The Hadoti region, still bearing remnants of the Bundi kingdom, has always been a stronghold of the BJP in Rajasthan. Both its stalwarts Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the first non-Congress chief minister of the state, and Vasundhara Raje won from this region. Shekhawat first won the Chhabra seat in 1977, and Raje has been representing Jhalrapatan for 20 years now.
In this election too, the BJP appears to have an edge in the region, which has 17 Assembly seats spread across districts such as Kota, Bundi, Baran and Jhalawar. However, there is no visible excitement among the voters and no perceptible wave, the same as other regions of the state.
There are two reasons for this. One is the absence of anger on the ground against current CM Ashok Gehlot; rather, there is widespread appreciation for his government’s schemes and social justice initiatives, even if tinged by resentment against sitting MLAs, including the Congress’s. The second reason is the uncertainty over Raje’s place in the state BJP.
“Woh hamare liye sab kuchch hain (She is everything for us). Raje is the only leader in the BJP who can make a claim to the CM post as of now,” says Rakesh Meena, a small businessman at Dara Station.
“Everyone in my village talks about her. Our city looks like this because of the development works she has done. For us women also, she will be good,” adds Sonia Saini, a housewife.
Rambabu, the priest at the Sadguru Kabir Ashram in Jhalrapatan, also credits all the local developmental projects, such as railway lines, medical college, cricket stadium, bus depot, to Raje. “Jhalrapatan is ahead of every town in the state only because of her,” he says.
Raje clearly remains the tallest BJP leader in the region, appreciated for her “decision-making” and “strong leadership”, with her royal lineage an added plus. Her gradual eclipsing in the state BJP leadership hasn’t escaped the people, nor has her absence from party programmes, or the delay in announcing her candidature and that of her supporters.
This can be bad news for the BJP as the support for Raje has helped the BJP retain its influence in the Hadoti region even when other parts of the state voted for the Congress. In 2013, the BJP won 16 of the 17 seats from the region; in 2018, when the Congress came to power, it won 7 from here, but the BJP still got 10.
The Gehlot government’s Rs 1,200-crore Heritage Chambal River Front Project in Kota is one way the Congress is trying to make its way into the region.
Some Raje supporters like Rakesh Meena believe that the BJP may say what it wants but that everything hangs on the post-poll scenario. “We know she is not a favourite of the BJP leadership, but she will change the game after the elections,” he says.
Jehangir Patan, a truck driver and a resident of Jhalrapatan, adds: “This is Madam’s raj. Even if they don’t make her the CM, this will continue to be her raj.”
But, other BJP supporters are looking ahead, reconciled to the “reality” that Raje heading a BJP government should the party win the November 25 election will be tough. “There are too many leaders in the BJP, the central leadership may not make her the CM. But it’s also a fact that people vote for the BJP because of Modiji now,” says G L Gaur, a retired government employee in Kota, adding that he has been a BJP supporter since its Jana Sangh days in the 1970s.
Another ardent BJP supporter, Pavan Kumar, who sells kachoris by the roadside at Dara, says that while Raje is “the natural choice”, and that “the public only knows her”, “It’s the party’s decision. What can we do about it? Let’s see who it chooses.”
Several names have been doing the rounds, pushed by different BJP camps as surveys give the party a good chance of winning. “We heard about Baba Balaknath and (Union minister) Gajendra Shekhawat. But Balaknath has to win his own seat (Tijara); he is having a tough time and could not even campaign in other constituencies. Shekhawat is not even contesting (in the elections),” says Mukesh Chawda in Bundi town.
Ravi Dutt Sharma and Raghunandan Singh, retired government employees and residents of Haveli Katkaun, scoff at the suggestions other than Raje. “We used to say, ‘Zindagi Jhalawar ho gayi’ to say life is in the gutter. But Raje uplifted Jhalawar,” Singh says.
On the other two contenders, he adds: “Gajendra Singh (Shekhawat) is not known in this side of the state… We have not seen Balaknath. Sirf naam se koi Yogi nahin bante hein. Daadi banane se koi Modi nahi banta hai (Just because he is a Mahant, doesn’t make him Yogi Adityanath. Just because someone has a beard, that doesn’t make him Modi).”
Balaknath, who belongs to the Nath religious sect like Adityanath, is fashioning himself as Yogi No.2, the image drawing as much on both being religious leaders, as on the UP CM’s reputation for being strict on law and order.
Acknowledging that Raje’s sidelining could impact the BJP’s showing, S Nagendra Ambedkar, Professor of Public Policy, Central University of Rajasthan, says: “It all depends on the message she gives to voters in and around the Hadoti region. If it’s a negative message, the BJP will face an adverse impact. But if she keeps their hopes alive, it will not affect the party so badly.”
Raje has been very careful about this, not making any remarks in public about the CM post nor party decisions. When her recent remark “I feel I can retire now”, while talking about the progress made by her son Dushyant, a three-term MP, was interpreted as a sign that she was ready to call it a day, Raje clarified immediately that she would continue in active politics and that retirement was never on her agenda.
“She is being very careful. She is keeping the option open for the party leadership also,” a BJP leader involved with the state party functioning says.
In fact, the two-term CM is the only state BJP leader who has been criss-crossing the state addressing rallies and doing road shows. Since the elections were announced, Raje has already visited at least 28 constituencies. Her supporters also say that her absence from recent party programmes was only because she was not invited to the same.
Then there are others who feel Raje should take her cue to exit, which usually does not come easy to politicians. Arvind Kumar, a hardcore BJP supporter and a businessman near Bundi Fort, says: “Raje has had her time. She should hang up her boots now. Let the youngsters take over.”