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Shah issues stern message for Vasundhara Raje

Shah gives a signal before the Rajasthan election 2023 Vasundhara Raje, infamous for factionalism, may not be out but certainly serving a notice period of sorts

Union Home Minister Amit Shah is on ‘Mission Damage Control’ in Rajasthan BJP, where former Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, infamous for feuds, is now at loggerheads with the state BJP president Satish Poonia, even as the next state assembly election is about two years away.

Addressing the BJP working committee meeting in Jaipur on 5 December, Shah said in no uncertain terms that the party must fight the poll 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 election.

Prior to the previous Rajasthan election, party activists and swayamsevaks had raised the demand to remove Raje who had by then earned quite an infamy not only for presiding over an inefficient government and administration but also for hobnobbing with some shady characters, which continued even as the Covid-19 pandemic struck last year.

Shah’s directive in Jaipur was a clear warning for Raje and her supporters who have been lobbying for her to be the chief minister face of the BJP in 2023. A leading Rajasthan BJP politician who was present at the working committee meeting said that the former BJP chief’s stress 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 chief ministerial face before the election,” the leader said.

In his speech, Shah made a point: “The organisation is more important than the individual, and the sun does not set for those who walk with the organisation”. He cited the instance of three-time Rajasthan chief minister and former Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who benefited by not going against the party.

The home minister 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 politicians.

Shah mentioning Shekhawat in contrast to rogue elements in the party was unmissable. He said: “The BJP’s oldest organisational unit is in Rajasthan. In the Bharatiya Jana Sangh era, eight 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.”

Shah was evidently saying that the BJP would reward only those who fell in line, implying that netas need to cast aside their differences and work on winning the election, after which they may be ‘rewarded’. This means Raje may not be out but certainly serving a notice period.

BJP sources said that the party president in Rajasthan, Poonia, and his supporters have been “constantly complaining” about Raje jumping headlong into activities without consulting the local party leadership 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 INC won both). Her 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 said to be disturbed also by Raje’s attempts to promote herself at the expense of the party. Just before Shah’s visit, she led a four-day Dev Darshan Yatra in the areas where BJP lost in the recently held by-elections. She met the kin of leaders who lost their lives to Covid-19. Last year, Raje supporters established a parallel platform, Vasundhara Samarthak Manch, in her name.

Shah lauded Poonia’s efforts in Rajasthan during the meeting, including an initiative to distribute medicines and other 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 chief ministerial candidate post-election. “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.

Other hopefuls
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 chief minister 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.

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