Can the populist push and publicity blitz help Gehlot retain Rajasthan?

Gehlot is seeking to script history

38-Ashok-Gehlot Leading from the front: Ashok Gehlot at the start of his Guarantee Yatra from Jaipur on November 7 | Sanjay Ahlawat

Teeja Devi, 70, has only recently started using a smartphone. The elderly resident of Jhilai village in Tonk district, which is about one-and-a-half hour's drive from Jaipur, says her grandson is helping her master the gadget. She got her phone under the Ashok Gehlot government's scheme to give out free smartphones to women.

For the past several months, Gehlot has ensured that his face is at the focus of the welfare schemes.
The Congress suffers from the perception of a house badly divided. Gehlot and Pilot were at loggerheads through most of the past five years.

A widow belonging to the Nai (barber) community, Teeja Devi has three sons. One of them works in Jaipur as a labourer and the other two are engaged in the traditional profession in their village. The smartphone is a prized possession for her. She uses it to listen to songs, besides calling up relatives.

Teeja Devi's neighbour Meera Sain, too, has received a smartphone. She says her sons never bothered to get her one, but now she has one of her own. Kamla Devi Sharma, 85, is waiting for her grandchildren to help insert the SIM card into her phone, while 45-year-old Bhuli Devi is upset because her smartphone was stolen.

The women of Jhilai may not be adept at using smartphones yet, but it is an acquisition that is making them feel valued and they thank Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot for it. They got the phones two months ago, packed in bright pink and yellow bags bearing Gehlot's image. The colour scheme is a constant in the chief minister's campaign.

The phones were given under the Indira Gandhi Free Smartphone Yojana. Under the scheme, launched on August 10 this year, 1.33 crore women are being given smartphones. Eligible categories include widows or single women who are pension recipients, girl students, female family heads who have worked for 100 days under the rural employment guarantee scheme or women who have worked 50 days under the urban employment guarantee scheme.

Not very far from Jhilai, in the marketplace in Newai block in Tonk district, 75-year-old Narayan Sahu runs a shop selling sweets and savouries. Sahu and his 73-year-old wife, Anok Devi, have both had cataract surgeries. The entire cost was covered by the state government's Chiranjeevi Swasthya Bima Yojana. “We did not have to pay any money for the surgery under the Chiranjeevi scheme. Many people here have benefited from the scheme,” says Sahu. Over 1.40 crore families in the state have been provided a Rs25 lakh insurance cover under the scheme.

In the state capital Jaipur, close to the inter-state bus station, a canteen is being run by a women's self-help group under the aegis of the government. The Indira Rasoi scheme provides a thali meal comprising chapatis, a vegetable dish, dal and pickles for just Rs8. There are 992 such canteens in the urban centres of the state, and it was recently extended to the villages, too.

“Around 800 people eat in our canteen in a day. We provide them food in steel thalis, and they can sit here and eat in hygienic conditions with dignity,” says Sushila Kanwar, who runs the canteen near the bus station. Such interactions offer a few glimpses of Gehlot's massive welfarist push. There is a whole bouquet of schemes which Gehlot describes as his way of providing relief to the people who are suffering from rising prices. His critics have questioned many of the initiatives, calling them freebies, and asking how those will be funded, but Gehlot is banking heavily on the measures to create history―to win Rajasthan as an incumbent. This has not happened in the state since 1993, when the BJP won a second straight time.

41-Women-who-got-mobile-phones Connecting people: Women who got mobile phones from Ashok Gehlot and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra in Tonk district | Sanjay Ahlawat

Gehlot's populism push includes free health care, 100 units of free electricity for residential premises, gas cylinders at Rs500, a return to the old pension scheme, 100 days of guaranteed employment under the Indira Gandhi Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme and 50 per cent concession in ticket fare for women in state buses. Gehlot often says, “Aap mangte mangte thak jaoge, lekin mein dete dete thakunga nahi (You may get tired of asking, but I won't get tired of giving)."

On November 7, as the 72-year-old Gehlot embarked on the final leg of the campaign for the November 25 assembly elections with his 'Guarantee Yatra' in Jaipur, it was the culmination of the publicity blitzkrieg that he had unleashed several months ago. It takes off from the welfare schemes of the government and is seen as an effort to make the campaign more organisation-centric rather than person-centric, as it has been so far. Gehlot has not been named the chief ministerial candidate by his party, which insists that a collective leadership will take it through the elections. A course correction has been attempted of late by adding state Congress president Govind Singh Dotasra's photo to the campaign material.

“After the model code of conduct kicks in, the government's welfare schemes are the party's schemes and not the schemes of any one individual. The chief minister belongs to the party, and the schemes that he brings are for the party,” says Dotasra.

For the past several months, however, Gehlot has ensured that his face is at the focus of the welfare schemes. His image is present on the food kits that the people received, on the bags in which mobile phones are given out and on the walls of the Indira Rasoi. Bright pink and yellow banners and other publicity material are splashed across the state, with the image of a smiling Gehlot.

The three-term chief minister had taken the welfarist route in his previous two terms as well, with little success. In the run-up to the 2003 elections, he was lauded for his work in providing relief to the drought-hit people of the state. But the Congress won just 56 seats in the 200-member assembly. There was a flurry of populist measures before the assembly elections in 2013, too, but the Congress plummeted to 21 seats. Gehlot's critics are quick to point out that the welfare measures have not really helped him.

Yet, there is a distinct change in the manner in which Gehlot has packaged his welfarist agenda this time. He has also worked on his own image. He went on a publicity overdrive starting with this year's budget, for which he took out full page advertisements in newspapers. Gehlot took three hours to deliver the budget speech, which brimmed over with welfarist proposals. The budget was a precursor to a massive outreach programme that was pegged on the theme of giving people relief from inflation. And it came against the backdrop of Gehlot belying his mild-mannered exterior to fight tooth and nail to safeguard his position in the state, be it from the rebellion by his former deputy Sachin Pilot or the BJP's alleged efforts to destabilise his government.

Always known to be a Gandhi family loyalist, Gehlot was also seen as having challenged their authority when his name was considered for the post of party president and the buzz was that Pilot would replace him in the state. There was an open rebellion by MLAs belonging to his camp. He made it clear that he was ready to protect his political turf at any cost. In the months to come, the party high command also reached the conclusion that its best bet in Rajasthan was to go with Gehlot's welfare agenda.

“Gehlot had come up with some good schemes before the 2003 and the 2013 elections. What is different this time is the aggression and professionalism with which the publicity campaign is being run. He has given immense importance to messaging, and it revolves around him. He was always seen as an old school politician, but he has embraced new ways of fighting elections this time,” says political analyst Manish Godha.

Earlier this year, around the time Pilot took to the streets to protest against the Gehlot government's alleged inaction on the issue of question paper leaks and the purported corruption that took place during the tenure of Vasundhara Raje, Gehlot launched a mass outreach programme based on the welfare schemes of his government. Around 3,200 Mehangai Rahat (inflation relief) camps were set up across the state. It was followed by the Rajasthan Mission 2030 initiative, aimed to draft a blueprint with suggestions from the people on how to make Rajasthan the most developed state in the country by 2030. A nine-day Mission 2030 yatra was organised in October in which Gehlot covered 18 districts.

Through all these initiatives, Gehlot has made an effort to come across as a leader who cares for the people. He hired the services of the digital marketing and political campaign management company DesignBoxed that has carefully curated his outreach campaign to reaffirm his image as a pro-poor, pro-welfare leader. They are behind the pink and yellow campaign material, the many interactions with different sections of society that were amplified by social media, and the use of campaign vehicles to take the message down to the grassroots level. Social media influencers have been brought on board. Even Gehlot's initial stint as a magician was played up in some of the publicity material.

Gehlot's supporters point out that the BJP, dealing with its own internal differences, has been unable to put forward a face to take him on. Gehlot has deftly taken on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has led the BJP's campaign in the state, saying Modi is 'Vishwaguru' (world leader), while he is rooted in Rajasthan. He recently challenged Raje to an open debate, which was an attempt to highlight the fact that the BJP does not have a chief ministerial face, but has many aspirants.

The Congress, too, suffers from the perception of a house badly divided. Gehlot and Pilot were at loggerheads through most of the last five years. A truce was worked out between them by the party high command closer to elections, but it may have happened a little too late. What could work against the Congress is also its organisational weaknesses. Many office bearers and district presidents were appointed only this year, and this may affect the management of elections at the grassroots level, a factor worth considering when taking into account the BJP's robust booth-level machinery.

Among the issues raised by the BJP is the alleged corruption in the Gehlot government, primarily connected to the many leaks of question papers of recruitment exams. It has talked about the 'red diary' in possession of sacked minister Rajendra Gudha who claims the pages of the diary have evidence of corruption by Gehlot. The Gehlot government has had to undertake a lot of firefighting on the issue, which includes bringing in a stringent law against paper leaks, but the party is wary of the impact it can have on the elections, especially since there are limited employment avenues for the youth in Rajasthan. “The Congress came to power promising the youth greater employment opportunities. No new employment avenues were generated. And they further betrayed the trust of the youth through the many paper leaks. Those involved in paper leaks had the protection of those in power,” says Rajasthan BJP president C.P. Joshi.

Another factor that could come into play is the anti-incumbency against the MLAs. The Congress had earlier indicated that its surveys showed a high level of anti-incumbency against many of its MLAs, and a substantial number of legislators would not get tickets. However, a majority of them, across factions, have been fielded again. Of the 108 Congress MLAs, as many as 90 have been repeated. In Jhilai, for example, while the residents do not criticise the Gehlot government, many of them say that the local Congress MLA Prashant Bairwa is not very accessible. “He belongs to this village, yet he does not come for weddings or funerals. The local hospital does not have doctors. There are no teachers in the girls' school here,” says Meera Sain.

However, according to Amrita Dhawan, the AICC secretary who is the co-in-charge of Rajasthan, the Congress has brought in new faces to the maximum extent possible and has gone strictly by the report from the ground. “This is a perception built by the BJP, that our MLAs are unpopular. We did not fall into their trap and went strictly by public opinion. Wherever it was felt that there was a demand from the people to replace the MLA, we have done that. And where we have found that the person was on the margin and could redeem himself or herself, that person has been given another chance."

Gehlot is seeking to script history. He is hoping his welfare measures will see him through. The challenges though are tough, indeed.