It is not often that a journey of 150 km from Shahjahanpur in Alwar to Jaipur takes 12 hours to cover. Ask anyone in Rajasthan and even a conservative estimate will put the travel time at around three to three and a half hours. But then, when Vasundhara Raje is travelling on the route and that too after being appointed as the Rajasthan BJP Chief, you can surely expect the extraordinary.
The mood on the way to Jaipur from Alwar was festive early this month (Feb 8, 2013). The winter and general atmosphere of pessimism due to the misgovernance of the UPA did not seem to matter to the thousands of people who had gathered to catch a glimpse of Vasundhara Raje. Old, young, Hindu, Muslim, upper caste, backward caste they were all there to see the woman, who is set to take the politics of the state by storm.
The last four to five years have not been easy for Vasundhara Raje but when one has the support and blessings of the people, neither witch-hunt by opponents nor factionalism in the party matters. One of the first decisions new BJP president did was to anoint Raje was the head of the BJP's Rajasthan unit and the face of the party in the state that goes to the polls towards the end of the year.
Having observed Rajasthan politics for years, I can say with confidence that this is among the most politically mature decisions taken by the BJP top brass that will reap rich dividends in the 2013 Vidhan Sabha and 2014 Lok Sabha elections. And if there is one star of the show in Rajasthan, it is Vasundhara Raje.
What is it that makes Raje the defining factor of Rajasthan politics? Why is it that the BJP may find it difficult without her at the helm during the elections? It is these questions that I will answer in this article.
The numbers say
If the numbers are any indicator, Vasundhara Raje remains the most successful BJP leader in Rajasthan. It was under her leadership in 2003 that the BJP witnessed its finest performance of 120 (out of 200) seats with a voteshare of almost 40 percent.
Here is the performance of the BJP in various Assembly elections in Rajasthan since 1980:
|Source of Data- Election Commission Website
As the above table illustrates, the BJP formed the government twice in Rajasthan but on both occasions it failed to muster an absolute majority. Even the post-Babri election of 1993 could not deliver a majority for the party.
However, this changed when the party appointed Vasundhara Raje (then a Minister of State at the Centre) to head the BJP's campaign in Rajasthan. When Raje took over, the usual suspects created every obstacle possible to ensure she does not succeed- how will a blue blooded woman who has stayed in Delhi be able to connect with the masses of Rajasthan? Does she have what it takes to unseat the Congress and Ashok Gehlot?
In the end, she proved her detractors wrong and surprised her staunchest backers with the phenomenal result. Till date 2003 result is the best performance of the BJP in Rajasthan and if there is somebody who can break the party's own record in 2013 it is only Vasundhara Raje.
Even a comparison of the 1998 and 2008 elections (where the incumbent BJP Government was voted out) is extremely telling. Under Raje, the party retained a respectable tally of 78 seats to be a strong force to reckon with in the state Assembly. We must also note that Rajasthan is very similar to Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh where incumbents usually find it difficult to retain power. Thus, in these circumstances what Raje was able to achieve in 2008 was by all means commendable.
Ashok Gehlot govt corruption
If one starts talking about the various misdeeds of the Ashok Gehlot government, even thousand pages would not be enough but one of the most glaring misdeeds of the Congress government in Rajasthan in corruption. People of Rajasthan do not recall such brazen acts of corruption in any previous regime.
News reports from April 2011 expose how the Rajasthan Government stands accused for doling out largesse's up to Rs. 11,000 crore with firms linked with the families of Ashok Gehlot. His kith and kin have been allotted flats in Mumbai as well as plum directorships in real -estate giants. Gehlot himself has taken several decisions that favour those groups where his family has a stake. In fact, the Gehlot Government delays key infrastructure projects until groups linked to his family do not gain.
When the news reports of the ‘nation's son-in-law' Robert Vadra's business exploits emerged, one of the state governments at the forefront of helping Vadra and Co. was Ashok Gehlot's Rajasthan Government. In fact, it was pointed that the deal he got in Rajasthan was sweeter than his dealing with DLF in Haryana! Land was doled out and tonnes of cash was made. In his Vadra dealing, Ashok Gehlot's administration truly sold whatever integrity was left for the sake of ‘loyalty' to 10, Janpath.
Whether in our outside Rajasthan in the last four years, Raje has been at the forefront of exposing the various misdeeds of the Gehlot government. She has not missed a single opportunity to remind the people of these black deeds of the Government and as the polling approaches, the people are determined to punish the corrupt Gehlot government a lesson.
No section of society feels safe
Today, there is no section of society in Rajasthan that feels safe in Rajasthan. Be it women or Dalit, the levels of persecution coupled with patronage of the high and mighty has left the people disillusioned and unhappy.
In contrast, there is no section of society where Vasundhara Raje is not popular. She is as comfortable sharing the woes of a rural person in Barmer as she is interacting with urban voters in Jaipur. She can interact with an elderly farmer as wonderfully as she would do with a young lady. Raje has struck a deep bond with particularly the women, Dalits and Minorities of Rajasthan. This is important as Dalits and Muslims are not traditionally seen as BJP supporters.
The faith of the women of Rajasthan in the state government was destroyed forever in the wake of the infamous Bhanwari Devi case. Instead of concentrating on basic governance issues the Gehlot government was bust shielding the morally corrupt Mahilpal Maderna and Malkhan Singh Bishnoi, both leaders with strong links in the Rajasthan Congress hierarchy. The chilling story of a Dalit nurse and a mother of two children being brutally killed by power hungry politics is a blot on the conscience of any self-respecting society.
The story is different when it comes to Vasundhara Raje. Being a woman herself, she has always been sensitive to women issues and during her time in power went out of the way for the development of women. From the time the Bhanwari Devi issue came up in public glare, she asked for the immediate removal of the guilty. Infact, she was among the first persons to raise the issue. Today, as she tours the state women turn up in large numbers to listen to her. "We feel she is the only one under whom we feel safe" said a group of women I met on the way to Jaipur.
The Congress party often prides itself as being the ultimate champion of the minority communities but that compassion was nowhere to be seen when there was indiscriminate firing by the police on innocent Muslims in Gopalgarh, Bharatpur. The brutal role of the police was exposed by none other than the local Congress MLA, Zahida Khan who said that most of those dead succumbed to injuries from police firing. Even the National Minorities Commission held the state government responsible for the incident.
At the same time, a survey that appeared a few days ago declared that Muslim voters are unhappy with the Gehlot government and feel much safer under Vasundhara Raje. This is an observation that cannot be taken lightly.
As far as the youth is concerned, the lack of jobs, anti-people policies and rising prices have led to an irreparable disconnect between the youth and the Gehlot regime. A trailer to what way the youth will swing was given during the election to student unions in various universities of Rajasthan where the Congress backed NSUI was wiped out everywhere. The performance of ABVP was commendable.
More embarrassment awaited the Gehlot administration when schoolgirls confronted Congress ministers for lack of proper facilities in every sphere.
Youngsters are now looking beyond to Vasundhara Raje, who they feel will create opportunities for them. A college student in Jaipur told me that if things continue the way they are at present, it would be very difficult for him to repay his loans and support his elderly parents. Things were different during the BJP rule, he told me. I am sure this is what several youngsters across Rajasthan feel.
Governance in Rajasthan is zero
"A little bit of corruption is tolerable but when there is rampant corruption and no governance, things are very difficult for us," is what a labourer working along the Rajasthan-Gujarat border told me. Hailing from Rajasthan itself, he sees the progress in Gujarat and dreams of a day when the golden days will come to his state as well. Lot of family members have already left for neighboring states, he tells me.
Ashok Gehlot's other wonder in Rajasthan has been the manner in which he has tackled the economic situation of Rajasthan. In 2012, data revealed that growth of GDP has declined by half to 5.4%. The tall claims of development Gehlot makes are clearly not shown in terms of numbers. The half baked, populist and left-liberal policies of the UPA were the final nails in the coffin as far as Rajasthan's economic stagnation went. To make things worse, the state has been constantly lagging behind in e-governance and other technology related initiatives for better governance.
While Ashok Gehlot was busy mismanaging the state of affairs in Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje was engrossed in academia, learning the ropes of governance and public policy. Last year, she went to London to study climate change at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Like other Chief Ministers Narendra Modi, Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee, Vasundhara Raje was at the forefront of attacking the UPA's constant attacks on the nation's federal structure particularly the discriminatory attitude of the UPA against non-UPA ruled states on funds.
Why re-elect such govt?
Incumbents are reelected either due to the force of a dominant ideology (Left in West Bengal), a solid track record of good governance and service delivery backed by a charismatic leader (Narendra Modi in Gujarat) or by crafty handling of arithmetic (Congress-NCP in Maharashtra or YSR in Andhra Pradesh). Unfortunately, the Congress in Rajasthan today fails on all of these counts. The only ideology Gehlot and his colleagues follow is corruption and loyalty, governance is in tatters and the bipolar polity of Rajasthan leaves little scope for the emergence of a Raj Thackeray or a Chiranjeevi. As mentioned above, even core Congress constituents no longer feel safe in Rajasthan now.
It is in these times of darkness that the people of Rajasthan look towards a ray of hope, a light that will guide them on the path of development and prosperity, where police bullets will not be fired on innocents, where the dignity of women will be protected and where opportunities will be created not because you are the son-in-law of someone or you related to the Chief Minister but on the basis of merits! Rajasthan awaits Vasundhara Raje....