With her clout among MLAs and potential to rebel, the former Chief Minister poses a challenge to the BJP ahead of the Assembly election.
In India, the electoral verdict of one State seldom impacts the politics of another, especially when they lie on different sides of the north-south divide. The recent Karnataka election, however, in which the BJP was vanquished, has triggered a churn in poll-bound Rajasthan, reactivating the debate on whether Vasundhara Raje, the BJP’s former Chief Minister, will be positioned again in the front line of the campaign. Yet, just when the BJP’s “high command” should be throwing elbows, as it typically does even for an election two years away, it continues to push a discussion on Raje’s projection as its chief ministerial face under the table just five months before the State elections.
That is because Raje, a five-time Lok Sabha member, a junior Minister at the Centre, and a two-time Chief Minister of Rajasthan, remains a conundrum for the Narendra Modi regime. Raje is a leader the party has been unable to downsize despite persistent efforts.
A Jaipur BJP legislator, considered close to Raje, speaking off the record said, “By not announcing Vasundhara ji’s candidacy, the party hasn’t got into election mode. What use is the BJP organisation without a leader?”
Comparisons are often pointless, but the Karnataka-Rajasthan connection is that both of them swivel around the question of leadership. Several analysts have singled out the BJP high command’s ambivalence over the overweening presence of former Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa, which led to his eventual marginalisation in the Assembly election, as the biggest reason for the party’s rout. Yediyurappa’s successor, Basavaraj S. Bommai, could not bring home the bacon despite Delhi’s unqualified backing. The indecisiveness has continued after the election, with neither the opposition leader nor the BJP State president selected even 45 days later.
Vasundhara Raje and Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, have survived as the last regional satraps of the Delhi-centred BJP. As Chief Minister, Chouhan is widely expected to lead the Madhya Pradesh election later this year. Unfortunately for Raje, she lost the 2018 election to the Congress, which has led to the interminable will-she-won’t-she debate about her being the BJP’s face again. Is she expendable or irreplaceable?
A Jaipur-based political observer believes that the Raje-Yediyurappa comparison is “misplaced”. “Yediyurappa is a sort of unguided missile. Raje is so measured when she speaks that it is difficult to pin her down. She has undertaken programmes that are not sanctioned by the BJP but these are religious ones,” he said. Her Facebook page depicts a visit by Jain Muni Sudha Sagar to her Dholpur palace where she washed his feet; pilgrimages to Rishikesh (Uttarakhand) and Devghar (Jharkhand); and her salutations to departed BJP and Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) leaders as well as to Rajasthan’s icons—activities that are unexceptional.
The observer further said, “Whenever her visits are publicised, she is accompanied by sitting and former BJP MLAs, which is a signal to Delhi that a leadership vacuum exists.” Asked why these legislators would hitch their wagon to a star that might fade if Delhi so decrees, he said, “They see her as the only mass leader, someone the party might be forced to turn to.”
After the BJP’s defeat in 2018, which was by no means a rout, Raje’s comeback was not going to be easy. The BJP top brass did not think of her as indispensable and were seen as possibly seeking alternatives. But the Maharani of Dholpur, estranged from her husband Rana Hemant Singh, appears convinced that the Scindia genealogy is enough to sustain her ambitions. Her mother, Vijaya Raje Scindia, was associated with the BJS from its early years and later with the BJP and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, where she sought to give political legitimacy to the polarising Ram temple “movement”.
Modi is of a different persuasion. Whereas Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani indulged Raje when she threw a tantrum at the whiff of any intervention from Delhi, for Modi a leader’s ancestry is inconsequential. Raje did not read the tea leaves early on, but later tried to repair her relations with Modi who, in turn, believed he had reasons to look askance at her.
In December 2020, Raje’s cheerleaders banded together and floated an eponymous Samartak Manch (Support Front), demanding that she be declared the chief ministerial candidate. The banner was raised months after the BJP moved Raje to the central party organisation as a national vice-president along with another deposed Chief Minister, Raman Singh of Chhattisgarh. The post was ornamental.
However, of the BJP’s 71 MLAs, only the Chhabra representative, Pratap Singh Singhvi, showed up at the manch meetings although most of the others owed their ticket to Raje. By then, Ashok Parnami, her nominee for the Rajasthan BJP chief’s position, was replaced by Satish Poonia, who was not on the same page as Raje. Delhi clearly intended to clip her wings, and her “loyal” MLAs possibly got the message. Poonia was replaced by the mild-mannered C.P. Joshi when his three-year term was over. “Some thought that Poonia should have been given an extension to rein in Raje. Had that happened, it would have been an unequivocal signal that he was the next leader,” a Rajasthan BJP source said. Was Joshi’s anointment a half-way gesture to placate Raje?
“Perhaps, but Poonia will still have a say when the party ticket is distributed. He’s a Jat leader and wields some influence. Raje cannot have her way this time unlike five years ago when the high command gave her a free hand,” the source said. Farming out the party ticket before an election is the crucial test of a leader’s clout. It continues to be a challenge for Raje, although after the December 2020 events she has backed off from propping up her importance.
- Discussions about the potential return of Vasundhara Raje, the former Chief Minister, as the face of the BJP in the upcoming Rajasthan elections have resurfaced. A prominent leader, she remains a challenge for the BJP.
- Her leadership style has been marked by her unwillingness to share power with her colleagues, leading to an overdependence on bureaucrats and alienation from BJP functionaries and cadres, especially during elections.
- Two factors will weigh with both the BJP leadership and Raje when assessing the immediate future: the following she commands among the MLAs and her potential to rebel. Raje’s role remains undefined because the leadership’s focus is on collective leadership.
The Vasundhara factor
Currently, two factors will weigh with both the BJP leadership and Raje when assessing the immediate future: the following she commands among the MLAs and her potential to rebel. The two are inextricably linked, but nobody is sure of Raje’s numerical strength. A State BJP functionary, not known to be part of the Raje cabal, conceded, “For 20 years, she’s been a Rajasthan leader and a Chief Minister for 10. Naturally, she has a following in every constituency, not just among legislators but among office-bearers and party cadre. Not projecting her as Chief Minister can damage the BJP although we might seem ahead of the Congress in the popularity stakes.”
A source close to Raje claimed she would revolt if she was not made the Chief Minister candidate. “She is not contesting to become a mere MLA. She’s the tallest leader in the State.” Asked if Raje would eventually compromise to secure the career of her son and political heir, the four-time Lok Sabha member from Rajasthan’s Jhalawar-Baran, Dushyant Singh, the source replied, “She has to first look after her future. If she’s out of power, how can she help her son?”
Among Raje’s principal strengths, acknowledged even by her traducers, is that she is not identified with a single caste, unlike Poonia. “She was born a Maratha but there are no Marathas in Rajasthan. She calls herself a Kshatrani [Rajput] because of her royal lineage but she’s not a Rajput. At times she says she’s a Jat because her husband is one, although no Jat considers her their own. The fact is that she gets the votes of almost every caste,” said a BJP source. Her “administrative competence”, demonstrated when she was Chief Minister, is counted as another attribute.
On the flip side, Raje as Chief Minister was markedly unwilling to share power with her colleagues, which led to “over-dependence” on a clutch of bureaucrats. She earned the moniker of “the 8 pm CM” because she was allegedly inaccessible after sundown, which alienated her from BJP functionaries and cadres, especially during elections.
For the upcoming Assembly election, a senior State BJP leader insisted that they would be fought under a “collective leadership”. Ramlal Sharma, the Rajasthan BJP’s chief spokesperson, said, “A decision will be taken by the central parliamentary board, and we will abide by that.”
The senior leader, however, was clear that Raje’s role would remain “undefined”. “After the 1990s, power equations are dictated by perceptions and not by personalities. The period of Maharajas and Maharanis is over,” he emphasised. In an era where Delhi alone calls the shots, Raje will be living on a knife-edge for the next few months.
Radhika Ramaseshan was Political Editor of The Telegraph. She is now a columnist for The Tribune and The New Indian Express and is a keen follower of heartland politics.