Rajasthan: The going gets tough for Om Birla in Kota-Bundi

The odds are stacked against the Lok Sabha Speaker’s bid to win over Rajasthan’s, and the nation’s, favourite higher education factory

Will Om Birla's smile last? (photo: @ombirlakota/X)
Will Om Birla's smile last? (photo: @ombirlakota/X)

Prakash Bhandari

In 2019, when Om Birla entered the Lok Sabha after winning the election from Kota for the second consecutive time, the party surprised him by elevating him to Lok Sabha Speaker.

Surprising, because after all, Om Birla has nothing to do with the illustrious Birla business family. His father was a small shop owner in Kota.

The seat of Lok Sabha Speaker is arguably the most prestigious post in Parliament. The Speaker is the highest authority in the house and also the custodian of the Parliament building. It is said that his affinity with Amit Shah helped Birla get the coveted job.

As Speaker, Om Birla presided over the Lok Sabha with an iron hand. But the same Om Birla who rose to become Speaker of the Lok Sabha after starting his career as a student leader in the educational hub of Kota is now finding the going tough in the saffron bastion of Kota.

In an interesting turn of events, Prahlad Gunjal, the popular BJP leader from Kota, who lost for the second consecutive time to former urban development minister Shanti Kumar Dhariwal, left the BJP to join the Congress. He was inducted into the Congress by former sports minister Ashok Chandna who, like Gunjal, is from the Gujjar community.

Gunjal apparently showed interest in joining the Congress — and in contesting the Lok Sabha election against Birla. Gunjal has always been critical of Birla, accusing him and his brothers of having turned Kota into their own fiefdom, with no space for other BJP workers to serve the party.

“Birla ji has absolute control over the BJP and only such persons who stoop at his feet were obliged. I am certainly not one of them,” Gunjal says. “Moreover, after the RSS Parivar and the BJP Parivar, a third family — the Modi Parivar — has come now. I am not the one to accept this new parivar (family).”

“Look, Rahul Gandhi is such a humble person,” continued Gunjal. “For him the poor and the downtrodden are the real members of the Congress parivar. In Congress, there is no individual parivar.”

So anyway, after a lot of deliberations, it seems, Pradesh Congress president Govind Singh Dotasra, former chief minister Ashok Gehlot and former deputy chief minister Sachin Pilot agreed to induct Gunjal into the Congress parivar.

Now, his rival Birla’s popularity in urban Kota is still high; but even in Kota, there are divisions in the electorate — on which Gunjal may possibly capitalise.

Meanwhile Dhariwal, who is known for his work in Kota and who transformed the city by creating the Chambal riverfront and by improving roads, sewerage, lighting, parks and other civic facilities for the 3 lakh students living in Kota as they prepare for various entrance examinations, has his supporters too.

“Ask what Birla ji has done for the city of Kota except for opening a passport office,” urges K.B.S. Hara, a senior journalist and long-time resident. “He has been promising an airport for Kota, which now looks like a distant dream. The Ashok Gehlot government had given free land for the airport, but Birla could not convince the civil aviation ministry to start work on the airport. On the other hand, Dhariwal transformed the city under Congress rule.”

Now, Dhariwal was unhappy about Gunjal’s entrance and initially opposed his induction. He also called for a public apology over the allegedly false charges Gunjal levelled against Dhariwal during the Assembly election in November last year. However, all bitterness between the two seems now to be buried as Dhariwal actively campaigns for Gunjal. Dhariwal enjoys good popularity in Kota, particularly in Kota (North), where there are over 50,000 minority voters.

“Gunjal now stands a very good chance in the rural areas of the Kota and Bundi districts,” says Ramnarayan Meena, former Congress MP from Kota. “Apart from the Gujjars, the Meena community will also vote for him.”

Collectively, the Gujjars and Meenas have 4 lakh votes. Both communities are largely agriculturists. In comparison, “Birla has it tough in the rural areas and is only strong in one Assembly constituency”, says Meena. “I have represented Kota in the Lok Sabha as MLA four times. I think Gunjal has a very good chance of giving a rude shock to Birla, who is facing the wrath of his own party colleagues this time.”

“Om Birla has attracted the wrath of the BJP workers because of his brothers, who are controlling the BJP politics in not only Kota, but also Bundi district. The disappointed BJP workers who were denied their political space there are praying for Gunjal’s success to break Birla’s monopoly,” said a BJP worker from Rampura, on condition of anonymity.

Meena may therefore be on to something when he says that while the BJP is trying to analyse the low turnout in the first phase of the polls, the Birla camp’s strategy is to ensure that the rural voters do not come out in large numbers, as that would harm his chances.

“Birla is banking on the urban votes and will leave no stone unturned to ensure a high turnout in the city. But there also he has it tough — all of Dhariwal’s supporters will now vote for Gunjal,” predicts Meena.

Meanwhile, the Congress has been forced to complain to the state election commission office in state capital Jaipur over Birla’s daughter Anjali Birla, an IAS officer according to the complaint, actively campaigning for her father. Though she apparently stopped once local media picked up the story.

Interestingly, in the past two decades, anyone who has served as Lok Sabha Speaker has failed to re-enter the Lower House again. Some former Speakers lost in subsequent polls; some chose not to contest or were passed over by their parties; and one passed away.

Indeed, N. Sanjeeva Reddy (who went on to become President of India) is the only one to have been elected twice to the chair. Doesn’t look as though Om Birla will get to break the jinx this time at any rate.

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