Vasundhara Raje: On the comeback trail

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Photo: Vijay Pandey
Photo: Vijay Pandey

One year ago, Vasundhara Raje said a book she holds close to her heart is the biography of the Russian Tsar Catherine The Great. The lonely, fearless woman who ruled Russia in the 18th century, heralding the golden age of the Russian empire.

In a completely different time and space, Vasundhara Raje is well aware that her strongest ally is an image she holds on to, of being the people’s Queen. She may have been the first woman chief minister of Rajasthan, but her fans love her for thoroughly un-democratic reasons. She is royalty. It’s a feudal adoration for a woman who isn’t originally from Rajasthan but from the Scindia royal family of Madhya Pradesh.

It is a peculiar mix the Scindia family has held as germane for three generations, regardless of the party affiliation. From Raje’s mother and mentor Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia. To her brother who joined the Congress party and became one of its shining stars – Madhavrao. Down to her. Political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot described it as the family’s particular brand of princely democracy — “combining innovation with rootedness in a territory”.

The peculiar ‘Scindia’ way of seeing leeches into the kind of politics Raje has practised. The need to push herself out of her comfort zone — perhaps reacting to the cushioning royalty brings with it. It’s what made her choose the unlikely portfolio of Minister for Small Scale Industries in the AB Vajpayee government in 1999 over a more glamorous tourism ministry.

In 2002, Vajpayee appointed Raje to take over the reins of the BJP in Rajasthan from the powerful Rajput leader Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who then went on to become the Vice-President of India. She had to contend with many naysayers within the party who said an “English-speaking” sophisticate like her who “spends so much time in Delhi” won’t be able to plant her feet on the ground. In 2003, she proved them wrong. She won the Rajasthan BJP its biggest victory ever — with 120 of the 200 Assembly seats. And she won over the Jat voters who had traditionally been Congress supporters. Some say this may have had to do with her claiming to be both Rajput, given her Scindia lineage, and Jat, since her former husband is a Jat.

As CM, she quickly became known to her bureaucrats as the “no-nonsense” woman. As a senior official who didn’t want to be named puts it: “Raje goes for excellence” while the current CM Ashok Gehlot “is happy to just push the cart”. For all the trappings of royalty and tradition, Raje also did something thoroughly un-Indian in her tenure. She introduced a five-day week, which pleased government staff all around. “What does development mean to the common man,” another official remarked. “It means time spent with the family. This improves your quality of life immediately.”

And then equally, there was a lapsing back into the space where loyalty is equated with deference. Those who have worked closely with her told TEHELKA how this fine line was crossed by many who saw themselves as local power brokers and found it difficult to kowtow to Raje. Leaders like Kishori Lal Meena and Pushpendra Singh.

Others within Raje’s administration said she made the cardinal mistake of a first-time CM: trusting the wrong people. Then, in the last year of her tenure, the Gujjars who form a small but significant vote base went on a violent agitation, blocking trains and burning buses as they asked to be included among the Scheduled Castes of Rajasthan, for reservation. Sixteen Gujjars were killed in police firing and that was the beginning of the downward spiral for Raje.

The brownie points Raje accrued from efficiency within the bureaucracy were also undone by allegations that she favoured a certain set of industrialists, especially Lalit Modi, who created the IPL and is now facing a life ban by the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Beena Kak, now a minister in the Gehlot Cabinet, accused Raje of allowing Modi to “fix business deals directly with bureaucrats in the government”.

In an already vitiated atmosphere, Rajasthan saw its first major terror attack in May 2008. Nine bombs went off in succession in the state capital Jaipur. And here’s where the BJP and Raje went into the 2008 Assembly election making another cardinal mistake. By trying to hardsell to the people how a weak Congress cannot protect them from terrorists. It boomeranged and the tide turned sharply against Raje. The Congress won 96 of the 200 seats and the BJP got 78.

Now the knives were out and her defeat was used by her opponents to force her to resign as Leader of the Opposition in 2010. Raje says this was the worst phase in her political career. “The lesson was that you don’t trust anyone implicitly,” she said. And added quickly, “I came out of it quite okay. With my dignity and my political standing intact.”

It was a time when Raje retreated into the comfort of her DholpurPalace. 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. Singh says that this time around, 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. As the comeback queen of Rajasthan, 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”. That 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.

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. Of course, her own track record on these indices has been 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, though the areas considered water-critical zones were reduced by 6 percent.

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.

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.”

Be that as it may, Raje appears to be on a massive comeback trail. If the correct combination of castes rallies around as she expects, she may just have another shot at delivering unto the parched state of Rajasthan, what it needs most.

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Special Correspondent

Revati Laul has been a television journalist and documentary film maker for most of her 16 year career. Ten of those were spent in NDTV where her reports included everything from the aftermath of the Gujarat riots to following truck drivers into ULFA infested Assam. Then about a year and a half ago, she decided to tell her stories in indelible ink instead. Most people said she made an upside down decision but she firmly believes she’s found food for the soul. She was hired by Tehelka to write on politics. For her this does not mean tracking the big fish but looking closely at how the tiny fish are getting swallowed and by whom. On most days though, she can be found conversing on her other two favourite subjects – fornication and food. Fiction is another friend of hers. A short story she wrote called `Drool’ was published in an anthology of young fiction by Zubaan. She is also founder member of the NGO ‘Tara’ that looks after underpriviledged children.

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