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The verdicts of the recent round of Assembly elections have had their share of surprises. In this, the second instalment of a five-part, State-wise series, an analysis of the electoral outcome in Rajasthan, by Yogendra Yadav and Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi. The field work for the special post-election surveys on which the analysis is based, was coordinated in Rajasthan by Sanjay Lodha.
IF THE results of the Rajasthan Assembly elections surprised everyone, the reason was not just the inability of the various polls that had been conducted to anticipate the verdict. In all fairness, the exit polls had begun to suggest a surge for the Bharatiya Janata Party, even if they failed to estimate its extent.
There was a deeper reason for the surprise. It was generally believed and conceded off-the-record even by the BJP leaders that the Congress Government in Rajasthan did not have a poor track record, particularly when it came to its handling of the drought, and that Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot himself enjoyed a decent image among the voters. The early opinion polls confirmed this impression. How could such a government lose, and that too so badly?
The results of the Rajasthan elections present an apparent paradox before the observer. Was the positive impression about the Gehlot government unfounded? Or was the BJP's victory not so huge? If neither of these is true, how do we make sense of such a paradoxical verdict?
In terms of sheer numbers, the BJP's victory is anything but small. Its tally of 120 seats in an Assembly of 200 is more than double the tally of 56 that the Congress managed. This is the first time that the BJP has secured a clear majority on its own in the State. The party has succeeded in capturing 31 of the famous 57 seats that it had never been able to win. Except in the eastern districts of the Matsya region, the BJP humbled the Congress everywhere, including in the Congress strongholds such as Nagore, Udaipur and Ganganagar. It is true that the victory is less impressive in terms of votes. The BJP's huge lead in terms of seats is based only on a 3.5-percentage points lead in terms of votes. But if you look at the staggering 12-point deficit that the BJP inherited from the last elections, the achievement is indeed impressive. Overall, there has been a swing of 5.9 per cent of the votes for the BJP and a swing away from the Congress of 9.3 per cent of the votes compared to the last Assembly elections.
Look at the other side of the paradox now. Even in the post-election survey undertaken by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies after the people had voted and put the BJP ahead, there is no indication of popular resentment against the Gehlot government. In fact, 51 per cent of those interviewed said they were `satisfied' or `somewhat satisfied' with the Congress government, compared to 39 per cent who were `dissatisfied' or `very dissatisfied'.
When asked to compare the two parties in various respects, the voters still favoured the Congress for its achievements on the development front and in the matter of controlling corruption. The Congress was not voted out because the people were dissatisfied with the performance of the State Government. No doubt there were some points of unease. While Mr. Gehlot's personal image was clean, his government was not seen to be free of corruption. The voters were anxious about unemployment. The provision of electricity, roads and irrigation facilities was seen as having worsened in the last five years.
But the indictment on these counts was not very strong, unlike in Madhya Pradesh. And, above all, there was no nostalgia for the previous BJP regime. When asked to compare the Bhairon Singh Shekhawat government and the Gehlot government directly, the voters were equally divided as to which of the previous two governments was better. This is not a bad rating for an incumbent government. In the normal course you would not have placed your bets on this government losing the election, and that too so badly. The Congress could have won this round of elections.
What went wrong, then, for the Congress? All available evidence suggests that the superiority of the BJP's election strategy and organisational machinery made the critical difference. We are not talking here of the selection of Vasundhara Raje as the leader. On her own she did not contribute significantly towards the success of the BJP in Rajasthan. In fact, the survey revealed that in the popularity rating, Mr. Gehlot was marginally ahead of her until the very end. There was no significant difference between their rating for honesty between Mr. Gehlot and Ms. Vasundhara Raje. And there is no evidence to show that Ms. Vasundhara Raje brought the women's vote to the BJP. The party's vote share among both men and women was identical.
What worked in the BJP's strategy was its micro-management of every constituency. Its selection of candidates proved to be far better than that of the Congress. For as many as one-third of the voters, the candidate was the most important consideration while voting. Among them, the BJP established a solid lead of 8 percentage points. In other words, better candidate selection alone accounted for much of the lead that the BJP finally managed over the Congress. The effect began to show only towards the end, a little too late for the polls to capture it.
The post-election survey revealed that it was on the day of the elections that the BJP established a decisive lead. About 14 per cent of the voters made up their minds on whom to vote for, on the day of voting. Among them, 41 per cent voted for the BJP and 33 per cent for the Congress.
The BJP strategists also handled very deftly the local social chemistry. The Congress won in Rajasthan last time with the solid backing of Dalits, adivasis and Muslims with a fair amount of support among the other backward classes (OBCs), including Jats. The massive lead it obtained among these groups enabled the Congress to neutralise its shortfall among upper caste Hindus. This time round the BJP focussed on attacking the Congress' social constituency.
A lot of hype was generated by the media about the BJP's Jat strategy. The evidence from the post-election survey indicates that this part of the BJP's strategy did not work very well. True, the BJP secured more votes among Jats than the Congress, but more than one-third of the Jat voters preferred independents and rebels. Of the 52 so-called Jat seats in Rajasthan, the BJP won only 26, hardly proof of a successful strategy. More effective was the inroads the BJP made among the adivasis. The Congress used to get more than 60 per cent of the adivasi votes. This time it got less than 40 per cent. As a result the BJP won 15 of the 24 seats reserved for the Scheduled Tribes. To top it all, the Bahujan Samaj Party helped the BJP by taking away 14 per cent of the Dalit votes. The Congress was left with the solid support of only Muslims. That was simply not sufficient.
The successful micro-strategy of the BJP resulted in a huge amount of churn in this election. Thus, it is not surprising that of the 129 sitting MLAs of the Congress who contested, only 33 managed to win. At the same time, 12 of the 30 sitting MLAs of the BJP also lost. Traditional voters switched their loyalties.
In the post-election survey, 41 per cent of the voters identified themselves as being traditional Congress voters, while only 33 per cent said the same for the BJP. Besides, 15 per cent said that they were not committed voters of any one party. While 85 per cent of the traditional BJP voters voted for the party, only 72 per cent of the traditional Congress voters voted Congress. The BJP also secured the votes of a large number of floating voters. This contributed significantly to the BJP's victory.
There is a silver lining in this scene for the Congress. This result need not translate into a similar verdict for the Congress in the Lok Sabha elections next year.
When it comes to the answer to the question, which party they would vote for in the next Lok Sabha elections, the BJP's margin goes down to just one percentage point. There is no reason why the Congress cannot overcome this gap. For inspiration and ideas, it only has to look to the BJP.
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