I worked as a campaign manager for the Congress party in the 2023 Assembly elections in Rajasthan. I want to record some observations about the fascinating politics of this state.
Our biggest challenge in these elections was not the Bhartiya Janata Party, formidable as they are. Our biggest challenge was the inherent belief among a large proportion of voters that the government can, will and must change every five years. The saying is: we have to turn the switch Roti otherwise it will burn.
We tested this in a survey. A whopping 73% of respondents said they had heard of the term”roti palatnaA very large number of respondents – 29% of them – considered tradition so important that even if a government is doing well, it needs to be changed. When you can win or lose an election with a 1-2% vote share, 29 The percentage of people who tell you that no amount of good governance can get them to vote for you is a unique problem.
This is not the same as 'anti-incumbency'. From February onwards, our daily tracker survey consistently showed that Prime Minister Ashok Gehlot and his government had very high ratings; media surveys before the election showed the same thing. Gehlot has consistently been the favorite choice for Chief Minister among all parties. People were happy with the Gehlot government, but… Roti always running.
I was determined to change the tradition. We may not have succeeded, but we came very close.
Data gives us a sobering nuance in the tradition of alternation.
We see that when it is the BJP's turn, it usually wins big, both in terms of seats and vote share. When it is Congress's turn, it usually just passes.
The graphs below show how the BJP's lead over the Congress increased during the 2000s election cycles, both in terms of seats and vote shares, but the 2023 Assembly elections have bucked this trend.
A difference of 2% in vote share makes it an exciting battle – as everyone thought. This was a much bigger defeat for the Congress than for Chhattisgarh, where the vote share difference was 4.04%, or the 8.17% margin in Madhya Pradesh. Also in terms of seats, this is the best 'losing' performance of the Congress Party since 1993.
Mehangai Rahat Camps
A year ago, the elections didn't seem so exciting at all. The public was either unaware of many government programs and plans or was often misled into believing that popular government schemes in Rajasthan such as Chiranjeevi were central government schemes.
In February, unprecedented welfare schemes were announced in the government's election budget. Rajasthan became the only state to provide subsidies on LPG cylinders so that the poor had to pay only Rs 500 for them. By making the first 100 units of household electricity bills free, and providing up to 2,000 units of free electricity to farmers, the government has effectively reduced most citizens' electricity bills to zero. With the Chiranjeevi scheme, Rajasthan also became the only state in the country to offer free health insurance of Rs 25 lakh to 80% of its population. Then there was Rs 10 lakh accidental death insurance, food parcel from Annapurna, free smartphones for women, job guarantee in the city, longer MNREGA working days and so on.
Following our informal advice, the Prime Minister has decided to allow people to register for these schemes in camps from April. These were called Mehangai Rahat camps and people were given 'guarantee cards' for each program they wanted to register for. The camps completely changed public sentiment in the state. Non-stop government campaigns thereafter kept up the momentum. The ratings in our daily trackers soared. The government continued to stick to its positive story regarding schemes and social security. The BJP was so far behind that it had to make it clear that it would not block the plans it opposed on the charge of fiscal irresponsibility.
After the election dates were announced, the party campaign got off to a slow start, causing a break in momentum, which was again reflected in our daily tracker. But we more than made up for this in November, when our campaigns helped boost viewership to April-May levels following the success of Mehangai Rahat Camps. Don't take my word for it: a post-survey study from the Center for the Study of Developing Societies' Lokniti program says the same thing.
Lokniti researchers note that the Congress campaign was more effective than the BJP in earning the votes of those who decide on their vote choice at the last minute. They also found that the Congress managed to reach more voters than the BJP through telephone, SMS, WhatsApp and even door-to-door campaigning. It also found that the party's Seven Guarantees Yatra campaign reached 54% of voters. Our 'Seven Guarantees' campaign has generated one million missed call registrations.
Why we lost
All of this begs the question: Why did Congress lose? Three reasons: First, as mentioned earlier, there was the tradition of 'roti palatna' which ensures that 'haha' is of course against even a sitting representative.
Secondly, around fifty Congress MLAs faced very high anti-incumbency measures at the MLA level. Far too many voters liked Ashok Gehlot, but not the MLAs. Again, this has been reflected in our data for months. Unfortunately, the party was unwilling to change too many sitting MLAs for fear of rebellion. This was a strategic choice, and one cannot assume that changing the candidates would have been enough to make people forgive what they saw as the MLA's poor performance over the past five years. This was not a rule for all MLAs, but it was true for enough of them to lose the election. This is why Congress lost 19 seats with a margin of less than 5,000 votes. Some candidates didn't believe they could win, even when we told them it was close, and this reflected in their efforts.
Third, the BJP has eaten into the vote shares of independents and minor parties, and not that of the Congress. In fact, Congress's vote share has increased, albeit by a negligible 0.23 percentage points. While the BJP was 2.16 percentage points ahead of the Congress, the total increase in vote share since 2019 was 3.61 percentage points. While the Congress did well in retaining its voters, the BJP also managed to recruit some new voters.
In a democracy the opposition plays an important role. That is why it is important that the party that loses the elections is also strong. Congress's narrow defeat will ensure it remains a strong opposition, preventing Rajasthan from becoming a 'dominant party state' like Gujarat or Madhya Pradesh.
(Naresh Arora is an experienced political strategist. He has worked for the Congress Party for the Haryana, Assam, Karnataka and Rajasthan Assembly elections)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.