Weeks after she had taken over as chief minister for the first time in 2003, Vasundhara Raje had come to Delhi. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister. I bumped into her in South Block where I had gone to see somebody. I had asked her how it was all going. I still remember the feeling with which she replied. Her words were to the effect, “You cannot imagine the bias that exists against women in Rajasthan, and what I am having to contend with.”
Another incident about the same time also underscored her vulnerability, and was recalled by a journalist in Rajasthan. It was decided that she should give an interview to Doordarshan. The late Bharatiya Janata Party leader Pramod Mahajan organised it, and consulted her about who should anchor it. She rejected 10 names, much to Mahajan’s exasperation, before she accepted the 11th. It was not as if she was a raw hand when she was sent to Rajasthan to steer the state. She had already been a minister in the Union Cabinet.
These incidents underscore the distance Raje has covered in the last 15 years. She has navigated the minefield called Rajasthan politics to emerge as a mass leader, with no other state BJP leader anywhere close to her in stature. If the party high command contemplated replacing her in the last four years, as was speculated at one time, they gave up the idea.
Chief minister for two terms in the past 15 years, she is probably more powerful today than she has ever been. But – and this is the paradox – Raje is probably also more unpopular than she has ever been during her political career.
National vs regional
Rajasthan is due for Assembly elections at the end of this year. When BJP president Amit Shah visited the state last week, ostensibly to kick off the party’s election campaign, it was curious that he spoke on issues that were national in character rather than regional. These issues include the National Register of Citizens in Assam, illegal immigration from Bangladesh, or the plan to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, in order to allow India to confer citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Speaking at an event in Rajasthan on September 11, Shah said in a tone more strident than usual about those who had come to India from Bangladesh : “Ek ek ko chun chun kar bhejenge [We will expel them one by one]”. These are not burning issues in Rajasthan.
Clearly, his intention was to deflect the discourse away from local grievances and Chief Minister Raje and turn people’s attention towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He told party workers to take Modi’s photos with them when they campaigned and asked them to speak about the prime minister’s achievements.
It is hardly a secret that Raje is on the back foot in Rajasthan. And yet the BJP leadership has chosen to put its weight behind her completely. Unlike any other BJP chief minister, she compelled the party leadership to agree to all her terms. The BJP brass had wanted Gajendra Singh Shekhawat as the Rajasthan party chief. It was considered a done deal, but suddenly everything was reopened. Madan Lal Saini, Raje’s nominee, made it to the post in June. He was billed as the party’s “consensus choice”. Shah also announced that Raje would lead the party into elections and would be its chief ministerial candidate. She is expected to get her way in the distribution of tickets. Those who should know, say that she had threatened to resign unless she was given a free hand and projected as the party’s chief ministerial candidate. She took a calculated risk, and given that she stands head and shoulders above anyone else in the Rajasthan BJP, the party leadership had little option but to agree.
With the central leadership behind her, as also the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which had at one time looked askance at her continuing in power – they had clashed over the demolition of temples in Jaipur in 2015 and had frowned upon the Lalit Modi controversy she was embroiled in – the ambivalence about her leadership is now gone. She is better placed to go on the offensive, which she has done, undertaking a Gaurav Yatra through the state, and opening the treasury to dole out favours to different sections of society.
At a rally held on September 4 in Jaipur, Raje announced that one crore poor families will get Rs 1,000 for a smartphone under the Bhamashah scheme, one of the successful programmes of her government. Under this scheme, welfare benefits are transferred directly to women recipients. In all probability, many speculate, these smartphones will carry the BJP messages nearer poll time.
At the Jaipur rally, Raje had called teachers from all over the state ostensibly to honour them on Teacher’s Day, which was celebrated across India the next day, and to try and address their long-standing grievances. But the crowd response at the event was far from enthusiastic. Teachers were disgruntled for many reasons, the latest for being allegedly threatened with a salary cut if they did not show up at the rally. Her opponents talk about her arrogance being her undoing.