BJP risking its campaign to shun Vasundhara Raje is pushing her to the Hindu tight-rope

Rajasthan's former chief minister Vasundhara Raje with Congress senior leader Mahesh Joshi at a religious procession in Jaipur, on 8 September 2023. Raje’s differences with the RSS and the personal snub to Modi is what likely made the BJP’s high command diminish the role of someone who is inarguably their greatest asset in the state. Vishal Bhatnagar / NurPhoto / Getty Images
18 November, 2023

After a few days’ break for Diwali, Vasundhara Raje—Rajasthan’s former chief minister and the first woman to have held the job—hit the campaign road again on 14 November. Her first ports of call were the constituencies of Chakshu and Bhagru, both Scheduled Caste reserved constituencies on the outskirts of the state capital Jaipur. Her campaign attracted a wider audience than many of her counterparts—such as the BJP’s senior-most leaders in other states such as Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, or Assam’s chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, whose usual draws were Islamophobic dog-whistles and rants about the weakening of Hindu society. Coming from Churu, deep into the Hadouti region that is Raje’s fiefdom, it was not a battalion of the Bajrang Dal or saffron-clad cadre waiting to meet her. It was a group of government-school teachers.

The group, about ten large, told me that they had been hired under temporary contracts and were seeking notification of their services—called regularisation in common parlance. “After she becomes the chief minister, she will have to see this done within one hundred days of her government,” one told me. It is not often electors can make demands so openly in front of senior leaders, but Raje enjoyed a certain natural rapport with her electorate much like the BJP’s other local satraps—Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh and BS Yediyurappa in Karnataka being the two most recently covered in the press. It was even less often BJP’s officials let such comments pass when they are a direct challenge to the diktat of the BJP’s top leadership in Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and party president JP Nadda, who determined that the election would be fought without a chief ministerial face.

More than just establish that the election would be fought under joint leadership—under the electoral symbol of the lotus alone—the BJP high command had gone further to diminish Raje’s presence in the campaign. Her name featured quite far down in the official list of star campaigners for the election, much lower than leaders with only a middling role in the success of the party. This was seen as particularly galling given that, in 2021, after major dissension broke out within the party’s state unit because of Raje being absent from party posters for three by-polls, Raje and her supporters were only assuaged after she was named a star campaigner, along with several union ministers from the state.

In this election cycle, many former legislators known to be Raje’s loyalists did not figure in the first list of tickets the party distributed. Some were only accommodated in the second and third list after a lot opposition was reported within the state BJP unit, while others have reportedly decided to fight the election as independents. In a seeming escalation of the diminishing of Raje’s role, she was not allowed to speak in Modi’s rally in Jaipur, in which she was on stage. Despite this, in my reporting, I saw throngs of people placing specific demands of her for when she would become chief minister, a conclusion they saw as foregone.

Hanuman Singh, one of the contractual teachers who I met at her residence told me, “She is also a karyakarta”—worker—“but she is different from the rest of them.” Like him, most Raje well-wishers I met always had something in her two terms as chief minister to point to as proof of this difference. Singh cited her regularising the jobs of contractual teachers in 2008 under the Prabodhak scheme. Others like Thakur Shamsher Balu Khan, a Congress-card-holder whose father was once a Congress MLA, pointed to her ability to balance the various dominant caste groups of the state. “Her family has Jat and Gujjar connect and she is also a Maratha,” Khan said. He appeared to suggest that the mix of the influences of these communities made her more cosmopolitan and thus less communal. “BJP has two faces, liberal and kattar”—fanatical—“and she is the former,” he concluded.

Others too maintained a similar refrain. SK Choudhary, a BJP worker at the Bhagru rally, told me, “In Jhalrapatan, even Muslims vote for her.” Raje’s close aide, Yunus Khan, became the only Muslim to get a BJP ticket in 2018—though this time he has been reduced to fighting as an independent after 25 years of representing the party. But more than any deep love for religious minorities, what most people seemed to be pointing to was Raje’s frequent clashes with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s leadership.

Raje’s tiffs with the RSS started soon after she first took over as chief minister in December 2003, with her appointment of close associates to senior posts rather than Sangh apparatchiks. Similar disagreements arose in 2005, and by 2008 the fight had grown serious enough for senior RSS leaders to resign from advisory bodies in her government. The RSS had reportedly requested Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat to intervene, an interference Raje refused. The situation worsened in Raje’s second term, when 65 temples were demolished in Jaipur for the expansion of the Jaipur metro and ring road. “She doesn’t let the RSS interfere in her work,” Choudhary told me with a chuckle. “She is the boss.” A majority of the destroyed temples were located in Bhagru, but Choudhary did not seem to mind.

It is likely these differences and the personal snub to Modi that made the BJP’s high command diminish the role of someone who is inarguably their greatest asset in the state. Her contenders for the post are legion. A campaigner in her home listed them out to me on his increasingly crowded fingers. “There is Om Birla, the Lok Sabha speaker; then Ashwini Vaishnav, the railway minister; CP Joshi, the BJP state president; Diya Kumari, from the Jaipur royal family; the minister Rajyavardhan Rathore; Arun Singh Meghwal, another minister; Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, the union water minister; Rajendra Singh, the leader of opposition; and of course, Baba Balaknath.” The last name in the was a new entrant, a seer of the Nath sect that the BJP have been grooming as Rajasthan’s Adityanath. Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister even campaigned for Balaknath, who arrived to file his nominations in a bulldozer—in allusion to its use by Adityanath, among others, to destroy Muslim homes and properties. But, like all the other names in the list, Balaknath does not have near the gravitas to swing an election on their own, Raje’s campaigners told me.

The senior BJP leaders I spoke to all seemed to be pointing to the procedural rules within the party that prevented them from choosing Raje as the chief ministerial for the election. Arun Singh, the BJP’s in-charge for Rajasthan, simply said it was standard practice to not declare a chief ministerial face. “This is not first time,” he said. “In 2017, there was no CM face in UP. Same thing, there was huge anti-incumbency there. Every karyakarta is face of the party.” Satish Poonia said, “We have been fighting elections for 20 years on her face only. Parliamentary board has decided to fight on collective leadership and even Vasundhra Raje is convinced.” Poonia had reasons to dither, as it was under his watch as BJP state chief that much of the factionalism grew in Rajasthan. “My equation is quite comfortable with her, earlier there were some circumstantial things,” he explained. “People created gap between us because I was the president and it was a challenge for me.” His only explanation for Raje’s diminishing role in the party’s advertising was that voters had changed, and so too must the party. Poonia’s replacement, CP Joshi, is seen largely as a rubber stamp—a symbolic Brahmin face for the 2024 polls—and is unlikely to handle the state’s factionalism any more deftly than Poonia.

But it was visible from Raje’s campaign that she had adapted to this new hostile atmosphere within her party too. “She is also seeing what kind of people are becoming chief ministers in BJP state,” a local journalist covering politics for the past decade told me. “Somewhere Raje is trying to talk about dharma too.” It was visible across her campaign in the constituencies of Rajwada Palace, Mahal Road and Jagatpura, where the audiences greeted her with chants of “Jai Shree Ram” and “Bharat Mata ki Jai”­—Hail Lord Ram and Hail Mother India. She began and ended most rallies by speaking of the importance of local temples, or temples associated with those on stage. In Jaipur, she began with, “Greetings to everyone from this pure land of the Akshaya Patra Krishna Radha temple.” She then introduced Jugal Kishore Pandey, a senior leader from the BJP’s Assam unit by saying, “I visit the Kamakhya temple in Assam every year and whatever I have achieved is because of my visits to the temple. Jugal has come here and we will be blessed.” 

Even when describing the state’s investment into education or health, Raje, in her recent speeches, has made detours to stress all the temples her government invested in. This clearly has to do with the audience Modi’s BJP has created for itself too. At the Jaipur rally, Raje spoke about her government’s work on school policy, health and water scarcity to a smattering of applause, even when she stressed that foreign dignitaries had come to study Rajasthan’s water-distribution systems. Then Raje said, “There was development work of Rs 150 crore for the temple at Goner.” And the crowd broke into rapturous cheers. “What happened after Congress government came?” she asked, to more cheers. “They can’t even spend money on god’s work … and suddenly they remember that they are Hindus.”

From Raje’s rallies and the wider party campaigns, her future seems as on the ballot as the party’s. A victory with a wide margin will likely spell her replacement with someone more trusted by the BJP’s and RSS’s top leadership. A narrow victory or a loss could mean the BJP recognises her centrality in the state and does not further attempt to erode its influence. It had done so with Yediyurappa in Karnataka and after a devastating loss has recently had to make his son leader of opposition, breaking internal party laws against multiple family members holding party positions. Regardless, the BJP’s leadership wants to test the same waters in Rajasthan when easier routes were available. As Narendra Singh, a BJP worker at the Bhagru campaign put it, with exaggerated enthusiasm, “If they had declared her as the chief minister, BJP would have got 175 seats … they would not have needed a list of star campaigners also, her name was enough.”