What BJP Can Do To Salvage Rajasthan
The anti-incumbency is against her and her royal arrogance, not against BJP or Modi. So, here’s what BJP can do to salvage Rajasthan.
As soon as the 2018 byelections were announced for two parliamentary and one assembly seats in Rajasthan, a slogan that reverberated across the state’s landscape was: Modi tujhse bair nahin; Rani teri khair nahin (Modi, we have nothing against you, but Rani (Vasundhara Raje), we are not going to spare you).
This is clearly reflected in the results.
Two parliamentary constituencies, Alwar and Ajmer, and one assembly constituency, Mandalgarh went to poll. The total number of assembly segments this comprises is 17. The result was 17-0 (yes, 17 to nil) in favour of Congress, with a 17 per cent vote swing away from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)!
The byelection verdict clearly signals a tectonic shift in the political landscape of Rajasthan. What explains this dramatic downfall in the popularity of Vasundhara Raje Scindia, the charismatic Chief Minister of the state?
The problem lies with the way BJP read the results of the 2013 assembly elections. Though Scindia spiritedly led the party’s campaign from the front, the landslide BJP victory in 2013 elections was clearly on account of the Modi wave that swept the state. Narendra Modi, who was then still the chief minister of the neighbouring Gujarat, enjoyed tremendous popularity in Rajasthan. All the independent post-poll surveys clearly pointed to the Modi factor playing a pivotal role in BJP’s huge win. Scindia, however, may have read the verdict as her own victory and widely believed to have turned arrogant. Her royal persona only strengthened such perceptions.
Despite a favourable political climate and good work she had carried out, Scindia squandered an excellent re-election opportunity in 2008. But, disillusionment over her perceived arrogance and imperious style of working cost the BJP government another term in power as it was defeated in a closely fought election.
Scindia is known to be an admirer of late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa. This is reflected in her working style. The challenge, though, for Scindia is that unlike Jayalalithaa, BJP is not a personal fiefdom of any single leader and it is critical to accommodate the interests of diverse groups.
Scindia has also managed to alienate the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) with her style of functioning. RSS, with its formidable cadre strength in the state, has always had an uneasy equation with her. During this tenure, the relationship seems to have further soured. RSS has been so cut up with her haughty demeanour that the national president of the party Amit Shah had to use all his persuasive power to convince the RSS to spare a pracharak for appointment as organising general secretary (the man responsible for coordinating between RSS and the party) – a post that has remained vacant for eight and a half years.
The BJP president of the local unit is Scindia’s handpicked nominee. Until Shah became the party president, she exercised total control over the state party apparatus by appointing her loyalists and completely sidelining her detractors. Even after Shah became the president, she has stonewalled suggestions for strengthening the party system. She has been accused of turning the state into a one-person party and administration. Scindia is BJP and BJP is Scindia in Rajasthan. So who should take the blame for the loss?
Her perceived arrogance is not the only criticism that her growing numbers of detractors have. The long list of complaints includes the following:
- She is inaccessible, even to the ministers and MLAs
- Public feels that she does not get along with Prime Minister Modi
- Charges of corruption are freely being made against people close to her
- A close coterie of bureaucrats takes all the decisions as the Chief Minister is hardly ever available at Jaipur
- She is completely beholden to her Lutyens’ friends
- Despite her reformist zeal and radical administrative ideas, implementation of schemes, both central and state, remains mostly on paper
- While she has taken tough position against Hindu groups, she has been extremely indulgent towards the Muslims so much that people even derisively call her Begum Vasundhara. Yunus Khan is the only minister with her ears
- She has alienated most influential caste groupings, such as Jats, Brahmins, Rajputs and Gurjars with her supercilious behaviour
- Administration is totally centralised in the Chief Minister’s Office. About 50 Indian Administrative Service officers have no work, and a dozen or so are so overburdened that they can hardly function
- Frequent reshuffling of top bureaucracy does not allow anyone to settle down
- Her mercurial nature is seen to thwart initiatives that do not capture her mindshare
- Her coterie encourages sycophancy, like signalling to party MLAs that they have to touch her feet when they meet her. Many MLAs find it impossible to meet and discuss problems of the public with her
- Before the 2013 elections, a task force was formed by BJP high command under Kirit Somaiya. They brought out a black paper on the functioning of Ashok Gehlot government, highlighting its corrupt deals. Under Scindia, investigation into alleged irregularities in various deals of the previous regime has not been pursued. Some of these controversial deals include Naveen Jindal's mining projects and Palacia high rise. Naturally, the charges of being soft on corruption have stuck to her. Besides, every member of the Somaiya team has either been sidelined or hounded.
- Her political outreach campaigns seem to have been designed for the media and not for the public. People detest her royal regalia camping in the best places of the district she tours, usually palaces or heritage hotels
- Party functionaries are dispirited and seem resigned to a big loss
With barely 10 months to go before the gong is sounded for the final call, can the BJP salvage its political fortunes in Rajasthan? The state sent 25/25 MPs to the Lok Sabha in 2014. Modi is well set for 2019, but Rajasthan could spoil the party’s chances and act as the momentum breaker. Can BJP afford such a risk?
Given such a situation, the natural question that arises is can Rajasthan be salvaged. To this question, I take you back to that slogan I quoted in the first para. A large number of voters in Rajasthan is still fully invested in the idea of Modi as the Prime Minister. It is public’s way of telling Modi, “look, we voted for you and it is time you take the message and give us someone who will reflect your way of functioning”. So removal of Scindia is the first and most important task of this salvage operation.
BJP national leadership may be wary of the consequences of alienating a strong regional leader like Scindia, including fear that she may vertically split the party in Rajasthan if she is replaced as the chief minister. This may be vastly exaggerated. Her inaccessibility to even her loyalists has cost her a lot of supporters. The indispensability factor is also clearly overstated. In this writer’s assessment, she needs to be replaced immediately. The anti-incumbency is against her and her royal arrogance, not against BJP or Modi.
For BJP to salvage Rajasthan, what needs to be done is clear:
- Replace Scindia with someone accessible to the public and their representatives
- Revamp the administration by distribution of responsibilities among capable officers
- Improve implementation of schemes with focused approach
- The caste groupings are upset with Scindia. A softer approach can bring them back without much problem
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