Saturday, September 28, 2013

Vasundhara Raje, The Return Of The 'Rajasthan Queen'?

By Shomolika Anand / Jaipur

The peculiar predicament of being Vasundhara Raje — who is all set to regain power in Rajasthan. The road to Sojat smells of fresh rain. But the dhaba on the roadside has stopped making the next batch of dal vadas. Everyone in this tiny, garbage-infested town in southern Rajasthan is waiting for Vasundhara Raje’s bus to arrive. 

It doesn’t matter if they are supporters of the BJP or the Congress; a sighting is what they are after. And it comes packed with drama. A hatch opens up at the top and Raje rises phoenix-like on a pedestal, towering over the crowd like a modern-day queen; as she asks an ecstatic crowd: “What are your main concerns? Do you get enough drinking water?” The crowd claps and screams as she waves once again before the pedestal is lowered and she disappears from view.
She may have been the first woman chief minister of Rajasthan. But her fans love her for almost the opposite reason. She is royalty. It’s a thoroughly undemocratic, feudal adoration for a woman who isn’t originally from Rajasthan but from the Scindia royal family of Madhya Pradesh. 

If there’s one place to see an Indian election with all its delicious contradictions, this is it. A state begging to be pulled out of its backwardness is leaning heavily on a woman whose self-image harks back to its feudal past. The people’s adoration also contrasts sharply with all things that Raje’s party, the BJP, stands for. The party repeatedly flogs the Congress for leaning on the Gandhi family. While Raje’s appeal lies precisely in the dynasty she represents.

The contradictions, however, are not just in the outer casing but run right through the core of the woman who many say is poised to return as Rajasthan’s chief minister following the Assembly polls in November. For one thing, she was groomed in her politics by her mother — BJP leader Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia. 

But even getting that mentoring was a struggle. The heir apparent to the Scindia political dynasty was first and foremost, male. Raje’s brother Madhavrao Scindia was primed to take over the constituency of Guna in Madhya Pradesh from their mother. A volte face happened, however, when the Congress under the then prime minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency and Rajamata Scindia vehemently opposed it. 

For this, she was thrown into jail. Meanwhile, her son, Madhavrao, who was abroad at the time, came back to contest the elections on a Congress ticket, and won. Thirty-six years later, it’s still a subject Raje isn’t too comfortable talking about. “My brother and I agreed to disagree,” is how she ended that conversation.

With the family constituencies — Gwalior and Guna — divided between mother and son into opposing camps, Raje’s only choice was Rajasthan, since she had married into the state’s royalty, to Rana Hemant Singh, the former Maharaja of Dholpur. The marriage didn’t last and then, after mentoring her for some more years, her mother died in 2001. It left her entirely alone in her battle for Rajasthan and the going has been rough.

“It was even harder after her departure,” says Raje, “because I had to prove that I was getting where I was not just because I was her daughter, but because my work was good.”

A strong work ethic combined with the tag of royalty is a peculiar mix the Scindia family has held as germane for three generations, regardless of the party affiliation. Political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot described it as princely democracy — “combining innovation with rootedness in a territory”. It’s what kept voters attached to Madhavrao until he died in 2001 in a plane crash. And now the next generation — Raje’s son Dushyant and Madhavrao’s son Jyotiraditya — are carrying the mantle forward in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, respectively.

The peculiar ‘Scindia’ way of seeing leeches into the kind of politics Raje has practised. The need to push herself out of her comfort zone, reacting to the cushioning royalty brings with it. It’s what made her choose the unlikely portfolio of Minister for Small Scale Industries in the Vajpayee government in 1999 over a more glamorous tourism ministry. 

She did, quite literally, leave her stamp on the ministry by turning government khadi shops into a brand. ‘Khadi’ now sells oils and bath shops alongside kurtas, catapulting it to the same marketplace as Biotique and BodyShop at prices the middle class can afford.

In 2002, Vajpayee appointed Raje to take over the reins of the BJP in Rajasthan from the powerful Rajput leader Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, who then went on to become the Vice-President of India. 

She had to contend with many naysayers within the party who said an “English-speaking” sophisticate like her who “spends so much time in Delhi” won’t be able to plant her feet on the ground. In 2003, she proved them wrong. She won the Rajasthan BJP its biggest victory ever — with 120 of the 200 Assembly seats. 

And she won over the Jat voters who had traditionally been Congress supporters. Some say this may have had to do with her claiming to be both Rajput, given her Scindia lineage, and Jat, since her former husband is a Jat.

As CM, she quickly became known to her bureaucrats as the “no-nonsense” woman. As a senior official who didn’t want to be named puts it: “Raje goes for excellence” while the current CM Ashok Gehlot “is happy to just push the cart”. For all the trappings of royalty and tradition, Raje also did something thoroughly un-Indian. 

She introduced a five-day week, which pleased government staff all around. “What does development mean to the common man,” an official remarked. “It means time spent with the family. This improves your quality of life immediately.”

And then equally, there was a lapsing back into the space where loyalty is equated with deference. Those who have worked closely with her told INN how this fine line was crossed by many who saw themselves as local power brokers and found it difficult to kowtow to Raje. Leaders like Kishori Lal Meena and Pushpendra Singh.

Others within Raje’s administration said she made the cardinal mistake of a first-time CM: trusting the wrong people. Then, in the last year of her tenure, the Gujjars who form a small but significant vote base went on a violent agitation, blocking trains and burning buses as they asked to be included among the Scheduled Castes of Rajasthan, for reservation. Sixteen Gujjars were killed in police firing and that was the beginning of the downward spiral for Raje.

The brownie points Raje accrued from efficiency within the bureaucracy were also undone by allegations that she favoured a certain set of industrialists, especially Lalit Modi, who created the IPL and is now facing a life ban by the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Beena Kak, now a minister in the Gehlot Cabinet, accused Raje of allowing Modi to “fix business deals directly with bureaucrats in the government”.

In an already vitiated atmosphere, Rajasthan saw its first major terror attack in May 2008. Nine bombs went off in succession in the state capital Jaipur. And here’s where the BJP and Raje went into the 2008 Assembly election making another big mistake. In trying to hardsell to the people how a weak Congress can’t protect them from terrorists. It boomeranged and the tide turned sharply against Raje. The Congress won 96 of the 200 seats and the BJP got 78.

Now the knives were out and her defeat was used by her opponents to force her to resign as Leader of the Opposition in 2010. Raje says this was the worst phase in her political career. “The lesson was that you don’t trust anyone implicitly,” she said. And added quickly, “I came out of it quite okay. With my dignity and my political standing intact.”

But that sounds like bravado masking the loneliness that defines women in Indian politics. From Sonia Gandhi to Mayawati, Jayalalithaa, Sheila Dikshit and Mamata Banerjee — they have all been at the top alone. In the same state that revered her as a queen, Raje also faced her share of misogyny. In 2009, Raghu Sharma, a Congress MLA, alleged on the floor of the Rajasthan Assembly that in her time, there was “No CM after 8 pm”. The insinuation was clear. That the CM, as a single woman, was seen to be more cosmopolitan and liberated than a feudal Rajasthan could stomach. Slander was almost the other side of adulation.

It was a time when Raje retreated into the comfort of her Dholpur Palace. And into a world of books, plants and animals. The reading list is a dead giveaway. A biography on the lonely Russian Queen, Catherine the Great, and Jeffrey Archer’s Prison Diaries. While in this phase, Raje had told this reporter, “There was a time when I was so miserable… but finally it is difficulty that prompts you to make changes.”

The change has been noticed by others in the BJP this time around. By Manvendra Singh, the Lok Sabha MP from Barmer and son of BJP stalwart Jaswant Singh. Manvendra Singh was at the receiving end of an old rivalry that dated back to the time Raje was Minister of State for External Affairs when his father headed the ministry. Now, he says the rivalry has been long buried and the perception is that Raje is “not flexing her muscles that much”.

The “not flexing” can be interpreted to mean that this time around, Raje has taken her dissidents along. A BJP insider said that so far, the problem with Vasundhara Raje has been that she is Vasundhara Raje. 

If she is more agreeable now, this may be a position arrived at after a series of chess manoeuvres over the years that pulled in different directions. In 2003, her proximity to the BJP’s Pramod Mahajan, who helped stitch her campaign together, distanced her somewhat from the most important leader in the party at the time, LK Advani. In 2008, her resignation as Leader of the Opposition made her fall out with party president Rajnath Singh. 

By default, it made her closer to Advani. As the comeback queen of Rajasthan, however, she is seen by the people who matter most in her party as “the tallest leader in the state”, with whom nobody has a particular problem.

A BJP insider, though, told INN that the RSS is still not entirely happy with Raje. That in the end, “she is in her own camp”. In her big victory in 2003, the RSS had played a big role in galvanising the tribals to vote for her. But there is a perception that she did not pay them back with the deference that was due.

For now, the tide in her favour has more to do with the sea of corruption charges against the ruling Congress and allegations that a minister — Mahipal Maderna — was involved in the disappearance and murder of a nurse who was also gangraped. Political pundits say that since Maderna is a Jat, the community may feel a sense of victimhood, if they believe he was made a scapegoat. Which could work in Raje’s favour.

And that’s where the contradictions in the Vasundhara Raje story get even more curious. As the potential Queen of Hearts, the proverbial tarts she’s throwing out in her campaign this time are of development. Her campaign speeches are full of promises: clean governance and back to basics, starting with water. But her own track record on these indices is patchy. 

Dr Manohar Singh Rathore, director of the Centre for Environment and Development Studies, Jaipur, uses government data to show that in Raje’s tenure, there was a 10 percent increase in the area that was over-exploited for water.

The truth behind Raje’s campaigns is not lost on the voter in Rajasthan who is, by now, fairly discerning. Suganchand Chapparband, a 58-year-old farmer from Jujandha village in the Marwar region, heard Raje rail on about the non-performance of the incumbent government at a rally. Of how, given another mandate, she will provide 24-hour electricity and water to the people. And then he turned and said, “It’s not that easy to fool us anymore. All these speeches are just hot air.”

The Chapparbands are Muslims and their disconnect with the BJP may be easy to see. But the fact that the voters of Rajasthan have routinely swung towards the Congress in one election and then the BJP in the next, paints the picture of a cynical electorate that is increasingly difficult to please. Speeches on “development” made by either side don’t impress anymore. 

Therefore, in this election, there is the added appeal of Narendra Modi to convince the voters of the party’s bona fides on development. His face now looms large alongside Raje’s in her posters. And, in person, he has also campaigned at a massive rally.

If the development card is a zero-sum game in Rajasthan, then old hierarchies become important. Especially since this is a state “where Dalit movements and lower caste-oriented parties are weak”, points out political analyst and keen watcher of the BJP, Christophe Jaffrelot. Which is where royalty has a role to play. Even if it is a double-edged sword.

Beena Kak holds onto one part of the picture when she says Raje’s campaigning in an expensive luxury bus, “flashing her wealth” and “selling people dreams” won’t fool anyone. The other part is visible in the reaction to Raje’s speeches at rallies, which has most commonly been: “We will vote for her.” But even with the tide and opinion polls now swinging firmly in her favour, some within her own party say that if she slips back into a previous avatar where local leaders were made to feel irrelevant, a still precarious applecart could be easily upset. 

An RSS leader summed up these fears in conversation with a fellow comrade in the BJP: “Raje’s problem is that she tries to exercise the power of Modi without having the power of Modi.”

It’s a contradiction that comes with being Vasundhara Raje. The charisma comes from the same space as the accusations — of her being above everyone else. On another day when INN followed Raje on her campaign trail, the twin tropes played out with all the attendant drama. A crowd waited outside the Sumerpur Palace for Raje to emerge. 

The skies opened up and rain tore through it in a happy, noisy rage. Two orange umbrellas with her face printed on them appeared as Raje stepped out of the palace. Rose petals were showered on her. Folk dancers performed in rehearsed joy until they saw the last of her, leaving for another rally. En route, Vasundhara Raje popped her head out of the bus to connect with a truck driver: “How is your day? Where are you from?”

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