OPINION | How Vasundhara Raje Prevailed Over BJP Top Brass in Picking Candidates for Rajasthan Battle

Ticket distribution for the Assembly elections in Rajasthan had triggered much chatter about a tussle between Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje and BJP’s top leadership. But even a cursory glance at the BJP’s first list of 131 candidates, reflects a decisive victory for Raje.

While the BJP has not given a ticket to any Muslim leader, the talk of the town is the retention of 85 sitting MLAs, despite the strong anti-incumbency the party is facing in the state as most MLAs fight charges ranging from inefficiency to bunglings.

It’s widely believed that Amit Shah wanted to drop a large number of current MLAs and bring in fresh faces to reverse anti-incumbency and Rajasthan’s trend of changing governments every five years. On October 31, Shah reportedly rejected over 80 probable candidates suggested by the Rajasthan CM and asked for a new list to be drawn with names of only those who could ensure victory.

Contrary to the BJP chief’s plan, Raje was insistent that the current crop of MLAs, packed with her loyalists, be fielded again. The names in the list now reveal that Raje’s ‘loyalty’ argument trumped Shah’s ‘win-ability’ factor in giving BJP tickets. Among the 23 MLAs who’ve been dropped, five were side-lined due to their age and their relatives have taken their place. This implies that only 18 sitting MLAs have been dropped, and not one among them is a known Raje loyalist.

A vast majority of the selected candidates are part of the Vasundhra camp and her stamp is visible over the entire list. How much her preferences have dominated is clear from a single seat in Sri Ganganagar district. On the Sadulshahar seat, Shah was keen to replace the elderly Gurjant Singh and was reportedly even against fielding one of Singh’s relatives. But Gurmeet Singh, the aged MLA’s grandson still ended up getting a ticket.

This is the second time that Vasundhra Raje has managed a triumph over Amit Shah. Earlier in the year, she ensured that Shah’s clear choice, Union Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, was not made the BJP state president after Raje’s favourite Ashok Parnami had to quit following defeat in Rajasthan bypolls. Amit Shah is known to be a tough taskmaster and his choices are usually the last word in the BJP. So the key question is — why is Raje being given a free hand despite Shah’s reservations?

A range of calculations may be at play in the BJP High Command making Raje the decisive factor in choosing party candidates. Firstly, chances of revolt in party ranks, rebel candidates and internal sabotage may have escalated if lots of sitting MLAs had been dropped; and that is now sought to be checked. Secondly, if many ministers and MLAs were denied tickets, it may have created a perception that the party itself was disappointed by the performance in the past five years, which may have sharpened the anti-incumbency factor. 

More significantly, party insiders say that if the Shah-Modi combine had interfered too much in the ticket tangle, the Raje camp would have found an easy excuse in case the BJP suffers defeat. The shrewd politician in Amit Shah seems to have calculated that ignoring Raje’s wishes would enabled her to put the blame of a loss on the centre, while absolving herself of any role in the poor show that may eventually emerge. Giving her exactly what she wants, he has now put Raje in a tight corner as she will have to shoulder the prime responsibility of ensuring a BJP win.

In addition, it needs to be remembered that for the Modi-Shah duo the main focus is the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. If the BJP wins in Rajasthan by giving Raje a free hand in the Assembly elections, she could be a huge asset in the national battle. If, however, the BJP loses in Rajasthan, the party high command gets a chance to marginalise Raje and take over the reins.

It’s these central concerns that are reportedly the reason why the BJP has not fielded a single Muslim candidate. As a result, even five-time MLA Habib–Ur-Rehman has been dropped in Nagaur district though there are no charges against him.

Side-lining its own Muslim leaders seems to be a part of the national agenda being set by the RSS wherein Muslims are denied any prominence. This is also an attempt to push further the politics of polarisation that has been pursued in Rajasthan in recent years. 

Ironically, even PWD Minister Yunus Khan, perhaps the closest cabinet colleague of Raje, is yet to be announced as a candidate. The buzz suggests that given this RSS strategy, Khan may have to be sacrificed though Raje’s will has largely prevailed so far. In fact, RSS honchos have ensured that 25 of their favourites are made party candidates and the plan appears to be to bridge the internal rifts and provide a united Raje-RSS combination for the electorate.

Having triumphed in the tussle with Shah, Vasundhara Raje clearly remains the ‘Rani’ of the Rajasthan BJP. But whether she will emerge as the queen of hearts for the people in the desert state is a different question.

(Author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)


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