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‘Vasundhara phir se’ slogan is back, but ‘everyone’ is a CM wannabe in Rajasthan BJP

Jaipur: A new political poster has been creating a buzz in Rajasthan ahead of the assembly elections next year. It says: “Kaho dil se, Vasundhara phir se” (say it from the heart, Vasundhara again for chief minister). Who is behind these posters is anybody’s guess, but the message to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) high command is unmistakable: Vasundhara Raje is bracing for a fight to project herself as a CM face for the BJP, whether or not the party’s top leadership likes it.

So far, posters and slogans have been a handy guide to Rajasthan’s political pulse, a state where the post of CM has been about a two-decade-long game of musical chairs between BJP leader Vasundhara Raje and the Congress’ Ashok Gehlot.

For instance, before Raje became CM in 2003, the BJP led a high-octane election campaign with the slogan Gehlot aayega, akaal aayega, Gehlot jayega, akaal jayega (drought will come if Gehlot comes, drought will go if Gehlot goes). In 2008, the opposition Congress coined the slogan — “8 PM, no CM” — commenting on Raje’s alleged inaccessibility. She lost that election.

But cut to 2018, and a section of the BJP, too, had turned against Raje, who had been CM since 2013. In that year’s assembly election, a refrain of “Modi tujhse bair nahin, Vasundhara teri khair nahin’ resonated across Rajasthan, suggesting that the people wanted to teach her a lesson although they didn’t have any grouse against Narendra Modi. The Congress won that election and Gehlot was back in the CM’s seat.

Ever since then, Raje has been embroiled in a tussle for power with state BJP president Satish Poonia, but despite her stature as a mass leader, the high command has shown few signs of wanting to put her in the limelight and is instead trying to promote new leaders.

The fresh posters advocating for Raje’s return as CM have come at a time when BJP general secretary and Rajasthan in-charge Arun Singh is preparing to embark on a state-wide tour over the next six months to oversee poll preparations.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah is also expected to attend a meeting of the party’s OBC Morcha in Jodhpur, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s home turf, next week. Significantly, Jodhpur is also the parliamentary constituency of Union Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, a putative chief ministerial contender whose appointment as state BJP president in 2018 had been stalled by Raje. The message may not be lost on her.

But the Raje vs Shekhawat battle is not the only thing troubling BJP strategists in Rajasthan, where multiple factions and chief ministerial hopefuls are battling for relevance despite the high command’s repeated implorations for “unity” ahead of the polls.

The party, meanwhile, has maintained the official line that the high command will take all key decisions for the polls, never mind all the sound and fury within the party’s ranks.

“Everyone wants to be the chief minister. It doesn’t mean their claims are taken seriously. I don’t think any name floating around carries any weight. The BJP parliamentary board will take the final decision,” said Ramlal Sharma, chief spokesperson for BJP Rajasthan.

Also read: Nadda tells BJP’s Rajasthan unit to ‘end in-fighting’, leave leadership issues to high command

In-fighting out in the open

There is a battle royale unfolding in the Rajasthan BJP. This July, for instance, a video went viral of two senior BJP leaders — Rajya Sabha MP Kirodi Lal Meena and deputy leader of opposition in Rajasthan Assembly Rajendra Rathore — having a heated argument just before the arrival of the then presidential candidate Droupadi Murmu in Jaipur.

The dispute was apparently triggered when Meena burst into a diatribe about 28 of his tribal supporters not being allowed into the conference room by Rathore.

As the leaders’ volume increased, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat intervened and took Meena aside to calm him down.

The Congress didn’t lose a beat in adding fuel to fire. “These are the contenders to the chair, slinging mud at each other,” Govind Singh Dotasra, Rajasthan Congress president, said in a tweet written in Hindi verse.

This was one of those incidents where the Rajasthan BJP could no longer keep the fight within the house, and swords were drawn in public. It happened even though BJP national president J.P. Nadda had asked party workers to show a united front just a day earlier.

But the lava that came out that day has been brewing underneath the surface for a while. And it’s not limited to two individuals.

High command’s top picks?

While Gajendra Singh Shekhawat is seen as the BJP high command’s choice as Raje’s successor, state BJP president Poonia has made no secret of his own ambition. He takes on Raje regularly and has declared that the party will go with Modi as its face in the election, virtually ruling out her CM candidature.

Shekhawat is, however, diplomatic in his words and actions. Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla is also said to be in the reckoning but he, like Shekhawat, wouldn’t say a word about his future plans. All three of them — Poonia, Shekhawat and Birla — enjoy the confidence of Modi and Shah, albeit to varying degrees.

“The central leadership favours Shekhawat. Not only is he an RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] favourite, he also defeated Ashok Gehlot’s son in parliamentary elections in Jodhpur. But his sphere of influence is limited to Western Rajasthan,” claimed a source in the BJP.

Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat | Praveen Jain | ThePrint

What is, however, queering the pitch further for the BJP in Rajasthan is the fact that there are many more CM aspirants who aren’t exactly faction leaders but are still ploughing lonely furrows to position themselves for the top job.

‘Underdogs’ in the mix

The many chief-ministerial hopefuls in the Rajasthan BJP are said to include Gulab Chand Kataria, Ghanshyam Tiwari, Rajendra Rathore, and Kirodi Lal Meena, each apparently waging a campaign of sorts for themselves.

Meena, for instance, doesn’t belong to either the Raje or Poonia factions. He quit the BJP in 2008 following differences with Raje, joined the National People’s Party (NPP) and was instrumental in Poonia’s defeat in the 2013 assembly election by fielding an NPP candidate against him. His wife, Golma Devi, had joined the Gehlot government as a minister in 2008.

Ahead of the 2018 assembly election, Meena returned to the BJP and was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the party.

That year, though Meena helped Poonia win the assembly election from Amber constituency, the relationship between the two has remained cold, say BJP functionaries. Meena has an independent line with the BJP high command and keeps flexing his muscles by organising public meetings and programmes.

Then there is Rajendra Rathore, a former Raje loyalist, who has distanced himself from her. He has claimed that he is not a CM contender but remains ambivalent about Raje’s candidature. His refrain is that the BJP high command will decide.

His supporters, though, are more forthcoming. For instance, the Kshatriya Yuvak Sangh, an influential organisation of Rajputs that held a massive rally in Jaipur last December, is vocal about its preference for Rathore as CM.

“Vasundhara ji is now busy pleasing the Jats. We think Rajendra Rathore will make a good CM,” Mahaveer Singh, a member of the Kshatriya Yuvak Sangh, told ThePrint.

Another hopeful is Ghanshyam Tiwari, an old Raje-baiter and perpetual CM aspirant.

Following prolonged differences with Raje, the six-term MLA quit the BJP in 2018 and floated his own political outfit. He even shared the dais with Rahul Gandhi ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election. He returned to the BJP in December 2020.

In a not-so-subtle message to Raje, the BJP high command nominated him to the Rajya Sabha in May. At 74, Tiwari still sounds optimistic about his political future.

Asked about Poonia’s suggestion that 70 years should be the retirement age, Tiwari pointed out that B.S. Yediyurappa, 79, has been inducted into the BJP parliamentary board. He has also been holding meetings, seeking to project himself as the Brahmin face.

On Thursday, he was seen in a video doing a ‘rishi poojan karmkand’ programme.

Rajasthan BJP chief Satish Poonia | Praveen Jain | ThePrint
Rajasthan BJP chief Satish Poonia | Praveen Jain | ThePrint

Poonia’s suggestion about the retirement age has also been rejected by Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, Gulab Chand Kataria, 77.

Kataria, like Tiwari and Poonia, has strong backing of the RSS. As home minister in the Vasundhara Raje government, he always represented ‘the other camp’. After the BJP’s loss in the bypolls last November, Kataria came down heavily on Raje, saying that she was a star campaigner “only in name”.

In 2013, too, Kataria had been one of the frontrunners to oppose the re-election of Raje as the chief minister. For now, though, he is keeping his cards close to his chest.

“This (reports of discord) is a figment of the media’s imagination,” Kataria said, “the BJP continues to stick together. We’ll go by whatever central leadership says.”

Former BJP MLA Gyan Dev Ahuja, one of Raje’s critics, was more outspoken: “You can write it down. Raje’s career as CM is over. She has lost her influence. She’ll never be CM again.”

Dasiyo log iss samay CM banne ke liye ghoom rahe hain (At least 10 leaders want to be the next CM face),” said a former minister. “First ask these candidates to win in their seats properly and then show CM ambition,” added Ahuja.

‘Vasundhara is still the strongest leader’

Despite her many detractors, Vasundhara Raje still commands respect as a mass leader and is not easily written off.

“Vasundhara Raje remains the strongest leader in the state. If she is not chosen as the CM candidate, there are at least 47 seats across Rajasthan where she can cost a vote share of 5,000-10,000 [in a seat]. We simply cannot win without her,” said a former MLA from the Mewar region on condition of anonymity.

“However, I don’t think the party will announce a CM candidate before the polls. And the announcement of the CM-elect would totally depend on the central leadership. A decision all of us, including Miss Raje, will respect,” the former MLA added.

“If we choose a candidate along caste lines it will be the downfall of the BJP,” said Narpat Singh Rajvi, a senior BJP leader.

“I am no fan of Vasundhara. But none of the names floating around right now have any acceptability in the masses or in the party,” he said, “Satish Poonia as Chief Minister would be a disaster too. It’s one thing to become a party leader and another to be the leader of the house,” he added.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

Also read: ‘Gehlot-Pilot tussle, disappointed youth’: Why NSUI was crushed in Rajasthan student polls

Source: The Print

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