensation isn’t easy.
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The three-time CM, however, is confident and has set a 'Mission-156’ for himself in the current election – a reference to his aim to reach the highest number of seats that the Congress has ever won in Rajasthan polls. Gehlot claims the situation is vastly different from 2003 and 2013 when he lost decisively after his first two terms as CM. He believes there’s no anti-incumbency this time as most opinion polls indicate a close fight.

Much of Gehlot’s confidence stems from his strong social welfare push. He believes he has created a 'Rajasthan Model of Good Governance’ – his central plank to retain power. From the flagship Chiranjeevi Health Insurance scheme to the Right to free smartphones for women and from reviving the Old Pension Scheme for employees to Minimum Guaranteed Income for the state’s entire adult population, Gehlot schemes cover all segments of society. No wonder, Gehlot often makes a special claim: “Aap mangte mangte thak jaoge, main dete dete nahi thakunga” – you will tire of demanding but I won’t tire of giving!

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Will Gehlot's Welfare Measures Reap Electoral Benefits?

Significantly though Gehlot’s welfare measures in his previous tenures were lauded, they hardly got any electoral dividends. His loyalists claim that a lack of marketing the schemes aggressively was the prime cause for those setbacks.

No wonder, this time Gehlot engaged a PR agency – DesignBoxed to create a powerful publicity blitz on his welfare schemes. Riding on those schemes and new guarantees announced in the poll campaign, Congress hopes to buck the anti-incumbency trend, and Gehlot’s effective handling of the COVID 19 pandemic is also seen as a key to victory for the Grand Old Party.

Not everyone, however, is convinced by the rosy picture painted by Gehlot and his loyalists. Critics claim it's not the schemes but the tensions between Gehlot and former Deputy CM Sachin Pilot which created the biggest buzz over the past five years.

The Pilot rebellion in 2020, the revolt by Gehlot’s loyalist MLAs in 2022, and the recurring feud between the two biggies have often embarrassed the Congress. Rahul Gandhi and Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge have ensured peace between the warring duo in recent months but the public perception of a Gehlot-Pilot rift remains strong and could be a major electoral hurdle.

Moreover, political circles are abuzz that the Congress in Rajasthan over the past five years has been a 'one-man show’ with Gehlot’s dominance creating a perception 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 a fortnight ago, his image was the only one on all Congress posters and billboards.

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Corruption Issue Remains a Raw Nerve

Gehlot and the Congress have also found it hard to counter corruption charges, especially those related to paper leaks. Besides BJP attacks, it needs to be underlined that it is a former minister's claim that he has a ‘Red Diary’ which contains evidence of financial misdeeds in the Gehlot rule that has embarrassed the CM in the electoral campaign.

This brings us to the central challenge confronting Gehlot – the anti-incumbency against his MLAs and ministers. Gehlot’s welfarism may have countered the anti-incumbency against his government, but not against ruling party MLAs many of whom are seen as corrupt and inaccessible.

Voters in most areas complain that Gehlot turned a blind eye to the corruption of MLAs as he needed to humour them for his government’s survival. In this sense, the situation is similar to the elections of 2003 and 2013 when Gehlot was seen as a good man but one who had little control over unpopular ministers and MLAs.

This scenario made ticket distribution an acid test for Gehlot and the Congress leadership but they couldn’t summon the courage to cut tickets of dubious ministers and MLAs. A popular slogan in the state says, “Gehlot Tujhse Bair Nahin, MLA Teri Khair Nahin” (Gehlot we don’t have enmity with you, But MLAs we won’t spare you). This slogan reflects the public anger against MLAs but poll strategist Sunil Kanugolu advice to drop many more sitting MLAs was largely ignored on Gehlot’s insistence.   

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Welfarism As the Central Plank

What makes it a tougher challenge for Gehlot is the PM-CM clash in this election. With BJP not fielding a CM face and relying on Modi's magic to woo voters, there has been a trading of barbs between the duo throughout the campaign.

Besides calling himself a ‘bigger Fakir than Modi’, Gehlot has crafted an interesting narrative for this PM-CM battle. Depicting it as a ‘Rich vs Poor’ contest, Gehlot claims his welfare schemes are essentially 'poor-friendly initiatives'.

Presenting the Rajasthan election as a fight between the poor (who have benefitted from his schemes) and the rich (who are backed by PM Modi and BJP), Gehlot presents his government as a saviour of the weak while projecting BJP as a party aligned to the greed of the privileged.
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Gehlot and his loyalists are proud of how he ‘outsmarted’ the current Chanakya of Indian politics – Amit Shah – and saved his government in 2020. Like the Modi-Shah duo, Gehlot is a 24/7 politician but the question is can he now save his government at the hustings?

His schemes and political smarts have certainly kept the Congress in the fight – unlike at the end of his last two tenures when the Congress was quite hopeless. Given his advancing age, Gehlot desperately needs a win to wash off the stain that he had led the Congress to huge defeats after his first two terms.

If he wins his stock will rise sky high – he was made the Congress President in 2022 and his supporters believe that given his OBC credentials, he could be a potential PM candidate in case he wins. But if he loses, he could face political oblivion with the Congress moving to a next-gen leadership, perhaps headed by his bete noire Sachin Pilot!
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Clearly, voting on 25 November will see Gehlot’s credibility, legacy, and future at stake. This titanic Congress-BJP clash may well be the defining moment of his political career. While Gehlot seems the Big Boss of Rajasthan Congress, his chance of reversing the desert state’s trend of changing governments every five years is a rather different ball game!

(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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