New Delhi: With the Rajasthan assembly elections due in 2023, Union Home Minister Amit Shah is already doing some damage control in the state BJP, where there is an ongoing feud between former chief minister Vasundhara Raje and the state BJP president Satish Poonia.
Addressing the BJP working committee meeting in Jaipur this Sunday, Shah had a clear-cut message: The party must fight the elections as a collective unit under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and steer clear of projecting the face of any chief ministerial hopeful. The BJP has for months promoted “Team Rajasthan” as its buzzword for the 2023 elections.
Shah’s directive in Jaipur was an obvious warning for Vasundhara Raje and her supporters, who have been lobbying for her to be the CM face of the BJP in 2023. A prominent Rajasthan BJP leader who was present at the working committee meeting told ThePrint that Shah’s insistence on burying differences and working under a collective leadership was a clear sign. “The BJP high command is not ready to buckle under the pressure being applied by Vasundhara Raje’s camp to declare her as the CM face before the elections,” the leader said.
In his speech, Shah drove home that “the organisation is more important than the individual, and the sun does not set for those who walk with the organisation”. He gave the example of three-time Rajasthan chief minister and former Vice-President of India Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who benefited by not going against the party.
The home minister also urged the Rajasthan unit to take a cue from Gujarat, where the BJP has been continuously in power for over two decades, by adopting the ‘panna pramukh‘ model — which literally means “person in charge of a page of voters” — and implies a laser focus on voters rather than leaders.
A subtle warning
Amit Shah’s contrasting of Bhairon Singh Shekhawat with rogue party members was telling. In his speech, Shah said: “The BJP’s oldest organisational unit is in Rajasthan. In the Bharatiya Jana Sangh era, eight MLAs were elected from Rajasthan on a BJS ticket, but six of them went against the party’s stand and supported the zamindari pratha (feudal landlord system). The party had to expel them. However, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat stood with the party throughout, after which he not only got the post of chief minister in Rajasthan but also went on to become the Vice President of the nation.”
The implication, clearly, was that the BJP too would reward only those who toed its line.
The line here seems to be that leaders need to cast aside their differences and work on winning the elections, after which they may be duly recognised with plum posts. This conveys the message that the door is not yet shut, but a certain code of conduct is expected.
Party sources told ThePrint that BJP state president Satish Poonia and his supporters have been “constantly complaining” about Raje undertaking political activities without consulting the party leadership in Rajasthan and not performing tasks expected of her.
Raje has not campaigned for the BJP in by-elections since 2018, including those held for two seats last month (the Congress won both). At that time, Raje’s absence from campaigning was attributed to her daughter-in-law’s ill health. In June, the party expelled Raje’s aide Rohitash Sharma from primary membership for disciplinary reasons, including making critical comments about the state BJP leadership. Posters saying “Poonia bhagao (get rid of Poonia)” have also made an appearance, although Raje herself has sought action against those making such moves.
The Poonia camp is also said to be discomfited by Raje’s attempts to promote herself rather than the party. Just prior to Shah’s visit, she carried out a four-day Dev Darshan Yatra in the areas where BJP lost in the recently held by-elections. She also met the kin of leaders who lost their lives to Covid. Last year, Raje supporters also established a parallel platform, Vasundhara Samarthak Manch, in her name.
Praise for Poonia, some for Raje too
Shah commended Poonia’s efforts in Rajasthan during the meeting, including an initiative to distribute medicines and other aid during the pandemic. He also praised Poonia’s work within the party.
“Under the leadership of a hard-working BJP president like Satish Poonia, Team Rajasthan is doing some solid work on the ground. By forming strong mandal-level and booth-level units, the BJP is moving towards an impenetrable strength in all of Rajasthan,” Shah said, adding that he expected the party to come to power in Rajasthan with “more than three-fourths majority under Narendra Modi’s leadership”.
While these utterances were music to the ears of the Poonia camp, Amit Shah made sure to also dispense some kind words for Raje.
While addressing the Janpratinidhi Sankalp Sammelan (conference of public representatives) in Jaipur, Shah praised her erstwhile government and contrasted it favourably with the Gehlot administration. Shah, to applause, termed Raje as a “yashasvi” (exemplarily successful) chief minister and mentioned various popular schemes that she had launched, but which Gehlot discontinued.
A general secretary of the Rajasthan BJP told ThePrint that there were two clear messages. The first was that party leaders should bury the hatchet and combine their strengths. “Shah knows very well that Poonia might be a good organisation man, but Vasundhara has her own support base among the masses and it is absolutely necessary for everyone to be together to ensure victory,” he said, pointing out that the BJP had won just one seat out of seven in by-elections since 2018.
The general secretary said that Shah’s second message was that the party leadership was “open-minded” about the CM candidate post elections. “Shah wanted to give a signal before the elections that the doors are not yet completely shut for Vasundhara Raje, and that the BJP high command may consider the leadership issue with an open mind. However, its first and foremost condition is that also of us should work together from now on,” the BJP leader said.
On her part, Raje praised Modi and Shah — whom she addressed as “bhai sahab” — time and again during the conference. She applauded Modi’s public welfare schemes, and praised Shah for his focus on improving the lot of security personnel. She said Shah had ensured that soldiers got to spend at least 100 days each year with their loved ones, and had also driven initiatives to honour martyrs by setting up memorials and inscriptions. Both Raje and Poonia assured Shah that the BJP would win the next assembly elections.
One leader who may have felt slighted during Shah’s visit to Rajasthan was Union Minister and BJP MP from Barmer, Kailash Chaudhary. Shah did not pay any attention to the leader when he travelled to his area to inspect a border post in Jaisalmer.
Speculation was also rife about Shah’s travel companion from Delhi to Jaipur: Union Minister and Jodhpur MP Gajendra Shekhawat, who some believe is a possible contender for the CM post.
However, while Shekhawat’s proximity to Shah has caused a flutter, state BJP leaders say that it might not be easy for him to fit into the equations of state politics despite the high command’s preference for him.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)