Vasundhara Raje: The wounded tigress

The question is, will she go down fighting—and who might she take down with her? As things stand in Rajasthan, the BJP can't afford to leave her in the saboteur's role

And if two defanged tigers, Vasundhara Raje and Yogi Adityanath, team up? (photo: @VasundharaBJP/X)
And if two defanged tigers, Vasundhara Raje and Yogi Adityanath, team up? (photo: @VasundharaBJP/X)

Prakash Bhandari

She is a wounded tigress, brought low but all the more dangerous for it.

Vasundhara Raje, two-time chief minister of Rajasthan and daughter of one of the 'founding mothers' of the erstwhile  Jan Sangh, Vijaya Raje Scindia of Gwalior, is hurt—her son Dushyant Singh, a five-time MP from Jhalawar and the seniormost MP to win from Rajasthan, has not been included in the union cabinet.

Raje herself was ignored by the party in both the Vidhan Sabha and Lok Sabha elections. When the party came to power in December last year, she was certainly not offered the chief minister's chair despite her seniority.

Instead, she had the mortification of announcing the name of Bhajan Lal Sharma, a first-time MLA, as the chief minister. She was given a chit that named him by Rajnath Singh, who brought it expressly from New Delhi — no discussion was deemed possible.

And thus did Bhajan Lal Sharma become the 'chit-wala CM' of Rajasthan, right under Raje's nose.

This was a clear signal to Vasundhara from the party’s central leadership that she no longer had the party’s favour or confidence. Party high command wished to entrust a younger person with the responsibility to lead.

Vasundhara did not make a hue and cry about it, either. Instead, she waited for the Lok Sabha elections—her son was contesting for the fifth time from Jhalawar, a constituency that she herself had represented five times in the Lok Sabha. And Dushyant Singh won, by a margin of 3.70 lakh votes, equalling his mother’s record.

And yet...

The rift between Vasundhara Raje and the central leadership has its origins in 2014, when Raje did not approve the projection of Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial face. However, when the BJP came to power with a bang under Modi's leadership, she lobbied with him for her son, who had won the Lok Sabha election for the third time in 2014.

However, the saffron party did not appoint Dushyant Singh as a minister. He was passed over in favour of people who were younger, junior in political experience likewise, who were nonetheless made cabinet ministers.

Gajendra Singh Shekhawat and Bhupendra Yadav were among those given cabinet seats. This time again, both of them have been given a berth in the council of ministers.

Even that first occasion of slight shook Raje, for the party’s central leadership showed her scant respect, though she is the national vice-president of the party and a tall leader of the saffron brigade in her own right in Rajasthan.

And her apprehensions would prove reasonable, for again in the year 2019, the BJP swept the poll, Modi became Prime Minister—and Dushyant Singh was denied a place in the cabinet despite Raje’s lobbying.

Yet, Vasundhara Raje, who was not made chief minister, still commands the support of some 45 out of the 115  BJP MLAs in the state.

Why the obduracy?

Vasundhara Raje's notoriety as a chief minister had allowed the Congress to come back to power in the state assembly twice over, winning on the plank of corruption. This was a stigma that Vasundhara Raje continued to carry—and it cemented the Congress' electoral success.

And so, for the 2023 Vidhan Sabha election, the party decided not to project Vasundhara Raje as the chief ministerial candidate. She was not even consulted on the disbursement of tickets. Still she asserted herself and wrested some 55 seats for her supporters and loyalists.

Her influence was undeniable, but the party leadership would not allow her to wield it smoothly.

The non-inclusion of her son in the cabinet for a third time surpasses coincidence, however, and makes the jockeying against her and hers an obvious gambit. This ends Vasundhara Raje’s dream of seeing her son wield power as a cabinet minister. The appeals on their behalf from old-timers in the BJP, reminding senior leaders of Vijaya Raje Scindia's key role in building the saffron outfit, made her appear all the more pathetic.

Meanwhile, the central leadership was annoyed with her for not campaigning actively during the Lok Sabha election. She had confined herself to her son’s constituency, Jhalawar–Baran, orchestrating for him a landslide victory.

As she lobbied again for her son after the 2024 victory, Modi loyalists brought up the contrary examples of Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh, who were both ignored for the chief minister's berth and yet continued to actively campaign for the party.

"The fact remains that Vasundhara could not understand the national polity," says political analyst Om Saini. "She remained stubborn and vindictive and was not guided properly by her advisors. She did not come to terms with the senior party leaders and was always demanding her pound of flesh."

"On the other hand, even after being ignored, Shivraj Singh (Chouhan) and Raman Singh actively campaigned in Madhya Pradesh and in Chhattisgarh and were credited for the party’s success. Meanwhile, Vasundhara (Raje) acted in a manner that ensured that the party failed to complete its hat-trick of winning all the 25 Rajasthan seats thrice in a row.

"So Shivraj Singh Chouhan, wholeheartedly working for the party’s electoral success in Madhya Pradesh, proved he is a bigger leader than Vasundhara (Raje).

"She, however, waited for the blame for the failure to go to Chief Minister Bhajan Lal Sharma, hoping that the party would decide to go for a change in leadership and she would become a front-runner."

But the BJP is also keenly sensitive to the fact that the Congress has worked to find considerable support from the Jat community, a farming community that has given the Congress the victory in four out of the six Jat belt seats. The BJP will have to win the Jats back for its electoral survival. That's where the leadership's current focus lies.

The Congress and its allies winning 11 out of the 25 seats in Rajasthan proved that when the state goes to the polls again in 2028, the Congress is going to give the BJP a run for its money.

Now, Raje is Kshatriya herself and married into a Jat royal family, her daughter-in-law from the Gujjar family. At least on paper, this seems a combo well worth wooing — but she also has a history of setting the Rajputs' and Jats' backs up... On balance, she is a risk, not an asset for the BJP in this scenario.

By-elections are due, meanwhile, for five seats as the sitting MLAs have been elected to the Lok Sabha. This will be a test of not only the BJP's popularity, but its strategy.

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