Rajasthan polls: It's make or break for Vasundhara Raje

As the countdown to the Assembly election begins, with Congress and BJP deploying their star campaigners, Vasundhara Raje's political future hangs in the balance

A fierce contest between the incumbent Congress and the BJP is expected in Rajasthan, the results of which might decide Vasundhara Raje's final political fate too (photo: Himanshu Vyas/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
A fierce contest between the incumbent Congress and the BJP is expected in Rajasthan, the results of which might decide Vasundhara Raje's final political fate too (photo: Himanshu Vyas/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Prakash Bhandari

The election campaign in Rajasthan slowed down because of Dhanteras and Diwali, and is likely to regain momentum only after Annakoot and Bhaidooj on 15 November.

Thus, political parties will effectively just have nine days to campaign in before the polls. In any case, even if the campaigners were ready to go the extra mile, even a door-to-door campaign during Diwali would not yield very positive results.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and prior to him union home minister Amit Shah and Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge as well as Priyanka Gandhi, all chose to actively campaign before Diwali.

The remaining star campaigners of both parties are expected to actively campaign in the state post-Diwali.

Modi himself is expected to lead a march in Jaipur’s walled city on foot, before offering prayers at the Govinddeo Ji temple. Modi and his team have been relying on slogans based on the popular gods and goddesses of the region here.

However, former chief minister and BJP veteran Vasundhara Raje is yet to throw herself fully into the election campaigning.

Raje has not been projected as a chief ministerial candidate in Rajasthan, which might be telling of the cracks within the BJP ranks.

Prime Minister Modi, a fortnight ago, had stated that the party would not project any one person as a potential chief minister yet; instead, he urged those assembled to choose the party’s symbol, the lotus, which was its 'face'.

This was surely enough of a hint for the former chief minister that she was being relegated to a role outside the final race. Yet she actively participated in the BJP's Central Election Committee meeting to make sure at least her supporters were nominated by the party’s higher-ups.

Raje was largely successful in her endeavour, though she could not get tickets for a few of her trusted supporters, such as former state unit president Ashok Parnami and former ministers Rajpal Singh Shekhawat and Yunus Khan.

Shekhawat went on to submit his nomination papers to contest against Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore as an independent candidate, but then withdrew on Amit Shah offering certain promises, it is whispered.

But Yunus Khan decided to go ahead as an independent candidate regardless.

BJP sources do say that Raje was aiming to get tickets for some 72 of her supporters in various seats, out of the total of 200. However, she could get only some 40 of them nominations in the end.

In the first list that was announced by the BJP, the surprise was the nomination of seven Lok Sabha members. Raje was not consulted and was clearly not expecting this move—even though it appears to be the same formula the BJP has been applying in other poll-bound states lately.

Nonetheless, Raje took up the issue with the high command and seems to have ensured that no more sitting Lok Sabha members were fielded, giving her the opportunity to nominate her own favourites.

The party, however, seems to no longer regard her as a force to be reckoned with in the state's politics.

Raje, who joined politics at the insistence of late Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and won the Vidhan Sabha election from Dholpur, the seat of the former ruling family (in an India that did not outlaw royal houses, she would have been the maharani). After that monumental victory of 1985, she never looked back, winning all her subsequent electoral battles both for Lok Sabha and for Vidhan Sabha seats.

After the elevation of Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, she was given command of Rajasthan state. In 2003, she led the party to victory, and that was the first time that the BJP managed to get a clear majority, winning 120 seats in a House of 200.

Raje then led the party to a historic victory again in 2013, with the BJP bagging 156 seats.

However, 2018 saw her party restricted to 73 seats only. Prior to the election, a strong campaign of corruption charges was trained on Vasundhara Raje by Ashok Gehlot and C.P. Joshi. It put Raje on the backfoot, and the party leadership too felt that she could know longer be trusted with spearheading the BJP's state unit, with her popularity unseated.

Interestingly, though, her accuser Ashok Gehlot would later go on to express his gratitude when, with his government facing a crisis of support itself, Vasundhara Raje took a stand saying that the BJP would not move to destabilise or topple his democratically elected government.

The friendly compliment from Gehlot may have further sealed Raje's fate with the BJP’s senior leadership, however. Did Gehlot then knowingly sow a seed of her further downfall? Or had he come round to seeing her as a better ally than an enemy? Had he found reason to change his mind about the charges levelled?

Regardless, Raje and Gehlot's apparent camaraderie was (unsurprisingly) not welcomed by senior BJP leaders, who thought it showed the BJP in the poorer light, despite her noble gesture.

Once, there had been a move to topple the Bhairon Singh Shekhawat government too, in a rebellion led by Janata Dal MLA Bhanwar Lal Sharma, while Shekhawat was in the US for heart surgery. The rebellion against Gehlot was reminiscent of this incident too. And at the time, it was Ashok Gehlot who had taken the initiative to thwart the move by the Janata Dal MLAs.

Shekhawat praised Gehlot's political ethic, in his turn. Had the Congress supported the move to topple his government at that time, Shekhawat would have been dethroned.

Raje apparently had learnt from Gehlot's gesture, and repaid him in the same coin, while upholding the best interests of the people's democracy.

As for the BJP, it went on to try various permutations after Shekhawat— entrusting the leadership to first Gajendra Singh Shekhawat and then Satish Punia, both of whom failed to deliver, and then rather desperately making Chittorgarh MP C.P. Joshi (yes, the same Joshi who was Raje's accuser!) the next BJP president.

As for Raje, she may have now done her uttermost in asserting herself to get these last few tickets for her supporters, even as the party leadership continued with a new slew of nominations against her interests.

As such, a fierce contest is expected in Rajasthan, where the Congress government's success has even been acknowledged by the BJP-ruled Centre — and the results are likely to decide Vasundhara Raje's final fate.

Her supporters believe that Raje would prefer to move from the state stage to the Centre—but is unlikely to find acceptance from the likes of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Which means, short of a landslide for her clique and a BJP victory in the state, Vasundhara Raje's days might be numbered.

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