Going gets tough
Vasundhara Raje faces tough challenge as double-incumbency clouds her chances
Of the three BJP ruled states going to polls at the end of the year, Rajasthan is the biggest worry. More so, as it lost two parliamentary and one Assembly seats to Congress recently – this had proven that the anti-incumbency factor was working against Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje. BJP is desperate to retain Rajasthan as is Congress – which wants to return to power. Congress and BJP have been alternating in power in the state for over the past three decades.
Vasundhara hails from the Gwalior royal family and is the erstwhile Maharani of Dholpur, a princely state. She came into her own when she became the first woman Chief Minister of Rajasthan in 2003. She had been protecting her turf for the past two decades and even challenged her patron, former Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat.
One of the slogans heard in Rajasthan during recent campaign was "Modi tujhse bair nahin, Rani teri khair nahin" (Modi we have nothing against you, but Rani we are not going to spare you.) It is only natural that BJP is now trying to pull up its socks and has thus, appointed Rajya Sabha Member Madanlal Saini as the new state party chief after several rounds of discussions, this week. Vasundhara won this round by blocking party chief Amit Shah's first choice, Union Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, and Saini was the consensus candidate. She has complete control over the state unit and has appointed her loyalists sidelining her detractors. The problem is that with her waning popularity, she has to fight the growing number of detractors in the party and the main opposition, Congress.
The odds are against Raje. The first is the double anti-incumbency as BJP is ruling at the state and the Centre. Besides, 2018 is not 2013 and Vasundhara today is one of the most unpopular BJP Chief Ministers. She is known for her inaccessibility as well as her style of functioning. Some leaders had even complained against her to the high command. A handful of bureaucrats run the show. She has not addressed the issues of unemployment, price rise, government staff pay hike, doctors' strike or deteriorating law and order. The charges of being soft on corruption have stuck on. The business community is also disenchanted after GST roll-out. Agrarian distress is yet another issue. There have been several protests by the farmers and, only recently, the government had enabled them to procure loans from the banks.
Second, RSS, which was mainly responsible for BJP's victory in the state is also disappointed with the Chief Minister and has distanced itself, which was one of the reasons for the bypoll losses. RSS is put off by the way she cold-shouldered them.
Third, though she managed to save her pride by winning the Dholpur constituency last year, from where she made her political debut in 1985, BJP lost 17 Assembly and one Lok Sabha bypoll under her leadership. The party lost seats even where BJP was very strong. The BJP candidate from Ajmer lost to Congress by over 84,000 votes from a seat it won by a margin of more than 1.70 lakh votes in 2014. In Alwar, a seat BJP won by over 2.84 lakh votes in 2014, was lost by a massive margin of over 1.96 lakh votes.
Fourth, the state BJP unit is facing a revolt from leaders like Ghanshyam Tiwari, who has floated an outfit — 'Deendayal Vahini' — alleging corruption in places of influence. There are other disgruntled elements raising their shrill voices. Factional fights and indiscipline needs to be addressed.
Fifth, Raje has alienated influential caste groupings, such as Jats, Brahmins, Rajputs, and Gurjars. Gujjars and Brahmins are turning against the party over reservation and other issues. Jats are confused as they now lack charismatic leaders like Nathuram Mirdha, Parasaram Maderna, and Ram Niwas Mirdha.
BJP is in a catch-22 situation. While losing the state in the Hindi heartland might worry the party, a change in the leadership might rock the boat. Raje is the BJP's best bet, but she is also its weakness. Rajasthan gave BJP 25 out of 25 Lok Sabha seats in 2014.
Even now, it is not too late to rectify mistakes. For this, Vasundhara should improve the implementation of state and Central schemes and come up with more welfare schemes. To her credit, she has introduced several welfare schemes like Bhamashah Yojna, Mukhya Mantri Jal Swalamban Abhiyan, Grameen Gaurav Path Yojna, and Annapurna stores. More importantly, BJP should adopt a softer approach towards the disenchanted caste groups to come back to the BJP fold, mollify the various factions and try to take them along. Vasundhara had said after the bypoll defeat, "We will go to people, work harder and win back their blessings," and that is what she must do. Combined with her royal mystique, and change of her style of functioning, she might improve her chances. But if Congress shows a united face, then it will be difficult for Raje and BJP.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)