Vasundhara Raje's devotion to the almighty is a well-known facet of her political career. Apart from her own temple-hopping, in her first term as Rajasthan Chief Minister, Raje’s fawning admirers had planned to build a temple and even install her idol in Jodhpur, in a bid to elevate Raje from royalty to divinity. Now, as she looks for divine inspiration to revive her sagging political fortunes, Raje’s religious tours have once again ignited a big buzz in Rajasthan, especially after her recent trip to Bikaner.
Dubbed as ‘Dev-Darshan Yatra’ or religious journey, the political subtext of her trip was unmistakable as Raje visited various temples and addressed several public meetings. Though the state Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) leadership and many in the Bikaner unit stayed away, each programme saw huge turnouts.
Mobilised by staunch Raje loyalists like former ministers Kalicharan Saraf, Rajpal Singh Shekhawat, Yunus Khan and former State President Ashok Parnami, the large crowds also saw numerous current and former Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) MPs and MLAs boosting Raje’s public outreach.
Significantly, some of Raje’s remarks at meetings on this trip have sparked quite a stir. Raje said, "Ups and downs are a part of life. Nothing comes easily to me and I have had to work hard and struggle. But after the blessings of Karni Mata, no one can stop me now. If needed, we will fight again.”
Raje’s assertions are seen as an aggressive message to the BJP’s top brass that side-lined her after the party’s defeat in the 2018 elections. While her comments may be a bid to energise loyalists, Raje’s tone reflects her determination to return to the centrestage of BJP politics in Rajasthan.
What Does Raje’s BJP Outreach Signal
The Bikaner trip is not the first time that a private visit by Raje has been turned into a political show of strength by her loyalists. After staying silent for a few years post the loss in the last assembly elections, Raje has used religious tours as a clever ploy to push her political purposes.
It began with her Birthday bash in Bharatpur division last year where Raje reminded the BJP top brass about her family's contribution to the party. Speaking of her mother, Raje claimed, “Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia played a vital role in not letting the BJP’s ‘lotus flower’ wilt. She was always full of nationalism and had the BJP in every pore of her body. And I am the daughter of the same mother.”
Later, in the end of 2021, Raje went to six districts in South and Central Rajasthan where despite calling it a ‘non-political’ tour, she gave political messages in all her public meetings. Not only her critics but neutral observers too saw it as a show of political strength. Even in her 69th birthday celebration in 2022, when Raje visited a temple and addressed a huge public rally in Bundi district, the message was loud and clear that it was a well-planned political initiative.
Though subtle in her messaging on religious tours, Raje’s public meetings are an assertion of her popular appeal and political clout. Her supporters’ regular clamour and their outfit ‘Vasundhara Raje Samarthak Manch’ leaves nobody in doubt as they want Raje to be designated as the BJP’s CM face for the assembly elections of 2023. This has led to critics accusing Raje loyalists of running a ‘parallel system’ within the party and creating deep fissures in the state unit.
Party insiders say the rift between Raje loyalists and the RSS faction can hardly be bridged. After defeat in the last assembly elections, the BJP top brass had not only sidelined Raje but also handed over all key state party positions to her rivals.
‘Raje’s Unparalled Appeal Is Her Political Trump Card’
While RSS-backed detractors, Gulab Chand Kataria and Satish Poonia were made Leader of Opposition and State BJP President respectively, her other critics like Jodhpur MP Gajendra Singh Shekhawat and Kota MP Om Birla were provided a post in the Modi cabinet and the chair of Lok Sabha Speaker.
Though all these leaders now nurture Chief Ministerial dreams, and the list of claimants for the CM’s post has grown in the state BJP, no contender has emerged as an alternative to Raje for none enjoys her popular appeal or stature– as testified by defeats in several assembly by-polls when Raje has stayed aloof.
Political pundits opine that none of the leaders propped up by the Modi-Shah combined has the mass appeal of Raje and that may eventually be her trump card.
Can Raje Be Replaced by the Party Top Brass?
Raje is using this situation to her advantage by designing her trips within a religious ambit to ensure that nobody, including BJP biggies, can frown on her efforts for religion is a key element of Hindutva politics. Obviously, her religious tours enable Raje to remain politically relevant, showcase her popular base and boost her chances to return as CM.
A new poster slogan, “Kaho dil se, Vasundhara phir se” (Say it from the Heart, Vasundhara again for CM) makes it clear that Raje is ready to flex her muscle to become the BJP’s CM face, whether the party’s top brass likes it or not.
Despite the advocacy of Raje loyalists for her return as CM, the BJP leadership seems intent on fighting the 2023 elections without a CM face and in the name of PM Modi. Raje’s frosty relationship with Modi and Amit Shah is seen as the prime factor behind Raje’s marginalisation but BJP insiders insist that even the Modi-Shah duo now realise that they can’t test Raje’s patience infinitely.
As such, it is a tantalising, million-dollar question whether the BJP central leadership will relent or will Raje form a breakaway group if she isn’t accommodated quickly?
While the Ashok Gehlot-Sachin Pilot shenanigans have often been in the spotlight, BJP infighting in the desert state is no less severe. But if her religio-political tours are any indication, Raje is in no mood to give up her turf and is all set for a spirited fight. The battle within the BJP is an intriguing one and could have a decisive bearing on how Rajasthan elections pan out next year.
(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.)