Can Ashok Gehlot's pro-welfare budget help Congress retain Rajasthan?

Infighting in the party may hurt its chances in the assembly polls

PTI02_10_2023_000105A, Rajasthan Budget 2023 in Jaipur , PTI02_10_2023_000105A Pro at welfare: Gehlot with the budget briefcase at the state assembly on February 10 | PTI

Full-page advertisements, with a picture of a smiling Ashok Gehlot and the tagline ‘Bachat, Rahat, Badhat’ (savings, relief, growth), appeared in all major newspapers ahead of Rajasthan’s budget presentation on February 10. Never before has the state’s budget been heralded in this manner.

So much so that colleges in the state were told to beam the presentation live to students. The speech was also telecast in all panchayats.

And though the chief minister started with a faux pas―he began reading last year’s speech―it was clear that he was banking heavily on his final budget ahead of the assembly elections later this year.

Expectedly populist in nature, the budget aims to reinforce Gehlot’s image as a pro-welfare leader. He had earlier asked people to send suggestions for the budget directly to him. Its contents, as also the publicity efforts, are to emphasise his imprint on the financial endeavour. It is also an indication of Gehlot’s desperate need to retain power; his political survival depends on it.

A major highlight of the budget is an inflation relief package of Rs19,000 crore. Other proposals include 100 units of free electricity a month for domestic consumers and 200 for farmers, and LPG cylinders at Rs500 to beneficiaries under the Ujjwala scheme, which would benefit around 76 lakh families.

Medical cover under the state’s Chiranjeevi health insurance scheme has been increased to Rs25 lakh from Rs10 lakh. Notably, the government has reverted to the old pension scheme, and free grocery packets would be provided every month to around one crore families under the National Food Security Act.

PTI12_18_2022_000200B Out of step: Rahul Gandhi with Gehlot and Sachin Pilot (second on Rahul’s left) during the Bharat Jodo Yatra | PTI

Also announced was free bus travel for students for distances up to 75km, a 50 per cent concession in ticket fare for women in state roadways buses and free electric scooters to 30,000 girl students.

After presenting the budget, which took more than three hours, Gehlot said the announcements were pro-welfare measures and not revdi (freebies).

At the fag end of his third term as chief minister, Gehlot has made it clear that he sees himself―and not in-house rival Sachin Pilot―leading the party into the state elections.

The chief minister has got the thumbs up from the party’s central leadership, which described the budget as being caring towards the people. That is what set it apart from the Union budget, they said.

“The budget contains the aspirations and feelings of the people,” said state Congress in-charge Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa. “After all, it was made after seeking their views on what the budget should include. BJP governments have never done this.”

Gehlot’s efforts to consolidate his position come in the backdrop of him having upset the central leadership ahead of the Congress presidential polls last year. His loyalists had openly rebelled against the high command’s moves to name Pilot as the new chief minister.

Political observers feel that the manner in which the budget is implemented might have an impact, and also note that Gehlot has several months to ensure that the measures announced are executed well. “The new budget will come into force on April 1,” said political analyst Manish Godha. “So, the government has time to make sure that announcements such as free electricity or gas cylinder at Rs500 get registered in the form of some difference in the lives of the people.”

Sceptics, however, are quick to point out that Gehlot had carried out a similar exercise ahead of the 2013 state elections, but the party had plummeted to its lowest ever tally of 21. Gehlot has often blamed that defeat on the Modi wave, which also decimated the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre.

“You cannot expect to win only on the basis of the budget,” said state Congress leader Rajendra Choudhary, who is a staunch critic of Gehlot. “In the present set of circumstances and with the current set of leaders at the helm in the state, the party cannot be expected to make the people vote for the Congress again.”

The infighting, it is felt, might harm the party in a big way when the time comes to allocate tickets. The Pilot camp has kept up the pressure on the Gehlot government; a brief truce was called only to allow the Bharat Jodo Yatra to pass peacefully through the state. Pilot has, in an effort to prove his popularity and add heft to his demands for a leadership change, gone to the people and held a flurry of kisan sammelans (farmer meetings) in January. He is expected to resume the meetings soon.

A leader close to Pilot said that a change of leadership could still happen, adding that it was difficult for the Congress to win in the present circumstances. Also, he brought up the trend of alternating governments in the state and said that the Congress has to be disruptive to catch the voters’ attention.

In this regard, there is talk of a cabinet reshuffle and organisational appointments. Also, there has been a flurry of appointments of block and mandal presidents that had been pending for long. The much-awaited appointment of district presidents could also happen soon.

In his defence, Gehlot’s supporters say that the BJP is also dealing with internal differences and has been unable to put forward a face to take on the chief minister.

“It is now immaterial to talk about organisational appointments,” said Godha. “It all boils down to how the party will handle the allocation of tickets and the tussle between the two factions to get their candidates in. In the previous election, it was widely believed that the Congress would win around 120 seats. However, the tussle for tickets between the Gehlot and Pilot factions pulled the party down and it barely managed to get to the halfway mark.”