Rajasthan polls: Vasundhara Raje grips state BJP; Sachin Pilot toils but Ashok Gehlot may be Congress' CM pick
To take on Vasundhara, Raje naming Ashok Gehlot as the chief ministerial candidate would be the best option for Rahul Gandhi.
Editor's note: This column presents the travel notes of a student of Indian politics and serves as a journal marking the run-up to General Election 2019. Sandip Ghose's day job as a marketing executive takes him deep into the country's interiors, which affords him the chance to listen to, and make sense of, India's concerns. These pieces will run in tandem to the frequency of his travels. Views expressed here do not reflect those of Ghose's employer.
Three months ago, most die-hard BJP supporter would not put money on the party’s return in Rajasthan. Not with Vasundhara Raje as the chief ministerial candidate for sure. But, if one asks now, many would say it is a 50:50 game that could go either way in the coming months. So, has anything changed?
I drove to Alwar from Delhi. The first stop was Bhiwadi, an industrial town across the Haryana border. Locals credit Bhairon Singh Shekhawat’s vision for this manufacturing hub. In coming years, it may well become an extension of Gurgaon-NCR.
Little did I expect to get caught in a traffic jam in Bhiwadi. But, there I was sitting in the midst of “Jagran” procession. This was outside one of the many temples in the city run by the Gujjar Samaj. The Gujjars came to Bhiwadi after reaping a fortune, when land prices soared in Haryana. Now they are the dominant set in the area. And, Sachin Pilot is a Gujjar, informed my driver.
Thus at Alwar, I expected to find a resounding endorsement for Pilot. Instead, the traders I met were rather circumspect. Pilot may draw the Gujjar votes, but he may not be able to reign in its rowdy elements. That might make the others wary. Here, lies the importance of Ashok Gehlot.
Pilot is the darling of the national media. But, Gehlot remains the favourite face of Congress in Rajasthan. In recent times, no other Congress leader in the state has commanded as much respect as Gehlot. In a world where corruption is a relative term, Gehlot enjoys a clean image. People rate his last term well. They admire his administrative acumen and people connect. Gehlot fans think, had it not been for the “Modi Wave” of 2014, he would have definitely come back for a second inning.
In recent months, Gehlot’s stock has risen further in Rajasthan. He gets the credit for Rahul Gandhi’s second coming as it were, starting with the Gujarat elections. People believe, he is the brain behind Rahul’s temple run and “Shiv-Bhakt” makeover. They feel as a member of Rahul's inner coterie, he will play a much bigger role in the days to come.
Pilot has been working hard at a micro-level ever since he took charge of the state unit. Congress' good showing in some of the local elections and by-polls are the result of his efforts. But, he has still not acquired the stature to stake a claim the top job on his own steam.
Apart from Gehlot, CP Joshi is far from hanging his boots. Joshi shows no intention of fading into the sunset yet. He still wields enough clout to influence the ticket distribution.
Pilot will have to contend with all these forces. Only Rahul’s endorsement cannot see him through. He will need Gehlot’s blessings to advance further. It is doubtful if Gehlot will relinquish his turf so early. Knowing the Congress, it is unlikely to spell out its chief ministerial choice before the elections.
Rahul is no Narendra Modi that he can sweep state election on his own equity without a strong local face. To take on Vasundhara, naming Gehlot as the chief ministerial candidate would be the best option for Rahul. But, will he be able to spare him before the Lok Sabha polls? That is the dilemma, which should be troubling Rahul.
The road to Jaipur via the Sariska Tiger Reserve is an orthopaedics delight. Because it is sure to cause a few spine dislocations daily. A stark contrast to the satin smooth Delhi-Jaipur Highway it merges into. Who can tell if these are symbolic of what lies ahead on the election trail?
In Jaipur, the mood, as they say, is mixed. Detractors of Vasundhara were predicting a change of guard in the state for long. Much of it was wishful thinking. People within the party did not like her imperious style and lack of access. The business community at large seemed to prefer the previous regime.
But, their hopes crashed at every turn. The last bet was Modi-Shah will project a second face as a chief minister probable in the run-up to the elections. But, Vasundhara put an end to all speculations. She checkmated Amit Shah’s nominee and installed her own candidate as the new state president of the BJP. The message was sharp and clear that she remains in control. Shah had little option but to declare that BJP will go to the polls with Vasundhara on the driver's seat.
It would be naive to believe that Shah-Modi had to field Raje under duress. There is a lot going in her favour. First, the BJP has no other mass leader in Rajasthan. No other BJP leader, not even Om Mathur, has such universal acceptability across the state. Even a sharp-shooter like Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore would be an instant casualty of the internal crossfires of the party.
It is well known that Raje commands the loyalty of over 120 odd MLAs. Through them, she has her own network across the state. Only she has the assured backing of the RSS ground force with her direct line to Nagpur.
Like Gehlot, she has channels open with every caste constituency and regional satraps. Over the years, she has mastered the art of cutting deals and neutralising opponents. This was evident in the way she diffused several political crises during her two tenures.
But, she is not one to rely only upon political manoeuvres to secure her position. She has followed structured and well-targeted welfare programmes. Schemes like BHAMASHA have won her huge support among women voters and mass connect.
Vasundhara runs a tight party machinery. It would be even more formidable with RSS foot-soldiers. With various factions in the state Congress, Pilot may not enjoy the same unity of command.
Like every other state even Vasundhara will have to depend on the Modi Magic to deliver the final goods. The balance will tilt decisively in BJP’s favour if the state and Lok Sabha polls are made to coincide, an option that cannot be ruled out as yet. But, as on date, no one can write Vasundhara off as some were prone to do a few months ago. The contest is still wide open.
A local wit at the Jaipur Club Bar summed it up with a smart quip. Those who decide to vote for Congress will do so in the hope that, after the Lok Sabha elections Gehlot will come back as the chief minister. People voting for BJP will do so confident of Modi returning as prime minister. They will hope that Vasundhara having proved a point might then hand over the baton to a new face and move to a role at the Centre.
No doubt the outcome in Rajasthan will also impact the Lok Sabha elections. But, the battle for the chief minister's chair in Jaipur will not be sealed till the new occupant of the throne in Delhi is decided.
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