Rajasthan assembly election: A do or die for CM Vasundhara Raje
Since the budget in March, which dangled sops for all, Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje has been on a whirlwind tour of the state as part of a Jan Samvad (public dialogue) campaign, summarily suspending officials, announcing impromptu projects and coming up with instant solutions to people’s problem.
Jan Samvad is an outreach initiative to erase Raje’s image of being “inaccessible.”
The immediate provocation for the outreach was the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) embarrassing loss in the last three by-polls – in the Ajmer and Alwar Lok Sabha constituencies and the Mangalgarh assembly seat– to the rival Congress. In fact, the BJP failed to win even a single one of the 16 assembly segments in Ajmer and Alwar. In the 2013 assembly elections, the BJP won 15 of them and the Congress one.
What came as a shock for the ruling party was that in some polling booths, the BJP candidates failed to bag even a single vote despite the party appointing at least 10 locals as booth in-charges, showing the growing disenchantment of the party cadre against the state leadership. “The eye opener for us was that our ground level workers were very unhappy with us,” said a minister in Vasundhara Raje cabinet, who didn’t want to be named..
The feedback provided by the Central observers for the loss put the spotlight on Raje; most legislators from these assembly constituencies blamed her and bureaucrats considered close to her for the loss saying she was “not accessible” to them, leave alone party workers, and the bureaucrats in districts did not pay heed to their concerns. More than voters, the observers said that the CM needs to assuage the party workers who were feeling left out.
This prompted Raje to start her Jan Samvads in assembly constituencies, especially those where the party believed that the Congress had won an edge in the recent past. Raje, soon after the budget session, in which she announced sops worth Rs 20,000 crore for different sections of the society, started holding the Jan Samvads. So far, she had held these meetings in more than 50 assembly constituencies spread over 16 of the 33 districts in the state.
Through these meetings, Raje tried to connect with the local party workers, delivering the message to the party cadre that she was the boss and was in control, taking a cue from West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who has been holding similar meetings in rural parts of the eastern state for the past two years.
In full public view, Raje suspended a block development officer in Banswara after locals and party leaders complained that he was not listening to them; a district sports officer got a firing from her in Kushalgarh after he failed to respond to the issues raised by locals and in Khandar, she directed the district officials to take immediate action against some accused of sexual assault.
Raje used these meetings to initiate developmental works on suggestions of the party workers and, according to her office, local drinking water, road repair and healthcare projects worth Rs 10,000 crore have been launched and work on them has already started. She also directed districts officials to be more responsive towards public representatives from panchayats to Parliament.
More than that, the Jan Samvads were the platforms for the CM to address caste and community issues, seen as a big falling of Raje. Rajputs had accused the Raje government of doing nothing for them even though they supported the BJP in the 2013 elections, a claim denied by parliamentary affairs minister Rajendra Rathore, who said the BJP has done much more for Rajputs than the previous Congress government. Gujjars had been unhappy with Raje government for failing to provide reservation in jobs and university admissions for them, which Rathore said has been addressed.
Raje has also not allowed the setback in the by-elections to diminish her authority. She managed to thwart the attempts of the party’s central leadership to appoint union minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat as the Rajasthan BJP president. This resistance somewhat delayed the restructuring of the organization following the defeat in the by-elections.
On the backfoot
The BJP in Rajasthan is battling on two fronts - the anti-incumbency and disgruntled party workers. Senior BJP leader such as Prabhu Lal Saini, who is also agriculture minister, sees the anger among party workers as the bigger challenge than anti-incumbency, considering open revolt by some against the state leadership.
“We have done unprecedented work in Rajasthan. If elections are fought only on the development front, we will win hands down. The Congress is nowhere close to us. But, our workers who feel disillusioned with us, is a concern, which all of us are looking at. If our workers come out and support us, election will be a cakewalk for BJP,” Saini said, admitting that the losses in the three by-polls was an “eye-opener” as they found that a large number of party workers refused to work for the candidates.
Former BJP president Ashok Parmani, who presented an impressive comparison of the work done by the Raje government compared to the previous Congress government led by Ashok Gehlot, agreed with Saini to some extent. “Our worst enemies turned out to some of our legislators who kept on claiming to that no work was being done just to cover up for their inefficiency,” he said.
The BJP plans to address this issue by denying tickets to a large number of legislators on the basis of a survey to gauge the performance of each legislator, and form a new state executive with more representation from the workers on ground.
Some political experts believe that it may be too late for the BJP. “Politics is all about perception and BJP appears to have lost that war. Though Raje had gained some ground in the past few months due to Congress’ lack of enthusiasm on ground, it may be too late for her,” said Narain Bareth, a political expert who retired as a professor from Rajasthan University.
The Congress is making most of the BJP’s failures. “From farm sector to employment to local development, the BJP has failed on all fronts. We have data and evidence which we will present to people during our campaign,” Congress Rajasthan chief Sachin Pilot said.
BJP insiders admit that anti-incumbency is playing out on the ground and that most of the schemes launched by Raje are “perceived” to be ineffective.
BJP workers have also raised the issue of MLAs and ministers notlheeding party workers. At a function to welcome the newly appointed president of the Rajasthan BJP, Madanlal Saini, a worker interrupted his speech, shouting that BJP leaders will have to listen to the grievances and requests of party workers.
Reports of friction between ministers have also been a cause of worry for the party leadership. Recently, education minister Vasudev Devnani had a scuffle with his cabinet colleague Banshidhar Bajiya over the transfers of teachers. “These are minor issues blown out of proportions by the media,” Saini said.
What next for Raje
The 2018 assembly elections, analysts say, will decide the future of Raje in the BJP and Rajasthan. A victory will cement her position, a loss could mean the end of road for the 67 year-old scion of the royal family, who has rubbed the central leadership the wrong way by opposing their choice for state BJP chief ,Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s man for Rajasthan.
“I don’t think we will see Vasundhara after this election,” said Ghanshyam Tiwari, the BJP lawmaker who resigned to float his own party. “She destroyed internal democracy in BJP and introduced unprecedented corruption in the government”. Saini, however, debunked his claim, saying it was coming from a disgruntled person.
Raje’s last bet to connect with people before the campaign starts with the Suraj Gaurav Yatra. The 45-day yatra that commences from Charbhuja temple in Rajsamand district on August 1 will cover all 33 districts to highlight the work done by the BJP government and “expose” the Congress.
Despite the recent setbacks, the BJP is confident of victory. “We may not win 163 seats (BJP’s tally in 2013) but will surely form government with a simple majority,” a former BJP president said.