Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje mended fences and wooed disenchanted Congress leaders to strengthen BJP’s hand this poll season.
Kota/Jhalawar: In her do-or-die battle to retain Rajasthan and break the jinx that no party wins a second consecutive term in office in the state, Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje has pulled out all the stops to woo the hugely influential former royals.
An erstwhile royal from Madhya Pradesh’s Scindia family and the estranged wife of the former ruler of Rajasthan’s Dholpur, Raje persuaded Kota’s Ijayraj Singh and his wife to defect from the Congress to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) two days before nominations were to close on 19 November.
She also seems to have sued for peace with the former Jaipur royals, by reportedly promising a Lok Sabha ticket to its BJP MLA from Sawai Madhopur, Diya Kumari.
Only two years ago, Padmini Devi had led a procession through the streets of Jaipur, publicly declaring she would never speak to Raje again, and accusing her of sending Jaipur Development Authority personnel with a bulldozer to seal the gate of a luxury hotel owned by her.
Narendra Singh, the husband of Padmini’s daughter Diya Kumari, had said at the time that “this is the worst humiliation the Jaipur royals could have been subject to”.
Padmini reportedly called Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat and complained to him about Raje, after which BJP president Amit Shah is said to have asked the chief minister why her officials were treating Jaipur’s respected former royals in this manner.
But Raje’s parliamentarian son Dushyant Singh, speaking to ThePrint in the Jhalrapatan assembly constituency, which he is managing for his mother, dismissed any strain between the two women stemming from the 2016 incident.
“Padmini supports my mother, openly. My mother highly respects hukum,” he said, using the deferential Hindi word as he referred to Padmini Devi.
Asked why Diya Kumari had not been given a ticket this time, he added, “She didn’t want to contest as MLA.”
Sources close to Padmini Devi told ThePrint that “there is a temporary truce between the two”.
Meanwhile, a few weeks ago, when Raseshwari Rajyalaxmi, the wife of the former maharawal (king) of Jaisalmer was denied a ticket by the Congress, Raje offered her one from the BJP.
Tilting the balance
When the votes are counted on 11 December, the chief minister’s fate may or may not have anything to do with the support — or the lack of it — offered by Rajasthan’s former royals.
But in a state where female literacy levels are the country’s lowest and total literacy is the fourth lowest (only Bihar, Telangana and Arunachal Pradesh are lower), the undoubted clout of the former ‘princely states’, ‘thikanas’ and principalities can sometimes tilt the balance.
The story of how Raje won over the former Kota royals is a lesson in realpolitik.
In the southern Harauti region of Rajasthan, which sends 17 MLAs to the 200-member assembly, the Kota family plays an important role.
Brijraj Singh, the former maharao, was thrice elected the MP from Jhalawar in the 1960s and 1970s, twice on a Congress ticket.
His son, the soft-spoken and very courteous Ijayraj Singh, was in the Congress for a decade, winning from Kota in 2009, but losing his seat in the 2014 Modi wave, when all of Rajasthan’s 25 seats went to the BJP.
A few weeks ago, Ijayraj Singh tried to get a seat for a close aide or his wife, telling the Congress that his supporters were agitating for greater representation in exchange for their loyalty.
But the grand old party, torn between the factions of its two chief ministerial contenders, Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee chief Sachin Pilot and Raje’s CM predecessor Ashok Gehlot, hummed and hawed.
Raje heard that there was trouble in Kota. She called Ijayraj Singh, according to a Kota political observer who spoke on the condition of anonymity, and told him that she was ready to give his wife, Kalpana Devi, a ticket from the Ladpura assembly constituency, which is part of the Kota parliamentary constituency.
As a result, Raje would deny her three-time sitting MLA Bhawani Singh Rajawat a ticket from Ladpura.
“Vasundhara’s only condition was that she needed to know quickly, as the last date for filing nominations was only 48 hours away and both he (Ijayraj Singh) and Kalpana would still need to be inducted into the party,” one of the sources said.
Ijayraj Singh is believed to have gotten in touch with former UPA minister Jitendra Singh, a former royal from Alwar and a close aide of Congress president Rahul Gandhi, Pilot as well as Gehlot. But when there was no response until 24 hours before the closing of nominations, Singh said yes to Raje.
“My workers were feeling ignored, they felt they were not being given their due,” Ijayraj Singh told ThePrint at the end of a long campaign day in Kota, where he is putting together the nuts and bolts of a campaign that has acquired the contours of izzat, both honour and prestige.
“Here in the BJP, we feel respected and loved and accepted for what we are,” he added.
Kalpana Devi, only a few weeks old in politics, already seems like a natural, greeted with garlands and tika by women who emerge from their modest homes to see her.
BJP sources admit that RSS cadres will “do what they have to do”, especially because Kalpana’s opponent, Gulnaz Guddu, is Muslim.
Ijayraj Singh has travelled to neighbouring constituencies like Kota North and Sangod to demonstrate his support for the BJP’s candidates.
In Jhalawar, part of Vasundhara Raje’s Jhalrapatan constituency, he participated in a 300-strong meeting of Rajputs called by the chief minister, in an effort to neutralise the entry of Manvendra Singh, son of former union defence, external affairs and finance minister Jaswant Singh.
“The effort,” said the Kota political analyst, “was to show that the Kota ex-royals are on her side, and what did it matter if Manvendra Singh had left the BJP.”
“Vasundhara wanted to send the message that Ijayraj and his wife were the ‘right’ Rajputs,” the analyst added.
Biding her time
The story of Jaisalmer’s Raseshwari Rajyalaxmi is much the same as Kalpana Devi’s.
She told ThePrint over the phone that she is “deeply interested in education, especially in the girl child, and very keen on transforming Jaisalmer into a unique, heritage city”.
“So many bureaucrats come and go, but nobody seems to have a stake…” she said. “I was very keen on joining politics so that I could pursue my passions for the sake of the people. They were very keen on having me contest.”
Rajyalaxmi is said to have spoken to Congress MP from Guna (Madhya Pradesh) Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jitendra Singh, Pilot and Gehlot, but the ticket was given to Ruparam, a Scheduled Caste candidate.
She refused to comment on the matter, but sources in the BJP said Raje had offered her a ticket in case she wanted to contest. The sources said Rajyalaxmi, who is not contesting this election, wanted to bide her time.
As for the other former royals of Rajasthan, there are old-timers like five-time MLA Krishnendra Kaur Deepa and Vishvendra Singh, cousins from the former Bharatpur royal family — while she is contesting from Nadhbai on a BJP ticket, he is the Congress candidate from Deeg-Kumher.
Siddhi Kumari, the charming MLA from Bikaner city and a grand-daughter of Karni Singh, a former sports champion and former maharaja of Bikaner, is also contesting from her seat for the third time.
Correction: An earlier version of the story mentioned that Ijayraj Singh won from Kota in 2003, whereas he won in 2009. The story has been updated to reflect the same.
Read Global Pulse for a sampler of the big international stories, and why they matter.