The atmosphere in poll bound western Indian state of Rajasthan is hazy, both literally as well as politically. There are many factors contributing to the political haze. To begin with there is no political wave to be seen. Voters, who get wiser with each election, are keeping their cards close.

Over 40 rebels from both the main players, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are adding to the murky scenario. In addition there are players like the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a couple of tribal forces, a regional party combining with a Dalit platform that can play a spoilsport for any of the contenders.

The most interesting aspect of the forthcoming state Assembly elections is that right now the two big forces of the Congress and the BJP are standing at the same starting block, evenly poised.

The Congress under the leadership of sitting Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot is trying to repeat its government. If this happens, the state will witness the buckling of the trend of alternative parties coming to power for the first time over almost three decades.

As a senior political observer pointed out in Jaipur, “All the more whenever the Congress was voted out of power in the past there used to be indications about the poll results many months in advance and the anti-incumbency would visibly set in. This is not the case this time. Having said this, I would underline that things are going to get ugly in the next few days.”

Rajasthan is one of the biggest states of the Indian union and is equally diverse in terms of cultural profile as well as issues concerning the people.

It is broadly divided into six regions, each with a distinct character. The region of Mewar includes districts such as Udaipur, Rajsamand, Chittorgarh, Dungarpur and Banswara that have a substantial tribal population. It has been politically pretty dominant from the beginning.

Shekhawati comprises districts including Churu, Jhunjhunu and Sikar. The region of Bikana comprises Bikaner, Ganganagar and Hanumangarh. Areas such as Jaipur, Dausa are in the Dhundhar region.

The districts of Bharatpur, Dholpur and Karoli are in the Brij region, while the Marwar region includes districts like Jodhpur, Pali, Sirohi, Jhalod, Barmer and Jaisalmer. Observers say that off and on there have been demands raised to carve out a Maru Pradesh comprising the north western part of the state. but these demands fizzle out after a while.

Politically speaking the state had witnessed the dominance of the Congress till 1977 after which the scenario started changing. Since 1990 the state has been witnessing an alternate party in power every five years.

The caste profile of the state is also equally interesting and diverse. The maximum number of MLAs, often reaching to around three dozen of the total 200 come from the Jat community.

“The pain persists among the community for not having seen a single Jat chief minister over all these decades. They have had powerful leaders like Nathu Ram Mirdha and Ram Niwas Mirdha.

“Then there are castes like Brahmins, Rajputs, Baniyas, Gujjars along with Scheduled Castes comprising the poll pie along with minorities and Scheduled Castes. The caste voting patterns have also seen a change over the years.

“Interestingly Rajasthan has witnessed two important political experiments in the past with a Muslim Barkatullah Khan and a Scheduled Caste Jagan Nath Pahadia becoming the chief ministers. The BJP has not fielded any Muslim candidate this time,” a senior political observer disclosed.

He added, “Gehlot has played a smart move in the last five years to balance the caste equations. He has constituted a whole lot of Boards for various castes that also symbolise their traditional vocations.

“For example, there is a Murti Kala Board addressing the concerns of the artisan community. Similarly, there is a Kewat Board. He understands that caste aspirations eventually lead to political aspirations.

“Rajasthan has communities organised on caste lines. This has put Hindutva on the back foot to some extent. The people ask that it is true that I am a Hindu but what is mine at the next level.”

The next few days are set to witness a blitzkrieg by top leaders of both the political parties across the state. Congress leaders including party president Mallikarjun Kharge, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi are all set to hit the campaign trail.The BJP is looking forward to the roadshows of Prime Minister Narendra Modi closer to the campaign’s end.

The scenario is hazy not only from the viewpoint of the parties in fray but it even reflects the dilemma of a common voter who stands confused about regional loyalties and what is being offered to him.

“We look at Kirodi Lal Meena of the BJP as our leader and maybe the next chief minister. But at the same time we cannot deny the schemes launched by Ashok Gehlot for the poor. The loyalty for Meena comes as he has always stood by us in the times of need. We also are angry at the central leadership of the BJP for failing to generate the promised jobs and curtail inflation,” an auto driver told this reporter in the new residential area of Jagatpura in Jaipur city.

“There are many takeaways from Rajasthan and this election apart from being the semi-final to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls will redefine Indian politics if the Congress by any chance comes up with a good performance.

“Why do you think the people here have voted alternatively over the last three decades? The reason is that they are wise and take niti (policy) and neta (political leader) into account every time they go out to cast their vote. The beauty of Indian democracy has been on display in Rajasthan over these three decades where the people have made leaders realise that they are the kings, even if it is just for a few days in the run up to the polls.

“It is true that there are caste considerations but the upper caste leaders have no choice but to accept the power of the officers coming from a Dalit background. In my village the Sarpanch has always been from the Rajput community despite being in minority. But he has to mingle socially with people from other castes and religions to secure votes,” a private sector employee from Kota district, explained.

A visit to the old city areas of Jaipur revealed that the people were more concerned about their daily routines and businesses attending to the tourists even as they discussed how Diwali sales had gone. The colour normally associated with the poll campaign was not visible much.

But the mood at the party office of the Congress as well as the residence of BJP leader Diya Kumari that has been converted into a full-fledged media centre was upbeat amid hectic parleys.

“There is no anti-incumbency and the BJP on the other side is a divided house. We have also worked on booth management, particularly after the success of the Bharat Jodo Yatra taken out under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi.

“Our candidates have been holding booth sammelans while our promised seven guarantee yatra is also on,” Congress organising secretary Lalit Tunwal claimed.

“A victory in Rajasthan will send a very strong message across the country and the model of governance under Gehlot is already being promoted as a model of welfare governance. The success of schemes like the Chiranjeevi Yojana that offers free healthcare up to Rs 25 lakh along with the implementation of the old pension scheme (OPS) has already put the BJP under pressure,” Tunwal added.

But the BJP seems unfazed and is confident of winning the poll in the name and charisma of Modi. When asked about the party going into the electoral battle without a chief ministerial face, party leader Kapil Gurudaswani said, “It is a strategy of the party to contest the polls collectively. The same has been done in other states as well.

“The Congress propaganda is misleading. It has been playing up giving cooking gas cylinders at Rs 500 to women whereas the fact is that women are already getting the same at Rs 600 under the Ujjwala Yojana started by Modi. The actual subsidy is just Rs 100. We are also raising local issues like the state topping the list when it comes to crime against women or the paper leaks in recruitment exams.”

When pointed out that paper leaks have also been reported in the recent past from the BJP ruled states like Uttarakhand and Gujarat, he claimed, “The leaks have been maximum in Rajasthan and this is turning out to be the biggest failure of the Congress regime.”

Gurudaswani also claimed that the number of beneficiaries under the Chiranjeevi Scheme is very less and the private hospitals are not keen on implementing the scheme citing delays in the payments from the government.

The BJP is banking largely on its organisational strength and micromanagement. It is fighting solo without any alliance with any other outfit claiming to achieve absolute majority on its own.

Its cadres are playing up the emotive issues of Ram Temple at Ayodhya, abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, the Kashi corridor etc.

Meanwhile its supporters are moving around on high octane fuel of nationalism. “Our slogan is ‘Desh ko Bachana hai toh BJP ko laana hai’ (we have to bring the BJP to power if we want to save the country. The country is safe only under the leadership of Modi,” Pramod Sharma, a BJP supporter said.

Observers pointed out that the BJP supporters are already at work promoting the party line on social media creating groups by hundreds to carry forward the party campaign.

The polarising issue of a tailor being hacked to death in Udaipur last year is also being raked up by the right wing elements in a big way but observers point out that the common man is appreciative of the manner in which Gehlot had handled the situation very effectively.

Observers say that more “filth" is expected to circulate in a big way in the next few days. It remains to be seen whether people maintain their wisdom or get swayed.