Weeks after she had taken over as chief minister for the first time in 2003, Vasundhara Raje had come to Delhi. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister. I bumped into her in South Block where I had gone to see somebody. I had asked her how it was all going. I still remember the feeling with which she replied. Her words were to the effect, “You cannot imagine the bias that exists against women in Rajasthan, and what I am having to contend with.”

Another incident about the same time also underscored her vulnerability, and was recalled by a journalist in Rajasthan. It was decided that she should give an interview to Doordarshan. The late Bharatiya Janata Party leader Pramod Mahajan organised it, and consulted her about who should anchor it. She rejected 10 names, much to Mahajan’s exasperation, before she accepted the 11th. It was not as if she was a raw hand when she was sent to Rajasthan to steer the state. She had already been a minister in the Union Cabinet.

These incidents underscore the distance Raje has covered in the last 15 years. She has navigated the minefield called Rajasthan politics to emerge as a mass leader, with no other state BJP leader anywhere close to her in stature. If the party high command contemplated replacing her in the last four years, as was speculated at one time, they gave up the idea.

Chief minister for two terms in the past 15 years, she is probably more powerful today than she has ever been. But – and this is the paradox – Raje is probably also more unpopular than she has ever been during her political career.

National vs regional

Rajasthan is due for Assembly elections at the end of this year. When BJP president Amit Shah visited the state last week, ostensibly to kick off the party’s election campaign, it was curious that he spoke on issues that were national in character rather than regional. These issues include the National Register of Citizens in Assam, illegal immigration from Bangladesh, or the plan to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955, in order to allow India to confer citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Speaking at an event in Rajasthan on September 11, Shah said in a tone more strident than usual about those who had come to India from Bangladesh : “Ek ek ko chun chun kar bhejenge [We will expel them one by one]”. These are not burning issues in Rajasthan.

Clearly, his intention was to deflect the discourse away from local grievances and Chief Minister Raje and turn people’s attention towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He told party workers to take Modi’s photos with them when they campaigned and asked them to speak about the prime minister’s achievements.

It is hardly a secret that Raje is on the back foot in Rajasthan. And yet the BJP leadership has chosen to put its weight behind her completely. Unlike any other BJP chief minister, she compelled the party leadership to agree to all her terms. The BJP brass had wanted Gajendra Singh Shekhawat as the Rajasthan party chief. It was considered a done deal, but suddenly everything was reopened. Madan Lal Saini, Raje’s nominee, made it to the post in June. He was billed as the party’s “consensus choice”. Shah also announced that Raje would lead the party into elections and would be its chief ministerial candidate. She is expected to get her way in the distribution of tickets. Those who should know, say that she had threatened to resign unless she was given a free hand and projected as the party’s chief ministerial candidate. She took a calculated risk, and given that she stands head and shoulders above anyone else in the Rajasthan BJP, the party leadership had little option but to agree.

With the central leadership behind her, as also the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which had at one time looked askance at her continuing in power – they had clashed over the demolition of temples in Jaipur in 2015 and had frowned upon the Lalit Modi controversy she was embroiled in – the ambivalence about her leadership is now gone. She is better placed to go on the offensive, which she has done, undertaking a Gaurav Yatra through the state, and opening the treasury to dole out favours to different sections of society.

Unpopular Raje

At a rally held on September 4 in Jaipur, Raje announced that one crore poor families will get Rs 1,000 for a smartphone under the Bhamashah scheme, one of the successful programmes of her government. Under this scheme, welfare benefits are transferred directly to women recipients. In all probability, many speculate, these smartphones will carry the BJP messages nearer poll time.

At the Jaipur rally, Raje had called teachers from all over the state ostensibly to honour them on Teacher’s Day, which was celebrated across India the next day, and to try and address their long-standing grievances. But the crowd response at the event was far from enthusiastic. Teachers were disgruntled for many reasons, the latest for being allegedly threatened with a salary cut if they did not show up at the rally. Her opponents talk about her arrogance being her undoing.

None among the Bhaat women living in the Kathputli Colony, 200 yards from Amroodon Ka Bagh, the venue of the rally, had a good word to say about Raje’s government. They reeled out a litany of woes, taking me around their colony to show the clogged drains and overflowing toilets, which they did not use because of the stench and uncleared excreta. These were women who had once loved Raje. And yet, surprisingly, some of them had a good word to say about Modi. “At least he got toilets constructed,” one said. “Earlier we didn’t even have those.”

One of the slogans doing the rounds in Rajasthan today is “Modi tujhse vair nahin, Vasundhara teri khair nahin [Modi we do not have any enmity with you, but we will not spare Vasundhara].”

Modi factor

Partymen hope that Modi with his Gujarat-like blitz of the state – he is billed to address 15 meetings, and Shah an equal number – might stem some of the damage the BJP might face in the urban areas, whereas Raje will fight back in the rural pockets with her expertise in forging effective caste equations at the ground level. No one else in the BJP – or for that matter in the Congress – is endowed with that skill. But it is also a fact that the Rajputs are restive, a section of the Jats (farmers) are disaffected, and upper castes, the BJP’s core constituency, are unhappy with the government’s stand on the pro-Dalit Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill, 2018, which has undone the Supreme Court’s ruling against arrest without enquiry. Will they turn away from the BJP? Or when it comes to voting, will they, as some said, “aankh par patti bandh lenge [turn a blind eye]”, because at the end of the day their Hindu identity overshadows all other considerations?

But Raje is herself betraying a nervousness. The police, for instance, has been detaining not just those waving black flags at BJP rallies, but anyone wearing black. This has provoked many to make tongue-in-cheek remarks. On August 11, Rajasthan Congress President Sachin Pilot took a dig at the BJP saying that people were welcome to wear clothes of any colour at Congress rallies.

Though all concede that as of now the Congress is clearly ahead in Rajasthan, the BJP hopes – against hope – that the Modi magic, Shah’s machinery, Raje’s leadership, and her caste-crafting skills might take the party close to the 90 figure in the 200-member Assembly. Then, as a BJP leader said, “we can manage”. Can they?