The real beauty of the BJP is its top leaders’ “never say die” attitude in the face of adversity, particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP, despite being the world’s largest party, is also extremely swift in responding to mishaps.
With Brand Modi having taken a huge hit in the Karnataka elections, the Prime Minister seems to have learned his lesson ahead of a series of Assembly elections before the end of the year and the Lok Sabha polls around 10 months away. Poll-bound Rajasthan was the first major test for him and he has sent out the right signals.
On May 31, Mr Modi launched the month-long “Maha Jan Sampark Abhiyan” in Ajmer, Rajasthan, signalling that Vasundhara Raje, the party’s strongest woman leader and a former chief minister of the state, would not be marginalised.
Ms Raje, 70, was the centre of attention at the party’s big public event, with plenty of signs that she would get prominence in the campaign. After being given the cold shoulder earlier, Ms Raje was seated close to the Prime Minister on the dais this time.
The signal comes as the ruling Congress is still dealing with the conflict between chief minister Ashok Gehlot and his arch-rival Sachin Pilot. The clock is ticking.
Political observers see Ms Raje's rehabilitation as one of the immediate consequences of the BJP’s humbling setback in Karnataka as the party has been forced to consider the clout of its regional satraps.
Politics is a signals game. While no one will admit it, Mr Modi and home minister Amit Shah were caught in a bind in Rajasthan. If the BJP high command caves in to Vasundhara Raje, it will send a signal that it is not all that powerful. If it does not give the former CM her due, she will be turned into a “sherni” (lioness).
A significant lesson from Karnataka for the BJP is that marginalising a veteran like former CM B.S. Yediyurappa to satisfy the whims and fancies of the high command ends in disaster. Mr Yediyurappa totally understood the game and played his cards secretly, with disastrous consequences for the party. After pitching for Basavaraj Bommai, who has become the fall guy, Mr Modi and Mr Shah appear to have grasped what has hit them.
The Lok Sabha elections must have been on their minds. With the BJP now holding all 25 Lok Sabha seats, Mr Modi and Mr Shah cannot afford any dissent in the arid state. With Mr Modi aiming for a third term, every seat and vote counts.
The two-time CM of the desert state has long been a BJP contender for CM, and her treatment thus far has not conveyed the right message, as she is regarded as the BJP’s most influential woman leader.
Ms Raje, who has served two terms as CM, was the desert state’s first woman CM and is widely regarded as the party’s tallest leader there.
Despite running governments, including coalition ones, in 14 states and Union territories, the BJP does not have a single woman CM now. Its last woman CM was Ms Raje when she was in power some five years ago.
While the BJP has Nirmala Sitharaman and Smriti Irani as senior Union ministers, both are seen as politically lightweight even though Ms Irani had defeated Rahul Gandhi from Amethi in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Ms Sitharaman had joined the BJP over 17 years ago. Her USP as finance minister is that she is no threat to anyone.
Due to ill health, Sushma Swaraj hadn’t contested the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. She had declared she hadn’t quit active politics, but was not part of the government after the last Lok Sabha polls. She died soon afterwards.
A leader in her own right, Ms Raje has been biding her time amid moves by the high command to marginalise her in every possible way over the past four years. She was not on the best of terms with Shah when she was the CM.
Rajasthan has a long history of rotating governments between the BJP and the Congress. But observers say nothing can be predicted this time as both the BJP and the ruling Congress have been rocked by dissidence.
While Assembly elections are also due in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Telangana, the spotlight is likely to remain on Rajasthan due to the Raje factor and a shrewd Ashok Gehlot campaigning for a second term. Mr Gehlot, 72, knows that this is his final opportunity and has proposed a series of initiatives to help the vulnerable and underprivileged, as well as women, to combat anti-incumbency.
Ms Raje too knows that it will be the end of the road for her if she misses the CM bus this time. She has let everyone know that she is no pushover. At the same time, she has stayed politically correct without unnecessarily raising any storm despite getting signals that the BJP high command might be entertaining other thoughts on the chief ministership issue. Patience is the name of the game.
However, the game has just begun. The BJP central leadership must take several steps and decisions to avoid a repeat of the botched-up campaign in Karnataka. The first decision is on delegating powers to local leaders, which is easier said than done. The BJP is a mighty war machine but is too centralised and is too much dependent on the Prime Minister.
It also depends upon how the local leaders are consulted in deciding strategy and campaigning in the four states, including Rajasthan. The high command had virtually hijacked the campaign and the strategy in ill-fated Karnataka, relegating the state leaders to a secondary status. It turned out to be the bane.
Ms Raje knows the high command needs her more than the other way around. This has its own dynamics. Almost all Central ministers from the state are typically anti-Raje, and some of them have been promoted by the high command in various ways.
The attempts to marginalise Ms Raje over the past four years have not benefited the BJP, and have introduced new challenges within the party.
The BJP is bracing for a fight in the desert state, and Mr Gehlot is doing everything that he can to break the incumbent’s jinx, which has not been broken for quite some time. The BJP faces similar challenges in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Telangana. It’s a fight at every turn, especially since Brand Modi has fared terribly in Karnataka, fuelling the Opposition’s hopes and efforts for a concerted assault.