At sunrise on Saturday, November 24, 2023, hotels in Udaipur, bursting at seams during India’s peak marriage season, have let their local staffers take a two-hour break to cast votes when the desert state goes to polls.
Then, claim managers in some of the top-rung hotels in this city of lakes and big-buck destination weddings, the staffers must return. Many have already returned.
This is India’s top wedding season and Udaipur and Goa do bulk of the business. Some 3.5 million weddings will be solemnised between November 23 and December 15, 2023.
This is a whopping business of Rs 5 trillion, no one can ignore it. The weddings are important, so are the elections. So how will it swing for the two main contestants, the ruling Congress and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?
“Rajasthan is always prone to vote banking and appeasement, the contest in the desert state will be very close,” says Naresh Singh, a manager at the century-old Anand Bhavan hotel. He says both are important, weddings as well as elections because it is going to be a tough call between the Congress and the BJP.
“No one community can successfully project its electoral power because Rajasthan is geographically restricted to sub regions,” adds Singh. The Aravalli range of hills fill the east and the north, the vast Thar desert covers the bulk of the west and the north. In short, different communities fill different regions and it is actually a very diverse demographic situation. So the verdict in Rajasthan often turns out to be a mish-mash of such diverse contests.
And it is here the ruling Congress easily plays some interesting, divisive identity politics. The BJP counters hard. Recently, Home Minister Amit Shah shared reams of statistics at an election rally and cried hoarse that the BJP had done nearly four and a half times for Rajasthan as compared to the benefits offered by the Congress. Shah said he had documents to prove Rs 2 lakh crore was given to Rajasthan during 10 years of Congress rule at the Centre, while Rs 8.7 lakh crore was given to Rajasthan during nine years of BJP rule.
Shah offered a lot of data, first at the rally and then at a presser.
He talked about crimes against women and Dalits and said more than 2 lakh cases of crimes against women were registered in Rajasthan. More than 35,000 rapes were reported, of these over 15,000 victims were minors. Rajasthan constitutes 22 per cent of the country’s rape cases, said Shah, adding the paper leak cases was shocking for the state’s hardworking youth but there was no conclusive investigation.
It seems clear the BJP’s focus is on the youth and women.
The BJP has played the big card as well, bringing in former Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje who was sidelined all these five years. Raje has been pushed by the party high command to contest from Jhalara Patan. Her loyalists – once ignored – have now been given tickets.
The BJP has realised that sidelining Raje could also hit regional pride when a local leader is looked down upon. But Raje is not the party’s chief ministerial candidate, everyone in the state knows she does not get on well with the party high command in Delhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a rally that the BJP has only one face and that is of the Lotus.
But will the voters remember all the permutations and combinations of state politics when they visit polling stations tomorrow? Will the BJP be able to consolidate the caste votes in Rajasthan. That is a million-dollar question.
Multiple equations are at work in this northwestern state. The Jats are important, they constitute roughly 15 percent of the state’s population and have the capacity to swing as many as 200 seats, mostly concentrated in the east of the state stretching from the northern Shekhawati region of Jaipur to the eastern region that borders the troika of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana. In the north of the state are the Scheduled Castes votes, which are also mostly in the Kota-Bharatpur belt. This is another significant part of the state’s voters because the SC/ST segment form approximately 18 percent of the population (so says the 2011 census). Now these two segments total nearly 40 percent of the state’s votes.
And then comes the Muslim community which constitutes 9 percent of the population and is located in a broad region stretching from Jaisalmer to Barmer, through Jodhpur, Ajmer and Jaipur. The Congress loves this segment, and is banking heavily on this segment for a decisive swing. The state’s chief minister Ashok Gehlot said in a widely broadcast message: “This will be the most decisive elections in Rajasthan.” Gehlot, obviously, has his eyes on the 2024 national polls.
Like the proverbial Santa Claus, Gehlot has offered the moon for the masses, ranging from cooking gas cylinders at Rs 500 to 10.5 million families and a honorarium of Rs 10,000 in instalment for female heads of families. Laptops will be offered to first-year students in government colleges, and an emergency relief insurance guarantee of up to Rs 15 lakh in critical cases. Gehlot has even offered cow dung at the cost of Rs 2 per kilo to farmers and promised to revive the old pension scheme for the retired class. All with eyes on the big elections next year.
There is another issue. Gehlot knows he has patched up with former deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot at a very last minute. And by then, Piloty openly attacked the government time and again on various charges like corruption. Now the two are working together but Gehlot knows the winning margins could be wafer-thin. And one wrong step could end up losing the chance to form a government again.
“Any election in December will have a direct impact on the big elections next year,” says Arun Dixit, a manager at Lalit Laxmi Vilas Palace, Udaipur.
Experts agree that a significant portion of the state is very strongly prone to vote banking and appeasement. But the same experts also say there is another segment, which is one fifth of the popular vote, which can swing in decent margins to either Congress or the BJP. One thing is clear, both the Congress and the BJP desperately want to win the Rajasthan elections with good reason.
The Congress wants to bolster its growth and consolidate its grip on the state, the BJP wants to consolidate its position in the states after its loss in Karnataka.
The results will be announced soon. If the BJP wins and Raje is not made the Chief Minister, things could turn bad for the saffron party. Raje will revolt, ostensibly because she has a remarkable loyal standing among the electorate.
The BJP – claim locals in Udaipur – could replace her with Diya Kumari from the erstwhile Jaipur royal family who is an MP from Rajasamand. Kumari is contesting from Vidyadhar Nagar constituency that was earlier held by five-time MLA Narpat Singh Rajvi who had won with over 30,000 votes in the last assembly election. What is important is that Kumari is very close to the party leadership and has won their confidence.
Udaipur’s BJP contestant, Tarachand Jain, is now on the rounds to see what people are talking at the polling booths. In 2018, the BJP won 71 seats compared to the Congress’ 100. Many ministers in Raje’s government lost. Jain says he – and other BJP candidates – wants to change the narrative now. “The BJP will be able to increase its percentage of votes,” he told this reporter.
In 2018, the Congress garnered 39.30 percent of votes while the BJP secured 38.77 percent. It is a very close margin. And then, the saffron brigade is banking on its performance in the last Lok Sabha elections in 2019 when it won 24 of the 25 Lok Sabha seats in 2019, the Congress lost all seats.
Voting, claim staffers at the Lakshmi Vilas Palace Hotel, is slowly picking up in Udaipur. And at sunset, the focus will be on the big weddings and signature parties.
Udaipur will have both sides of the bread. Why not? The princely state is one of the biggest deliverers in India’s big fat wedding market.
(Shantanu Guha Ray is the Asia Editor of Central European News, UK. His book on coal, Black Harvest, will hit the stands soon)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.