Why BJP is unlikely to have CM face for Rajasthan polls

Vasundhara Raje is becoming more visible

PTI02_12_2023_000221B, Delhi - Mumbai Expressway in Dausa , PTI02_12_2023_000221B The candidate question: Prime Minister Modi, Union Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat (second from left) and former chief minister Vasundhara Raje during the inauguration of the first stretch of the Delhi-Mumbai Expressway in Dausa on February 12 | PTI

FOR THE PAST 25 YEARS, Rajasthan has oscillated between Ashok Gehlot and Vasundhara Raje. They are the most recognisable faces of their parties in the state, and are known to guard their turf zealously, even at the cost of defying their central leaderships. And now, both have rivals―younger leaders within their parties.

As the state moves towards assembly elections later in the year, it will be a career-defining phase for the two veterans. With the incumbent government voted out in each election in the past few decades, the focus has shifted to the BJP camp.

The ongoing Rajasthan assembly session has been an eventful one. While Chief Minister Gehlot unveiled a populist budget ahead of the elections, veteran Gulab Chand Kataria, leader of the opposition in the assembly, was appointed the Assam governor. Kataria, eight-time MLA and Raje’s rival, was backed by the RSS as a contender for the chief minister’s post. As the 79-year-old enters the category of veterans who get promoted to gubernatorial posts, it opens up space for change in the BJP’s local politics. This also means that several veterans might miss out on a ticket this time.

Kataria’s “transfer” draws from the BJP’s experiments in other states to bring about a generational change in the state units. The recent example is Gujarat, where former chief minister Anandiben Patel was made governor of Madhya Pradesh, and former chief minister Vijay Rupani and his deputy Nitin Patel pulled out of the 2022 state election race.

But Rajasthan is slightly different. Raje is no pushover and has a proven track record of wins―2003 and 2013. Her supporters back her for a third try.

Ever since the BJP lost the 2018 state elections, the party’s central leadership has been pushing for new leaders. But as the BJP has lost most of the bypolls since, Raje, who turns 70 in March, is making a comeback on the party’s official campaign material. She has also been holding meetings across the state to keep in touch with the voters.

The BJP, in all likelihood, will contest the elections without declaring a chief ministerial candidate. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will, as usual, be the prominent face. As the elections are being held along with those in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, a few months ahead of 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the results will be key. And Modi’s main message to the voters is that they will benefit more from a double-engine government.

“The issue of deciding on the chief ministerial face will be taken by the party’s parliamentary board at the appropriate time,” said state BJP spokesperson Abhishek Singh.

Among the main contenders for the post are Union Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, state BJP president Satish Poonia and Raje, among others.

“Though the state has a history of electing a new government every election, the party also has challenges,” said a senior BJP leader. “Despite bickering within the Congress, it can pose a challenge. The BJP has to chart out a clear strategy that does not confuse the voters.”

The state is important for the BJP, particularly for Modi’s campaign, as it gave the NDA all 25 seats in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Modi has made four trips to the state in the past four months to shore up the party’s chances among various communities. Notably, he picked Dausa―part of Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra and Sachin Pilot’s stronghold―to launch the first stretch of the Delhi-Mumbai expressway. He also went to Bhilwara to participate in the 1,111th birth anniversary of Bhagwan Devnarayan, revered by the Gurjars, who make up more than 10 per cent of the state’s population. They had voted for the Congress in the last election hoping that Pilot would become chief minister.

The two recent appointees to the top constitutional posts in the country―President Droupadi Murmu and Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar―would also help the BJP in the state. Dhankhar, as a Jat leader from Rajasthan, might get support from the community, who account for more than 12 per cent of the state’s population. The tribals, who constitute nearly 14 per cent of the population, are likely to be wooed in Murmu’s name. Rajputs make up 8 per cent of the population.

Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP president J.P. Nadda, too, have made multiple trips to the state. Nadda, who has been insisting that the party units be more agile and engage with the people, has a special bond with Rajasthan―both his daughters-in-law belong to the state.

The biggest advantage for the BJP is the infighting in the Congress and anti-incumbency. And one key issue it has been handed on a platter is the series of exam paper leaks in the state. There have been eight such instances, and even Pilot has hit out at the government on this issue.

“The government has failed on two key fronts: law and order, and paper leaks,” said Singh. “The issue of the paper leaks is linked to employment and youth. These will be election issues.”

As the polls draw closer, the focus within the BJP will be on ticket distribution. How that process goes might decide which chief minister hopeful gets how many supporters in the fray. These supporters would be crucial when a chief minister is picked, if the BJP gets a majority. And so, before the BJP goes to polls, it has to set its own house in order and craft a clear message for the voters.