Ever since she led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to a historic triumph in 2003, Vasundhara Raje has played a pivotal role in Rajasthan politics. But four months ahead of the next Assembly Elections, the conspicuous absence of the state’s first woman chief minister from two crucial BJP poll panels has set off a big buzz.
Seen as a setback by many, the omission led to Raje trending on social media within minutes. Raje’s political future is now being discussed over time in the power corridors of both Delhi and Jaipur.
As Raje soon skipped a meeting of the BJP core committee in Jaipur to discuss organisational and election-related matters, the buzz intensified further.
Raje’s Eerie Absence From BJP Panels
A week ago, the former Chief Minister (CM) had recently given a miss to a major BJP protest under its 'Nahi Sahega Rajasthan’ campaign in Jaipur. Her absence now has raised more eyebrows in political circles and given rise to speculations that Raje is miffed and the BJP rift may be widening.
With speculations mounting over Raje’s role in the upcoming polls, the key question is – has the BJP top brass decided to look beyond Vasundhara as its CM Face?
Any clear-cut answer to this seemingly simple query is elusive since the BJP itself has been unable to resolve its Vasundhara dilemma.
BJP insiders had claimed there was a 'definite plan’ and a 'clear picture’ of Rajasthan that would emerge after the party’s national executive meeting in January. Now, it’s nearing August end but the BJP leadership is still unable to spell out the exact role of its most prominent leader in Rajasthan.
BJP’s Dichotomy on Raje as Party Face
The party’s confusion is in stark contrast to Raje’s keen desire to play a stellar role.
Through several shows of strength in recent years, Raje has exhibited her desire to remain the central plank of BJP politics in Rajasthan. For almost two decades, she ran the state BJP like a one-woman powerhouse but once her stars nosedived after the electoral defeat of 2018, she was sidelined by the BJP High Command.
Apart from ignoring Raje, the top brass also refused to make her the Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly. Though she was decorated as party vice-president, it was more to force her to give up her regional dominance and don a national role.
While Raje and her loyalists were cold-shouldered, her critics were given key roles in the name of creating a generation-next leadership in Rajasthan.
Most of these newbies were from the RSS stable and included Satish Poonia, a first-time MLA who was made state BJP president, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, an Amit Shah protégé and a bitter Raje rival, who was made a Union Cabinet Minister, and Om Birla, hardly a Raje supporter, was elevated as the Speaker of Lok Sabha after just a five-year stint in the Parliament. Raje’s uneasy relationship with Narendra Modi and Amit Shah made it easier to sideline her.
Raje's 'Bend, Not break' Approach
Despite the marginalisation, Raje refused to budge and evolved a strategy to counter her opponents. Hiding her ambitions in the garb of "Dev Darshan Yatras” or religious trips to major temples in Rajasthan, Raje stayed in the public eye.
Her birthday bashes at temple towns were also turned into mega events by Raje loyalists to showcase her mass appeal.
Her religio-political programmes enabled Raje to stay politically significant and boosted her bid to be the BJP’s CM face as her loyalists have repeatedly demanded in recent years.
Inevitably, these moves and counter-moves led to factional feuds and an almost open war between the Raje loyalists and the younger leaders from the RSS faction. Not surprisingly, the BJP lost most by-polls and also failed to mount any major agitations in Rajasthan.
BJP's Rajasthan Strategy
Despite the huge din over her sidelining now, astute observers point out that not just Raje, but all major CM aspirants are absent from these panels. From her chief rival Gajendra Shekhawat to Leader of Opposition Rajendra Rathore and former state BJP President Satish Poonia to current state party chief CP Joshi, none of the key leaders in the CM race are on these two panels.
The BJP is likely to soon announce an Election Campaign Committee, where all these heavyweights will figure together and Raje may well head that panel. The only big name in the current panels is that of Law Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal, probably a strategic move to woo SC-ST voters.
Many BJP veterans have asked state leaders to contest polls unitedly and the decision to keep Raje and her rivals out of the current panels aims to prevent the factionalism in the state unit from erupting ahead of elections.
Significantly, BJP also plans to organise a 'Parivartan Yatra’ in the state in September and the buzz is that all four leaders Raje, Shekhawat, Poonia, and State Chief CP Joshi will jointly lead these yatras.
This is a far cry from the past when Raje dominated all BJP Yatras in the state and had even forced RSS Strongman GC Kataria in 2012 to cancel his yatra in the Mewar region!
The BJP has repeatedly indicated in recent times that PM Modi will be its chief face and mascot for the Rajasthan polls. This suits several state leaders who regard themselves as deserving CM options and prefer a 'collective leadership’ model for the BJP’s Rajasthan campaign to stay in the CM race.
In this context, Raje being dropped from key election panels signals that the BJP is not planning to make Vasundhara its central plank. Instead, the party is keen to project a 'collective leadership’, leaving Raje’s role undefined.
What are the Odds?
The decision not to clarify Raje’s role is based on a clever calculation. If BJP wins big and gains a clear majority, the party can go for a fresh face as its Chief Minister (effectively someone favoured by Modi-Shah duo). But in a tight post-poll scenario, BJP brass could fall back on Raje’s political skills and long experience to manufacture a majority – something that Ashok Gehlot did for Congress in 2008 and 2018.
Interestingly, a recent survey has baffled the BJP further since 36% of BJP voters want Raje as the CM face while 33% of its supporters wish to see a fresh face! Raje’s exclusion from panels that she dominated earlier may signify that BJP high command is looking beyond the only woman CM of Rajasthan but the fight over who will get the reins of leadership is far from over.
For the moment, the BJP top brass is trying its best to keep a tight lid on factionalism as that could be disastrous for the Saffron brigade’s poll prospects.
Sticking to a strategy of "collective leadership” in the desert state implies that BJP’s national leadership would go with PM Modi's face and not declare anyone as its CM candidate.
The BJP’s failure to resolve the leadership dilemma in Rajasthan could, however, result in bitter ramifications in the upcoming polls. As the party’s biggest mass leader in Rajasthan, it is a tantalising query as to how an undefined role for Raje will impact BJP’s poll prospects. If irate utterances of some of her loyalists are any guide, the 'angry woman’ could prove a dangerous opponent to cope with for her own party!
(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.)