In a striking turnaround, the Indian National Congress was on Tuesday poised to achieve a clear majority in the western Indian state of Rajasthan. In the previous election in 2013, Congress took only 21 seats, yet now find themselves on the verge of controlling the 199-seat Assembly.

Since Rajasthan has traditionally never given a second term to an incumbent power, victory by Congress had been widely predicted. However the results are significant if one considers that, in light of the strong anti-incumbent feeling, the path to Congress party victory should have been easier.

“The Congress is in a good situation but the competition was almost neck-to-neck. This is a sign of good democracy. Yet, the public has not given an outright mandate to one party,” said Inakshi Chaturvedi, associate professor at Rajasthan University, as results slowly trickled in with Congress leading on a total of 99 seats, just one short of an outright majority.

Rajasthan has spent recent years swamped by negative headlines. They have covered everything from lynchings, the ruling party’s caste and communal politics, farm distress, unemployment and water scarcity to gag orders by a state government run by chief minister Vasundhara Raje, who managed to retain her Jhalrapatan constituency on Tuesday.

Widely viewed as a leader who has failed to deliver on her promises, Raje was pitched against the Congress party’s Manvendra Singh, a former BJP leader who switched loyalties this year. He was, however, considered an outsider by many and lost to Raje by a wide margin.

The state Congress was, meanwhile, stewarded by veteran leader and former Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot as well as by “young Turk” and state unit chief Sachin Pilot, both of whom romped to victory in their respective constituencies. Pilot won from Muslim-dominated Tonk despite the BJP playing the tactical game of placing its lone Muslim candidate against him.

Gehlot won from Sardarpura by a comfortable margin, while the other important Congress candidate who rode to victory was CP Joshi, in the Nathdwara seat, which he had lost by just one vote in the previous election.

In a shock to the party, Rameshwar Dudi, who was touted by some as a potential Chief Ministerial candidate (along with Gehlot and Pilot), lost his Nokha seat.

The BJP went from 165 Assembly seats to just 73 despite many rallies by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.

The mandate

Historically, the Congress party has played a key role in Rajasthan.

“People from the older generation still see the party as the Indian National Congress, which was dissolved by Mahatma Gandhi after Independence. But it is still categorised as a party of Jawaharlal Nehru and BR Ambedkar. The Congress has also served more terms in Rajasthan than the BJP,” points out Manju Jain, political analyst and associate professor at Rajasthan University.

But Chaturvedi cautions that “the Congress has not been given complete liberty by the electorate”.

“The winning numbers indicate that the public is trying to tell the party that they can make and run the government – but (with limitations). It also indicates that the BJP can play the role of a good opposition,” she explains.

Speaking after the results were announced, Rajasthan Congress spokesperson Satyendra Singh Raghav promised that the party would focus on the needs and aspirations of the public.

He called the win “a victory of Congress workers and people of the state” and “a result of misdeeds of the BJP that the state had to suffer for the last five years”.

“As far as the losing of certain candidates is concerned, that is part of the game, some win some lose. But what is important is that both Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot, along with candidates like BD Kalla and Shanti Dhariwal, won their seats,” he added.

Kalicharan Saraf, former BJP health minister who in Jaipur won by a thin margin from Malviya Nagar, admitted there was anti-incumbency sentiment in the state and the party couldn’t impress everyone with its developmental initiatives.

“The public’s decision is the rule on which democracy runs. If the public has decided to make us work as the opposition, that is what we will do. We will raise the issues and grievances of the public with efficiency and ensure their solution,” he said.

Key winners, losers

Rajasthan, a state dominated by the Jat (a traditionally agricultural community) vote, had in the run-up to the polls also seen the emergence of a third front, comprising community leader and BJP rebel Hanuman Beniwal’s newly-launched Rashtriya Loktantrik Party, former BJP leader Ghanshyam Tiwari’s Bharat Vahini Party and other “like-minded” parties.

Beniwal won from Khinwsar while Tiwari contested the Sanganer seat, which he had held as a leader in the BJP government. He was expected to attract most of the Brahmin (upper castes in the Hindu hierarchy) voters – another key vote bank in the state – but in the end slipped to third position with the seat going to the BJP candidate.

Another key BJP leader, Vasudev Devnani, despite being categorized as a ‘Hindutva’ leader, won from Ajmer. Devnani, the secondary education minister, had been heavily criticized earlier this year for re-writing school textbooks to promote “Indian culture” among students.

The major regions the Congress had focused its attentions on in this election included Mewar, Marwar, Shekhawati, Ajmer, and Hadoti. The Mewar belt is known as the region of Gehlot.

Raje too had focused on the Shekhawati belt, which includes Sikar, Jhunjhunu, and Churu districts due to Jat dominance in the region.

Rajasthan, along with the Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh was expected to play a key role in Modi’s 2019 strategy. Now, the Congress has secured power in two of these states and is also set to trounce the BJP in Madhya Pradesh.