Barely a fortnight after the Karnataka defeat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is back in campaign mode with a rally in Ajmer. Modi’s second trip in three weeks to the desert state reflects how much is at stake for the saffron brigade in election-bound Rajasthan. This was Modi's fifth visit to the state this year which has set off a big buzz that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is keen to turn the Rajasthan poll battle into a 'PM v/s CM’ contest.
The Ajmer rally was part of a month-long outreach campaign by the BJP, a 'Maha Jansampark', to mark its nine years in power at the Centre. But its launch of a pan-India programme from Rajasthan indicates that the party is determined to regain power in the state and is clearly relying a great deal on its Campaigner-in-Chief.
PM Modi’s three-hour trip may have been short but had some vital long-term messaging as the BJP tries to give an early momentum to its campaign in the desert state. Besides slamming alleged corruption and misgovernance of the Congress governments of the past, the PM was severe in mocking what he termed the "guarantee formula” of Congress for the state elections.
PM Modi’s Pre-Poll Rajasthan Outreach
Stung by the five Congress guarantees in Karnataka that are seen as a core factor behind the BJP’s defeat, Modi asserted, "The Congress has a new formula of guarantees which, if implemented, will leave the country bankrupt.” The Rajasthan government has recently enacted a 'Right to Health' but Modi caustically commented that fifty years ago, "The Congress had given the nation a guarantee to end poverty which is the biggest betrayal of the poor. To hide its failures, the Congress now has a new formula of false guarantees.”
Besides slamming the Congress, PM Modi stressed that the nine years of his administration at the Centre were dedicated to good governance and the welfare of the poor. Despite natural anti-incumbency and the Congress infighting, the BJP realises that the task in Rajasthan is onerous especially as the Congress is building a huge narrative around the Chief Minister's (CM) welfare schemes, ranging from the Health sector initiatives to reviving the Old Pension Scheme. Listing his central government’s achievements in detail, Modi argued that Rajasthan needs to bring back the BJP to reap the benefits of a 'Double Engine Sarkar’.
In his multi-pronged attack on the Congress over corruption, misgovernance, appeasement politics, and infighting, Modi virtually set out a blueprint for the BJP campaign in Rajasthan. He especially targeted the battle between CM Gehlot and his former Deputy CM Sachin Pilot, claiming their feud had damaged Rajasthan. Taking a dig at the Congress rift, Modi asserted that though the people in the state gave the Congress a mandate five years ago, in return, “Rajasthan got instability and anarchy with MLAs, CM, and ministers busy fighting among themselves.”
Modi’s critical posturing shows that the PM will remain a larger-than-life presence in the Rajasthan poll battle. This may be much-needed as the infighting among its leaders is a massive challenge for the state BJP. Since its loss in the 2018 elections, internal strains and squabbles have been the bane of the state unit. With several leaders from former CM Vasundhara Raje to Union Ministers Gajendra Singh Shekhawat and Ashwini Vaishnaw to Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla– nursing chief ministerial ambitions, the BJP has been a divided house. Inevitably, the party has failed to be a strong opposition, lost most bypolls in the state, and hardly raised any public agitations in the past four years.
BJP Warms Upto Vasundhara Raje
To overcome this factionalism, the BJP's strategy is to use PM Modi’s name/face to pull votes and refrain from projecting anyone as its chief ministerial candidate. However, if the Ajmer rally is any indication, the BJP seems set to rethink former CM Vasundhara Raje’s role. Soon after his arrival on stage, Modi and Raje exchanged greetings with a warmth that has rarely been seen for the last many years. Their picture together hinted that none should now make the mistake of ignoring the former CM.
Beyond the pleasantries, Raje has showcased prominently in the huge backdrop posters as well as all the publicity materials prepared for the rally. Cold-shouldered often in the past, Raje was seated next to PM Modi, in an obvious bid to suggest that she may now play an important role in the Rajasthan campaign.
The prominence she received at the Ajmer rally was in stark contrast to how Raje was shoved off the center stage by the party’s top brass after the BJP lost the Rajasthan polls in 2018. Since one of the critical lessons of the Karnataka debacle was the need for the BJP to treat regional satraps with greater dignity, Raje’s rehabilitation at the Ajmer rally is a pointer that she may soon stage a strong comeback. It is worth underlining that before the Karnataka results, Raje was ignored for two crucial vacancies that had cropped up earlier this year– she was neither made the leader of the Opposition in the Assembly nor the state BJP president.
Raje’s frosty relationship with the BJP high command for the past several years has been no secret. The Modi-Shah duo has been wary of Raje but after the Karnataka humiliation, the BJP biggies cannot risk a defeat in the Rajasthan elections as it will be seen as a harbinger of the Lok Sabha battle. As such, they may now have to surmount their aversion to Raje and assign her a key role in the Rajasthan campaign.
A 'PM vs CM’ Battle
The BJP insiders reveal the party is planning a Modi blitzkrieg in Rajasthan– banking heavily on the Modi Magic, the saffron family hopes to turn the Rajasthan polls into a ‘PM v/s CM’ clash. Hence, PM Modi and the success of central schemes will be a prime focus to counter CM Gehlot’s narrative on social welfare schemes which the Congress is pushing as a major part of its electoral strategy.
But unlike in Karnataka where regional stalwarts were badly ignored, the Rajasthan story is likely to be vastly different. While PM Modi remains its trump card but as the Ajmer rally reflects, the BJP may now rely on Raje as a major plank of its appeal to voters.
(The author is a veteran journalist and expert on Rajasthan politics. Besides serving as a Resident Editor at NDTV, he has been a Professor of Journalism at the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur. He tweets at @rajanmahan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)