"Modi tujhse bair nahi, Vasundhara teri khair nahi" (No grudges against Modi but won't let Vasundhara win) slogan, which was heard during the 2018 assembly elections, still haunts BJP in Rajasthan.
The slogan brought down the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to its worst tally in two decades. Hence, while the party has begun its preparations for this year's assembly polls, it is in no mood to announce a chief minister (CM) candidate.
This doesn't mean that the BJP doesn't have a CM face. And paradoxically, it is none other than Vasundhara Raje Scindia. This can be judged from the various events of the past few months.
The latest was Home Minister Amit Shah's rally in Udaipur last Friday (30 June). When Rajendra Rathore invited Shah to speak, the Home Minister subtly signaled Rathore to invite former CM Raje before him.
The address that followed also signaled Raje's increasing prominence in the party's election campaign as she urged party workers to dedicate themselves to the upcoming elections while cautioning them against overconfidence.
Then Amit Shah praised Raje in his address. The photographs showing Raje and Shah together in a car further fueled the narrative that Raje is the leader.
Similar scenes appeared in Bharatpur's public address on Thursday (29 June) when Raje was given the chance to speak just before BJP national president JP Nadda and she came with Nadda in his car to the meeting.
Raje also registered a prominent presence at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent rally in Ajmer in May.
Not just these events, even the structural changes in BJP's state unit show how the party has tried to accommodate Raje as its leader.
Satish Poonia is considered one of the biggest opponents of Raje within the party. He was removed from the post of state party president in March 2023 after the completion of his term in December 2022.
Poonia is the tallest Jat leader in the BJP and being in the election year, the party could not afford the alienation of the Jat community. Hence, he was appointed as deputy Leader of Opposition in the assembly.
However, this is just an honorary post that is not even officially recognised by the Rajasthan Assembly.
Poonia was also sent to Karnataka for campaigning in the recent assembly elections there, which can be seen as an attempt to keep him away from state politics.
In the recently released list of BJP's Rajasthan unit office bearers, the name of Raje detractor MLA Madan Dilawar was dropped. Dilawar was included in the previous executive when Poonia was the state party president.
It should be noted that Dilawar was sidelined during Raje’s tenure but made a comeback during Poonia’s time. Now his going back to the sidelines signifies Raje's growing clout in the party.
Poonia was replaced as the state party president by Chittorgarh MP CP Joshi who is considered neutral and not belonging to any group in the party.
Another event in Raje's favour was the appointment of Rajendra Rathore as the Leader of Opposition in the legislative assembly after Gulab Chand Kataria was made the Governor of Assam.
Rathore is considered close to Raje and has served as minister in her cabinet twice. He is known as Raje's troubleshooter and was even suspended from the party for siding with Raje.
This incident from 2010 is worth recalling when BJP high command asked Raje to resign from the post of Leader of Opposition. At that time, Rathore said that if Raje was removed, he would leave the party and could also form a new party.
The above incidents don't mean that it's just 'Team Vasundhara' in the Rajasthan BJP now. Raje detractors like Rajsamand MP Diya Kumari have too found their spot in the list of party office-bearers.
The party has also kept a good balance of Jat, Gujjar, Yadav, Bishnoi, Kumawat and Saini castes in its list while a Rajput (Rathore) is its leader in the assembly and a Brahmin (Joshi) is its state president.
While the focus is on OBC and MBC (Most Backward Class) groups, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities are also being given adequate representation in BJP's party structure.
To sum up, while the other leaders are not being completely sidelined, a special place is clearly reserved for Raje.
But why Raje?
The buzz in the political circles is that only Raje's face can lead the BJP to victory in Rajasthan.
Undoubtedly, she has opponents within the party but no other leader has the charm enough to keep the cadre united like her.
When she was being supposedly sidelined, the party was becoming significantly fragmented, with numerous leaders competing against each other for the CM post.
This internal discord left party workers perplexed, uncertain about which faction to align themselves with. Her return can boost the morale of party cadre and clear confusion.
Also, it would be wrong to completely blame Raje's unpopularity for the 2018 defeat. The defeat was the result of the two-decade-long trend of changing government every five years.
Some political observers also believe that while the BJP will keep Raje as an undeclared CM face, it may also choose someone else as the CM after the victory.
One such name is that of Union Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw which was mentioned by all three political observers that this correspondent talked to.
Other names that found mention were Om Birla, Kailash Choudhary, Rajendra Rathore, Satish Poonia, Diya Kumari and Gajendra Singh Shekhawat.
"If BJP gets more than 110 seats, then Vasundhara Raje will be the CM, otherwise someone else," a political analyst from Rajasthan, Satya Chaudhary told Swarajya.
This paradox can only be explained by the fact that BJP would no longer be wanting to carry Raje's 'Maharani' (a term commonly used to criticise Raje's arrogance) baggage and instead intends to make a fresh start with a fresh face in the state.
Nishtha Anushree is Senior Sub-editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @nishthaanushree.
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