Ahead of the high-stakes Assembly polls in Rajasthan this year, all parties are busy formulating their strategies but the BJP’s dilemma over former Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje persists like a tantalising puzzle as the party’s top brass dithers over bringing Raje to the forefront.
This, however, hasn't curbed Raje loyalists who have often demanded that she be named the BJP’s CM face. Now, they are holding a mega event at the temple town of Salasar in Churu on 4 March, four days before Raje’s birthday on 8 March since it coincides with the festival of Holi.
The timing and venue of the gala 70th birthday celebration are intriguing political circles as it comes at a time when the BJP has been unable to find a replacement for Gulab Chand Kataria as Leader of Opposition (LoP) in the Rajasthan Assembly. Though the RSS-backed Kataria was appointed as Assam's Governor nearly three weeks ago, the BJP has failed to answer the simple query as to who will replace Kataria as LoP.
Raje loyalists to hold a mega event at the temple town of Salasar in Churu on 4 March, four days before Raje’s birthday on 8 March.
Critics worry that an elevation as LoP could be construed as a de-facto approval of Raje as the CM face of BJP for the upcoming polls.
In the past twenty years, Raje has played a critical role in the allocation of BJP tickets in Rajasthan. As she strives to remain a front-runner in the state BJP, her supporters believe she can still play a major role.
Even though her equation with the BJP top brass especially the Modi-Shah duo, has seen many ups and downs, Raje has managed to avert any major confrontation in recent years.
Fears are that if the top leadership accords no special status to her, it is quite possible that Raje and her camp may revolt which may seriously dent BJP's chances in the state.
What Are the Chances for Vasundhara Raje To Stage a Comeback?
Initially, it was felt that Kataria was being shifted to Assam Raj Bhawan to rehabilitate Raje and give a strong signal of her return to mainstream state politics. But the ticklish issue continues to elude a solution as the BJP seems riddled not just with intense lobbying for a key post but also deep factionalism in the state unit.
While the Raje camp wants Vasundhara to get the coveted post, her detractors are vociferously opposing her appointment. Her critics are worried that an elevation as LoP could be construed as a de-facto approval of Raje as the CM face of BJP for the upcoming polls.
A Strategic Birthday Bash
Moreover, the venue for Raje’s grand birthday show in Churu is a daring one. It’s being seen as a challenge to the state BJP Chief Satish Poonia and Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly Rajendra Rathore both of whom hail from Churu. While Poonia has emerged as Raje’s chief rival in recent years and is a keen contender for the CM post, Rathore represents Churu in the state assembly and regards the district as his political bastion.
Against this backdrop, observers feel Raje's strategy in choosing Salasar Dham for her Birthday Bash is akin to challenging the Poonia-Rathore duo on their home turf.
Though Salasar Balaji Dham is in the home district of two of Raje’s biggest rivals, her supporters have given an open call to all BJP MPs, MLAs, and party workers to gather in large numbers in the temple town. They claim over one lakh people will gather for the birthday celebration to showcase Vasundhara's strength and popularity.
Raje loyalists affirm that a senior leader in every district has been assigned the responsibility of mobilising crowds. If former ministers like Yunus Khan, Kalicharan Saraf, and Rajpal Singh Shekhawat are working hard to bring in maximum people from Nagaur, Sikar, and Jaipur districts respectively, former state BJP President Ashok Parnami has been given the responsibility of Jhunjhunu district. Similarly, Churu MP Rahul Kaswan has to get people from the Churu district to the venue and also look after local arrangements in Salasar.
BJP Stands Divided in Supporting Raje
Even as Raje supporters work overtime to make the event a huge success, her detractors are doing their best to deflate the effort. BJP’s youth wing, the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha(BJYM) has announced that it will hold a major protest at the Rajasthan Assembly on 4 March – the exact date for Raje’s grand show.
Led by Himanshu Sharma, a known protégé of State BJP Chief Satish Poonia, the BJYM has invited all BJP MLAs to join the dharna opposing paper leaks in recruitment exams for state government jobs. Most see the BJYM protest on 4 March as a bid to scuttle Raje’s birthday celebrations at the behest of arch-rival Poonia and a ploy to stop party workers from going to Salasar. It’s a valid argument since the BJYM protest could easily have been kept a few days before or after the Raje event if the state unit wanted.
Nevertheless, Raje and her loyalists are determined to go ahead with their show of strength as they believe it will send a strong political message to BJP’s central leadership. Her camp believes that through this event, Vasundhara will be able to prove to the party’s top brass that she has a large army of supporters and if elections are fought under her leadership, she can make the BJP return to power in Rajasthan.
They also hope it will re-establish Raje’s mass appeal and pressurise the BJP High Command to appoint her the LoP, thus, bolstering her chances of becoming the chief minister if BJP wins the upcoming state elections.
Though out of power, Raje has been increasingly assertive in the recent years. Whether through her birthday celebrations or via Dev Darshan and religious visits all over Rajasthan, she has repeatedly given the message of being ahead in the CM race.
As she battles to regain her dominance in the state BJP and emerge as the party’s CM face for the 2023 assembly polls, the Raje camp is desperately praying that her Birthday Bash will tilt the scales in her favour.
Can Raje's Mass Appeal Help Her Win Over Rajasthan?
Given her sidelining since the 2018 assembly elections by BJP’s central leadership, the present bash is a major attempt by Raje to underline her significance in state politics and showcase her mass base and popularity. As she couldn’t hold political events without the party’s consent, she has skillfully organized several religious and personal programmes to stay in the public eye. And the Salasar event is a final bid to flex her muscle in the election year.
In the past twenty years, Raje has played a critical role in the allocation of BJP tickets in Rajasthan. As she strives to remain a front-runner in the state BJP, her supporters believe she can still play a major role in getting them election tickets and that is a key factor motivating them to make the bash a historic success. Insiders suggest if not as LoP, Raje could be made Chief of BJP’s high-powered Campaign Committee for Rajasthan polls which will give her a crucial role in ticket distribution.
Despite all these calculations, however, the fundamental question is whether BJP central leadership will relent and accommodate Raje. Even though her equation with the BJP top brass especially the Modi-Shah duo, has seen many ups and downs, Raje has managed to avert any major confrontation in recent years.
For the BJP High Command too, time is rapidly running out for if the rift in the state unit and uncertainty over leadership continues, it may lead to demoralised cadres in an election year. Fears are that if the top leadership accords no special status to her, it is quite possible that Raje and her camp may revolt which may seriously dent BJP's chances in the desert state.
(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.)