The upcoming panchayat polls in Rajasthan are being seen by Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, who recently completed his first year in office, as an opportunity to cash in on the incipient anger against the CAA and the NRC and reverse the trend of Congress loss in the Lok Sabha polls last May.
Rajasthan Chief Minister and veteran Congress warhorse Ashok Gehlot faces a litmus test inJanuary 2020 as 9,171 panchayats in the desert state go to polls. The electoral clash would be a test of his government's popularity as it comes close to his first anniversary in office and amid an overhang of protests and political schism related to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register.
Emerging confident and stronger from the successful year in Chief Minister's Office, Gehlot has been on the forefront of the Congress assault on the Central government in the Hindi belt over the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and NRC and the simmering public anger over these issues is likely to give his party a leg up in the rural elections.
The three-phase panchayat elections on January 17, 22 and 29 will be like a referendum on Gehlot government's performance and a barometer of the saffron party's efforts to claw back into the state's political mainstream after losing power exactly 12 months ago in the Assembly polls.
While the BJP is hungry to bounce back, after the 2018 Assembly poll debacle, the Chief Minister is said to be working on a strategy to encash disconcerting feeling among Muslim voters over the CAA and NRC issue in the rural polls.
Gehlot recently led an anti-CAA march in state capital Jaipur and, reflecting the confidence of a CM in command, attacked the BJP repeatedly. "The sentiment of public cannot be ignored by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who should take a decision based on their feelings. The PM should announce that the CAA and NRC, in the current form, would not be carried out across the country," the Chief Minister said while leading “Samvidhan Bachao rally”, a gathering of nearly three lakh people, including leaders from the Left, Samajwadi Party, the AAP, Rashtriya Lok Dal and Janata Dal-Secular.
From the tone of the Chief Minister's speech and the Congress' preparation for the march it was apparent that it was a step in the direction of mobilising party cadre ahead of the panchayati elections next month.
Reaching out to minority communities and civil society, after the three km march ended at Gandhi circle after starting from the historic Albert Hall, Gehlot stressed that the Narendra Modi government should repeal the CAA.
Calling for a bipartisan and secular strategy against all illegal immigrants irrespective of their religion, Gehlot said attempts by the BJP government to divide people in the name of religion will boomerang.
Politically speaking, the past one year in Rajasthan has been very eventful, especially due to the wipe out of the Congress in the Lok Sabha polls in May 2019. The BJP won all 25 parliamentary seats while the Congress failed to even open its account. While knives were out against Gehlot immediately after the LS results as his opponents tried to put the blame for the poor party performance on him, the veteran Congressman managed to weather the storm and steady his ship to resume his anti-BJP agenda in the state. However, the troubles for Gehlot due to the perceived competition from his Deputy CM Sachin Pilot have not ended completely.
Unlike Gehlot's party colleague Kamal Nath, who is the CM in Madhya Pradesh, the Rajasthan CM has managed to keep away from public gaze his so-called power tussle with deputy CM Pilot.
While Pilot is perceived to be an aspiring Rajasthan CM, Gehlot has denied that there is any fight between him and Pilot. Gehlot supports his claim by pointing out that there are no public comments either from him or Pilot over the so-called friction. In the absence of any exchange of comments, how can once claim that there is a fight between the two parties, he asked.
He admitted that there have been difference of opinion among him and Pilot over some issues but that is a natural thing and there is nothing worrying about it.
Political analysts say Gehlot, unlike Kamal Nath, has been able to manage the power push from Pilot under check by sharing power with the junior and appointing him as a partner in the Cabinet and the government. This has effectively closed avenues for Pilot to criticise the Gehlot government openly. But this is not the case with Kamal Nath in MP where AICC general secretary and MP CM post aspirant Jyotiraditya Scindia has been openly questioning the state government's actions.
To woo anti-BJP voters in the panchayat polls, Gehlot is expected to highlight his government's conscious efforts to undo some “people unfriendly” decisions of the previous BJP state government led by Vasundhara Raje. The Chief Minister takes pride in reminding voters that in his very first Cabinet meeting he had removed the criterion on minimum educational qualification for panchayat election candidates. He also banned the use of RSS icon Deen Dayal Upadhyaya's name on the official letter head of the Rajasthan government.
The recent consolidation of Congress position in the state Assembly, with six Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) MLAs of the party joining the Congress, has come as a shot in the arm for Gehlot.
The Congress had won 100 seats in the 200-member state Assembly. Twelve Independents and the 6 BSP MLAs had earlier been supporting the Gehlot government from outside but later the 12 Independents joined the Congress earlier.
The panchayat polls in Rajasthan may also get spiced up a bit with glamorous Bollywood actor Payal Rohatgi's arrest adding to the debate on freedom of speech controversy. She was recently arrested after being booked by the Bundi Police under the IT Act on October 10 for some objectionable content she posted on social media against Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and other members of the family.
The arrest of Bollywood actor, perceived to be close to the saffron fold, is likely to give fresh ammunition to the BJP for targeting the Gehlot government for its alleged high-handedness. After being taken into custody and later being granted bail, the actress stressed that the intention of her video was to spread awareness among people.
Soon after her arrest, Payal had alleged violation of her right to freedom of speech and claimed that if the same right allowed Rahul Gandhi to call Prime Minister Narendra Modi a thief and make derogatory comments against Veer Savarkar, then why was she jailed for making a video on the Nehru-Gandhi family.
For the BJP, the recent Assembly poll setbacks in Jharkhand and Maharashtra and the ongoing nationwide outrage over CAA and NRC are wake-up calls that the party can ill-afford to ignore. Despite these factors working against the saffron party, the BJP believes that the Rajasthan’s anti-incumbency factor which worked in its favour during the LS polls in May would again help it in outperforming the Congress in the panchayat polls.
As for the indefatigable Gehlot, political mavens believe, the upcoming panchayat polls offer an opportunity to the Congress veteran to cash in on the incipient anger against the CAA and the NRC and seize the moment to skewer the Opposition BJP's chances of bouncing back from demoralising defeats in recent elections in other states.