Rajasthan Vidhan Sabha polls: From caste equations to tickets, Vasundhara Raje played her hand brilliantly

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.

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Driving into Kota, one sees a statue of Rajiv Gandhi sitting on a rock with a laptop computer. Most likely inspired by Rodin’s famous sculpture of the 'Thinker' it is ironic at various levels. Tucked away in the south-east corner of Rajasthan, is the closest Indian comparison one can draw with University towns of the West. But, that would still be a huge stretch of imagination.

Kota is not a modern-day Nalanda. It does not have a famous university. If education can be described as an industry, Kota is what Detroit used to be for automobiles in the US.

 Rajasthan Vidhan Sabha polls: From caste equations to tickets, Vasundhara Raje played her hand brilliantly

Driving into Kota, one sees a statue of Rajiv Gandhi sitting on a rock with a laptop computer. Image/Sandip Ghose/Firstpost

Kota’s coaching factories churn out over 150,000 students each year for engineering and medical college entrance examinations. The city’s economy revolves around the coaching industry that had an estimated turnover Rs 1,500 crores in 2016. Now, it may well have crossed the Rs 3,000 crore-mark.

The coaching tycoons of Kota are the new Maharajah-s. Understandably, they wield huge political clout. But, the erstwhile royals of Kota, or Kotah as it was called, are also in the news these days. Meanwhile, as one enters the town, numerous billboards of a beaming Shanti Dhariwal, the local Congress heavyweight, greet us. In contrast, BJP’s presence on the city skyline is muted. This can be partly attributed to the late declaration of candidates by BJP.

Shanti Dhariwal has old roots in Kota. He was a senior minister in the Ashok Gehlot cabinet, but lost the last election due to the Narendra Modi wave. His contributions to the development of the city are well-recognised. Among his many notable achievements is the construction of Kota’s star tourist attraction – the “seven Wonders Park”. Yet, people are not entirely sure of his win this time. The answer to that lies in the underlying cross-currents and infighting within the various factions of the Congress.

Congress faced a minor revolt after the party released its candidate list in Rajasthan. But, so did the BJP. The difference, people pointed out, is when the prospects of victory are higher loss of ticket hurts more. The mood in Congress is more buoyant at this time as those left out have greater angst than the ones in BJP who may be secretly viewing it as a blessing in disguise.

My local associate insisted that I drop by at the residence of the Kota Royalty Brijraj Bhawan. The courtyard was bustling with party workers wearing BJP scarves. Just a couple of days back the crowd here were donning the Congress colours. In a swift last-minute move, the chief minister of Rajasthan Vasundhara Raje won over the royal scion Ijyaraj Singh by offering a ticket to his wife, Kalpana Raje. Singh was the former Congress MP from Kota-Bundi. The family was miffed at the party choosing the wife of the Congress leader Naimuddin Guddu over her.

Even a month ago Ijyaraj featured prominently in Congress communication. He was seen receiving Rahul Gandhi when he visited Kota to address an election rally in late October. He is yet to remove the pictures from his Facebook page at the time of writing.

Image by Sandip Ghose/Firstpost

Image by Sandip Ghose/Firstpost

This is being seen as a coup of sorts. While Kalpana Raje will mobilse the Hindu votes in her constituency, being the ex-royal and former MP, Ijyaraj Singh has considerable appeal in the larger Kota area. Besides, he is expected to neutralise whatever gains Congress hopes to derive from Manvendra Singh by campaigning across the region, including Raje’s constituency Jhalawar.

More importantly induction of the Kota royals would help to assuage the Rajput lobby, which was a trifle cut up with Vasundhara.

I was ushered in to the make shift office in the outhouse. One is always a bit wary of meeting politicians at election time. But, I was pleasantly surprised by the Maharao who wore none of the characteristic arrogance of politicians or typical airs of royalty. The two together can make a lethal combination as one has seen in other politician princes and princesses. Ijyaraj appeared almost like a reluctant politician. That might be because he was yet to fully adjust to the new saffron livery.

Kalpana Raje was campaigning in her constituency, while the Prince was managing the back office from home. But, clearly the Brijraj Bhavan was the centre of action. Talking about the mood of the electorate, Ijyaraj sounded circumspect. But, when mildly provoked by saying he was not sounding very enthusiastic — he quickly recovered to assert, we are very confident about our constituency but have to see what is happening around us.

This is the common refrain one hears around the state. One can interpret either as a brave façade or cautious optimism. But, it does reinforce the impression that it is a much closer contest now than it appeared to be some time ago. Undoubtedly, the BJP’s stock has risen significantly in the past few weeks. Much of the credit for that has to go to Vasundhara Raje’s deft chess play.

Kota falls in the Hadoti region of Rajasthan comprising the districts of Bundi, Baran and Jhalawar along with it. Nourished by the Chambal it is the relatively more fecund part of the state. Kota’s Seth Bhamashah Mandi is one of the largest in the country. It trades in cotton, millet, wheat, coriander, garlic and oilseeds.

Industries are few. Among the handful of larger units are thermal power, fertiliser and caustic soda plants. Other than that, stone polishing, traditional textiles, cotton and oil seed milling are the only ones of significance.

The Coaching Institutes have largely provided jobs to educated professionals coming from all over the country. The large student population has no doubt boosted the urban economy but has not done much for the rural areas.

Therefore, the region remains primarily dependent on agriculture. And, there is the rub. Unlike other parts of Rajasthan, here the angst in Hadoti is directed at the Centre. Policies. Demonetisation and GST are the popular culprits but come with a twist.

Traders, I met, were generally appreciative of demonetisation as a “one time” medicine for capturing black money. But, what they did not bargain for is the transparency and digitisation it would lead to. How can business be conducted entirely in “white”, one asked in all innocence.

Similarly, GST is universally acknowledged as a good reform the time for which had come. However, they blame the government for not thinking through the implementation and the increase in bureaucracy. A dealer told me, “big companies have the staff to file returns. Whereas for us, we have to do everything. Where do we have the time? Why couldn’t they make the compliance quarterly instead of monthly?”

But, they are lenient on Narendra Modi. The intentions of the prime minister are good (“nek”) but he was misled and let down by the ministers and the bureaucracy, they felt. Here, surprisingly the name of Piyush Goyal comes up. One person says, someone like Goyal would have understood the pains of the traders better. He refers to some of the “trader friendly” decisions taken during Goyal’s temporary stint in the Finance Ministry.

Somewhat surprisingly, central government schemes like PMAY and Ujjwala are not much talked about. The much touted Smart City project, in which Kota was selected as one, has not taken off.The emphasis has been more on state government programmes.

So, Vasundhara Raje remains popular. The Jaipur-Jhalawar highway has earned her huge kudos. With Udaipur already well connected with Kota, the region has become far more accessible. This has no doubt contributed to development and prosperity.

The proposed airport in Jhalawar, which will also serve the adjoining areas of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, will be a major boon since at present railways form the principal lifeline.

Thus, at the end of the day, much as they might vent their frustration with the BJP government the loyal voters may still press the Lotus button on the EVMs.

The Express-way to Jaipur from Kota is a pleasure to drive on. Hotel Sheetal Tonk is one of the few places to stop for a bite and comfort break. This is where BJP’s wild card candidate, Yunus Khan, is camping with his troupes.

Image by Sandip Ghose/Firstpost

Image by Sandip Ghose/Firstpost

Khan's selection to oppose Sachin Pilot, perhaps, was a “googly” bowled by Raje in this election. The import of Raje’s decision is yet to fully sink into the political class outside the constituency. But, BJP Karyakartas in Tonk see this as a master stroke with fair chances of success.

In the normal course, the minority votes would have naturally veered towards Congress. Everyone is eagerly waiting to see if Khan’s entry is going to queer the pitch. With BJP’s gamble on the SC/ST act Khan may also garner some of the backward class votes.

Another factor that might work in Khan’s favour is that, he is seen as a candidate parachuted in to Tonk with a mission. Otherwise, he would have surely won from his home constituency Didwana.. Irrespective of the outcome, Khan will move out of Tonk before the next elections leaving the turf for the old BJP leaders.

On the other hand, Pilot is viewed as a threat by the local Congress leadership. If he wins, then he is likely to make Tonk his home constituency. That will not quite please the minority community leaders who were till now ruling the roost.

Though Pilot may still pull it off, it will not be a walkover for him as many had expected.

Herein lies the importance of Vasundhara Raje Scindia – the strategist. Her own stakes in these polls are arguably the highest. If Sachin Pilot loses the war, he is young enough to wait for fighting another day. Ashok Gehlot has seen and done it all. He would be happy to play Rahul Gandhi’s Chanakya in Delhi. Modi and Amit Shah will move onto the bigger battle for Delhi. But, for Vasundhara a defeat could mean a long term political setback.

POLITICS-ON-THE-GOUnder these circumstances, Raje has played her cards brilliantly.

First, she has unquestionably established her indispensability for BJP as far as Rajasthan goes. This is reflected in how she had her way in distribution of tickets to her loyalists and now got RSS to throw its weight behind her. Secondly, she has repaired bridges with different caste blocs in the state.

But, her biggest achievement has been in spreading disarray in the ranks of the Congress.

She has brought BJP back into the race from great odds. Now, with a little help from Modi in the slog overs, when he is supposed to address 10 rallies, she might break the Jaipur jinx and come back for a second consecutive term.

Updated Date: Nov 27, 2018 17:51:41 IST