Union Home Minister Amit Shah loves old songs. You wouldn’t know his playlist though. “Mere personal life se aapko kya (what do you have to do with my personal life),” he once snapped at an inquisitive reporter. But if one were to ask Vasundhara Raje to venture a guess, she would probably say, Shamshad Begum’s “kahin pe nigahen, kahin pe nishaana/ jeene do zalim, banaao na deewana”, from the film C.I.D. The former Rajasthan chief minister must feel the song — less for Begum’s mellifluous voice and more for Majrooh Sultanpuri’s lyrics.
As the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lends a helping/guiding hand to rebel Congress leader Sachin Pilot in his war against Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, the plot looks familiar to the point of being boring: another ambitious Congressman rising in rebellion; another round of alleged horse-trading; and, another opposition-led government teetering on the brink of collapse. There may be a bit of variation in the script, but the big picture is so predictable.
It’s the sub-plots that promise to be interesting — the battle between two Scindias and Vasundhara Raje’s defiance of the BJP high command to join the Gehlot-Pilot war and willingly end up as collateral damage. Raje’s cryptic “think of the people” tweet on Saturday was, in fact, a subtle repudiation of her party for its attempt to dislodge the Congress government in Rajasthan in times of the Covid-19 crisis.
The Battle Royale
Before we come to why Raje may see her BJP colleagues playing Majrooh Sultanpuri’s lyrics in Rajasthan, let’s look at the first sub-plot — that is, the battle of Scindias. Scions of the erstwhile royal family of Gwalior have been involved in a protracted legal dispute over properties, but they never campaign against one another in elections.
The first time the two members of the family came face to face was in 2018 during the Kolaras bypoll in Madhya Pradesh. Yashodhara Raje Scindia, younger sister of Jyotiraditya’s father, late Madhavrao Scindia, then campaigned for the BJP candidate, while her nephew campaigned for the Congress. When Jyotiraditya Scindia joined the BJP last March, she tweeted to welcome him, saying that Rajmata’s (her mother Vijayaraje Scindia) blood had taken the decision in national interest and ‘ab mit gaya har faasla’ (every distance has been erased).
In Rajasthan, on one end of the war is Jyotiraditya Scindia working behind the scenes to help his friend and former Congress colleague, Sachin Pilot. On the other end is Jyotiraditya’s aunt, Vasundhara Raje, whose political future may be undermined if Pilot were to emerge victorious. Raje is, very much, a BJP leader but she has been staying away from her party’s attempts to help Pilot bring down the Congress government. If the former deputy CM of Rajasthan ends up as CM, whether after joining the BJP or as head of another outfit with the BJP’s support, it would be a setback to Raje, a two-term CM. She and Ashok Gelhot have been alternately occupying the CM’s chair for the past two decades. The emergence of another alternative, especially with the blessing of the BJP high command, would queer the pitch for her.
The chill between the two branches of the Scindia family is hardly a secret even though they are very courteous when they happen to come face to face. Jyotiraditya and his cousin, Raje’s son Dushyant, have been in Parliament for years but have never been seen even exchanging pleasantries or even sharing a seat in the Central Hall. The members of the two branches of the family are seldom seen together in elite Lutyens’ party circles.
To be fair to Jyotiraditya, he is obviously doing the BJP’s bidding in Rajasthan. If his success results in hurting his aunt’s interest, it could just be a case of collateral damage. The outcome of the Gehlot-Pilot battle would, however, be seen as a victory of either the bua or the nephew.
BJP vs Vasundhara in Rajasthan
The former chief minister’s indifferent relationship with her party high command, especially Amit Shah, is no secret. The party high command has for long been propping up Raje’s detractors as part of its succession plan in the state BJP. One of them, Union minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, has been collaborating with Scindia in Rajasthan operations, keeping her out.
Pilot and Raje’s detractors such as BJP ally Hanuman Beniwal of Rashtriya Loktantrik Party have been publicly sniping at her, accusing her of trying to help Gehlot’s cause. Those leading the charge against her — directly or indirectly — include a Rajput (Shekhawat), a Gurjar (Pilot) and a Jat (Beniwal). Raje couldn’t miss the caste profile of the perceived aggressors, given her carefully crafted USP as the daughter of Rajputs, the bahu (daughter-in-law) of Jats, and the samdhan of Gurjars (her son is married to a Gurjar). She may have reasons to suspect that while the BJP leadership was ostensibly eyeing power in Rajasthan, she is the real target — kahin pe nigahen, kahin pe nishaana.
They are underestimating Raje though. For one, she is an undisputed mass leader in Rajasthan, with nobody in the BJP coming even close to her. Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, BJP high command’s choice as Raje’s replacement in Rajasthan, owes his two Lok Sabha victories to ‘Modi wave’ and is hardly known outside Jodhpur. Two, her political acumen is much underrated by her colleagues in Delhi. When she came to Jaipur as state BJP president in 2002, everyone thought she would be eating out of the hand of then party stalwart late Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, a master practitioner of saam, daam, dand, bhed. Those close to him have interesting tales about him.
Once, Shekhawat, who had undergone a heart bypass surgery, was sitting with a couple of journalists when a doctor entered the room. The leader loved chewing Pan Parag, a big pouch of which would always be on his side table. The doctor objected to it. “I have been used to it for decades. I can’t give it up suddenly,” said Shekhawat. The doctor then asked him how many pouches he consumed daily. The wily politician said, two. “Ok, from today, you must reduce it to one.” Shekhawat agreed.
When the doctor left, he started laughing, much to the bemusement of those present. “Arre, I take only one pouch a day. If I had said so, he would have reduced it to half,” Shekhawat explained. The moral of the story the small audience drew was how the Rajput politician wouldn’t deal straight even with his doctor. There were stories about the “files” he maintained about every politician who could be a potential dissenter.
In a matter of a few months, Vasundhara Raje had got the better of him. He was soon content with getting a ministerial portfolio for his son-in-law, Narpat Singh Rajvi, as he bought peace with her. Jaswant Singh, a tall BJP leader then, also gave up on her soon.
In subsequent years, she has dealt with many formidable challengers in the BJP who had the backing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) — Brahmin leader Ghanshyam Tiwari who ended up quitting the party, Gulab Chand Kataria, the incumbent leader of the opposition, and MP Om Mathur, to name just a few. She has, however, managed to stand her ground.
In the 2003 Rajasthan assembly election, not many gave ‘the queen’ a chance, ignoring even the huge response she was drawing during her Parivartan Yatra. Chandraraj Singhvi, her close aide at the time, decided to go after yours truly. I was working with the Hindustan Times then, it was a time when we used to have pagers and not mobile phones. Singhvi would regularly call on the landline and every time I answered, there would be a drawl from the other end — ‘ek sau bees’, meaning 120 in the 200-member assembly — followed by a big laugh. It was irritating, especially because it would happen every other day. “Good for you, Singhvi saheb,” would be my standard response.
When the results came, the BJP tally was 120, not a seat less or more — a huge achievement for the party that couldn’t secure a simple majority even under Shekhawat. That tally went up to 163 in the 2013 election. In 2018, when the BJP’s tally came down to 73, the narrative in the party circles was that it could have been worse but for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity.
Well, Modi wasn’t there in 2003 and 2013. But that’s beside the point. Being a mass leader is not exactly a virtue in Modi-Shah-led BJP. Ask B.S. Yediyurappa, Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh.
Views are personal.