Much of Vasundhara Raje's political career has been linked to yatras. In the run-up to the 2003 Rajasthan assembly elections, she began a Parivartan Yatra from the Charbhuja temple in Rajsamand, covered 13,000km across the state and became its first female chief minister. A decade later, she returned to the same venue and won another term, with an even bigger mandate. Third time proved unsuccessful, though, as another yatra from Rajsamand, this time as chief minister, could not save her government. Five years later, Raje is ready for a fourth Parivartan Yatra, set to begin on September 2; the state goes to the polls in December. This time she will not be alone. There will be three more yatras and more state leaders participating.
The BJP tweaked its plans to make these yatras a collective effort where other state leaders: state party president C.P. Joshi, Union Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat and former state party head Satish Poonia will participate. So, no leader gets projected as a CM face. Union Home Minister Amit Shah, party president J.P. Nadda, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari will flag off these yatras, and the party will keep Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the main face of the campaign.
The four yatras―expected to attack the Ashok Gehlot government on the issues of alleged corruption, and law and order breakdown―will last three weeks, and will end with a huge rally featuring Modi. Raje, who turned 70 in March, is still the tallest BJP leader in Rajasthan. She might not be the central leadership's favourite, but they cannot ignore her popularity. Other party leaders might have their pockets of influence, but none of them has shown enough growth to dislodge Raje. And unlike in 2018, when there was palpable anger against her government, several recent surveys have picked her as the preferred choice for the BJP's chief minister face. All pointers are towards a collective leadership. But can BJP afford to downplay Raje’s appeal?
In neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, the BJP will take out five yatras from different regions; helmed by various leaders, these will end on September 25, the birth anniversary of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya.
The state leaders and Modi have been the two engines the BJP has employed in several elections. Modi carries the campaign on his appeal, along with a spate of rallies by other national-level leaders. Then there are the state-level leaders, especially contenders for the chief minister's job, who lead the campaign. This time, though, the BJP is adding another engine―the party has brought in more than 600 MLAs―to its campaign for the four election-bound states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Telangana.
Each of these visiting MLAs has been allotted an assembly constituency―there are 200 in Rajasthan, 230 in Madhya Pradesh, 90 in Chhattisgarh and 119 in Telangana. The MLAs will spend a week campaigning, interacting with party workers and sprucing up booth-level operations. They will gather feedback from the ground and relay it back to the election managers; this will be used to build strategies and prepare the manifestos. If needed, the campaign can also be tweaked much before the elections.
The BJP is in a direct contest with the Congress in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, the three states it lost in 2018. Five years later, it is a tough battle again, especially after the BJP recently lost to the Congress in Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh.
Party sources said the MLAs from outside would help bridge the gap that, at times, exists on the ground. They have been picked from Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Haryana, Odisha and Goa, and have experience of winning elections and handling the nitty-gritty of campaigning. “Many of these MLAs are first-timers,” said a senior party leader in charge of the campaign in one of the states. “They were first trained in a workshop on what to do in the seat allotted to them.”
The MLAs are holding meetings at the booth and mandal levels, sharing meals with dalits and tribals, and holding informal meetings with key influencers and community leaders. Essentially, they are doing what national leaders such as Shah and Nadda do when they go to campaign.
In Rajasthan, 200 MLAs have been brought in. “They will talk about good governance practices in their states―like how law and order has been handled in Uttar Pradesh or how budget promises have been delivered in Gujarat,” said Rajendra Rathore, leader of opposition in Rajasthan. “The inputs they give will be used to prepare a concept paper and be used for the manifesto.”
In another experiment, prompted by the Karnataka results, the BJP has announced candidates for 39 seats in Madhya Pradesh and 21 seats in Chhattisgarh, months ahead of the elections. These are in Congress strongholds. “It is a bold new experiment where we have nothing to lose,” said a senior party leader.
The same plan will be implemented in Rajasthan, too. The party will announce a list of candidates for category C and D seats, where the BJP has never won or has lost a lot. Category A and B seats are party strongholds.
Announcing candidates much in advance has been the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party's strategy―it allows the candidates time to familiarise themselves with the constituency and the voters. It also gives the party ample time to asses how a particular candidate is being received by the people. If need be, they can be changed. This is not possible when the candidates list is announced just days before the last day of nomination, often causing rebellion and heartburn in those rejected. The BJP felt this in Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh.
The BJP fancies its chances most in Rajasthan. Since 2003, the state has elected an alternative government every election. And this time, the Ashok Gehlot government faces anti-incumbency because of a number of issues, including the paper leaks scandal.
However, Gehlot has been wooing the voter with his “freebies”. His government is giving cooking gas cylinders for Rs500 (market price Rs1,100), free mobile phones to women, free Scootys to meritorious schoolgirls, free emergency medical care and Rs25 lakh health insurance cover.
“We could also promise greater development for the people, but people are taken in with what they are getting in their pockets rather than a promise of what they will get in future,” said a senior BJP leader. “Gehlot also announced the setting up of new districts. People are influenced by this.”
The BJP feels that as Modi has taken a stance against freebies, it needs to find a counter to Gehlot's doles, even at the risk of a fiscal crisis. So, the messaging will be important. And this is where the yatras come in.