The Return of the Queen?

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But that sounds like bravado masking the loneliness that defines women in Indian politics. From Sonia Gandhi to Mayawati, Jayalalithaa, Sheila Dikshit and Mamata Banerjee — they have all been at the top alone. In the same state that revered her as a queen, Raje also faced her share of misogyny. In 2009, Raghu Sharma, a Congress MLA, alleged on the floor of the Rajasthan Assembly that in her time, there was “No CM after 8 pm”. The insinuation was clear. That the CM, as a single woman, was seen to be more cosmopolitan and liberated than a feudal Rajasthan could stomach. Slander was almost the other side of adulation.

It was a time when Raje retreated into the comfort of her Dholpur Palace. And into a world of books, plants and animals. The reading list is a dead giveaway. A biography on the lonely Russian Queen, Catherine the Great, and Jeffrey Archer’s Prison Diaries. While in this phase, Raje had told this reporter, “There was a time when I was so miserable… but finally it is difficulty that prompts you to make changes.”

The change has been noticed by others in the BJP this time around. By Manvendra Singh, the Lok Sabha MP from Barmer and son of BJP stalwart Jaswant Singh. Manvendra Singh was at the receiving end of an old rivalry that dated back to the time Raje was Minister of State for External Affairs when his father headed the ministry. Now, he says the rivalry has been long buried and the perception is that Raje is “not flexing her muscles that much”.

The “not flexing” can be interpreted to mean that this time around, Raje has taken her dissidents along. A BJP insider said that so far, the problem with Vasundhara Raje has been that she is Vasundhara Raje. If she is more agreeable now, this may be a position arrived at after a series of chess manoeuvres over the years that pulled in different directions. In 2003, her proximity to the BJP’s Pramod Mahajan, who helped stitch her campaign together, distanced her somewhat from the most important leader in the party at the time, LK Advani. In 2008, her resignation as Leader of the Opposition made her fall out with party president Rajnath Singh. By default, it made her closer to Advani. As the comeback queen of Rajasthan, however, she is seen by the people who matter most in her party as “the tallest leader in the state”, with whom nobody has a particular problem.

A BJP insider, though, told TEHELKA that the RSS is still not entirely happy with Raje. That in the end, “she is in her own camp”. In her big victory in 2003, the RSS had played a big role in galvanising the tribals to vote for her. But there is a perception that she did not pay them back with the deference that was due.

For now, the tide in her favour has more to do with the sea of corruption charges against the ruling Congress and allegations that a minister — Mahipal Maderna — was involved in the disappearance and murder of a nurse who was also gangraped. Political pundits say that since Maderna is a Jat, the community may feel a sense of victimhood, if they believe he was made a scapegoat. Which could work in Raje’s favour.

And that’s where the contradictions in the Vasundhara Raje story get even more curious. As the potential Queen of Hearts, the proverbial tarts she’s throwing out in her campaign this time are of development. Her campaign speeches are full of promises: clean governance and back to basics, starting with water. But her own track record on these indices is patchy. Dr Manohar Singh Rathore, director of the Centre for Environment and Development Studies, Jaipur, uses government data to show that in Raje’s tenure, there was a 10 percent increase in the area that was over-exploited for water.

The truth behind Raje’s campaigns is not lost on the voter in Rajasthan who is, by now, fairly discerning. Suganchand Chapparband, a 58-year-old farmer from Jujandha village in the Marwar region, heard Raje rail on about the non-performance of the incumbent government at a rally. Of how, given another mandate, she will provide 24-hour electricity and water to the people. And then he turned and said, “It’s not that easy to fool us anymore. All these speeches are just hot air.”

The Chapparbands are Muslims and their disconnect with the BJP may be easy to see. But the fact that the voters of Rajasthan have routinely swung towards the Congress in one election and then the BJP in the next, paints the picture of a cynical electorate that is increasingly difficult to please. Speeches on “development” made by either side don’t impress anymore. Therefore, in this election, there is the added appeal of Narendra Modi to convince the voters of the party’s bona fides on development. His face now looms large alongside Raje’s in her posters. And, in person, he has also campaigned at a massive rally.

If the development card is a zero-sum game in Rajasthan, then old hierarchies become important. Especially since this is a state “where Dalit movements and lower caste-oriented parties are weak”, points out political analyst and keen watcher of the BJP, Christophe Jaffrelot. Which is where royalty has a role to play. Even if it is a double-edged sword.

Beena Kak holds onto one part of the picture when she says Raje’s campaigning in an expensive luxury bus, “flashing her wealth” and “selling people dreams” won’t fool anyone. The other part is visible in the reaction to Raje’s speeches at rallies, which has most commonly been: “We will vote for her.” But even with the tide and opinion polls now swinging firmly in her favour, some within her own party say that if she slips back into a previous avatar where local leaders were made to feel irrelevant, a still precarious applecart could be easily upset. An RSS leader summed up these fears in conversation with a fellow comrade in the BJP: “Raje’s problem is that she tries to exercise the power of Modi without having the power of Modi.”

It’s a contradiction that comes with being Vasundhara Raje. The charisma comes from the same space as the accusations — of her being above everyone else. On another day when TEHELKA followed Raje on her campaign trail, the twin tropes played out with all the attendant drama. A crowd waited outside the Sumerpur Palace for Raje to emerge. The skies opened up and rain tore through it in a happy, noisy rage. Two orange umbrellas with her face printed on them appeared as Raje stepped out of the palace. Rose petals were showered on her. Folk dancers performed in rehearsed joy until they saw the last of her, leaving for another rally. En route, Vasundhara Raje popped her head out of the bus to connect with a truck driver: “How is your day? Where are you from?”

revati@tehelka.com


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