Ticket distribution for elections is always a tricky task, and when two party leaders critical to the exercise are at loggerheads, it gets even messier. In Rajasthan, the process of selecting candidates for the upcoming Assembly elections has rekindled the tension between Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje and BJP president Amit Shah.

With voting less than a month away, on December 7, the rift between them has reportedly deepened after Shah rejected the names of 80 candidates that Raje had proposed at a meeting in Delhi last week. While Shah deems winnability as the top qualification for candidates, Raje is lobbying hard for tickets for her loyalists – the source of her strength – amid fears that the party high command will not accommodate many of them. There are 200 seats in the Rajasthan Assembly.

The tension between the two leaders became clear after the BJP was trounced in the bye-elections to three seats in February. Though Raje loyalist Ashok Parnami was sacrificed as the party’s state chief after the debacle, the inability of the BJP leadership to agree on his replacement led to a 74-day delay in appointing a new state chief. A compromise candidate, Madan Lal Saini, was picked in July. While Raje was happy that Shah acolyte Gajendra Singh Shekhawat did not get the job, Shah was relieved that no Raje follower made it to the post.

The summer stalemate raised Raje’s stock within the state as she became the only BJP chief minister to not yield before the Amit Shah-Narendra Modi combine. However, a consensus between Raje loyalists, the party organisation headed by Shah and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh camp has remained elusive. Raje has largely ignored the new state president. In her much touted Gaurav Yatra that was flagged off in August, it was Parnami not Saini who accompanied her across Rajasthan.

Even Shah hardly figured anywhere, beyond a token presence to flag off the yatra. Political observers noted that besides not appearing together in rallies, this is perhaps the first time ever that a BJP president and chief minister have been campaigning simultaneously within a state but always at different locations. “Whenever Shah comes to Rajasthan, Vasundhara goes somewhere else,” said Sachin Pilot, Rajasthan Congress chief. “They are not ready to be together even in the same district.”

Shah in charge

But while the flamboyant Raje was busy with her yatra, Shah took charge of the election campaign in the state. In September, he made Shekhawat the convenor of the party’s election management committee, indicating that Raje would be sidelined during ticket distribution, unlike in 2013.

Using feedback given by state RSS workers to their chief Mohan Bhagwat as well as information from grassroots workers of the party, who indicated that Raje’s popularity was declining and the BJP’s poll prospects were poor, Shah packed most election-related committees with Raje detractors and RSS-backed leaders with the strict proviso that they were to report only to him.

Moreover, through Union Minister Prakash Javadekar, who is in charge of the Rajasthan elections for the BJP, Shah asserted that the distribution of tickets in the state would be decided by a 14-member core committee, of which Raje is a member.

Though Raje is reportedly angry at Shah’s efforts to sideline her, she and her supporters have kept the peace as the BJP has publicly declared that the elections will be fought under Raje’s leadership, and she will remain the chief minister if the party returns to power. Raje is lobbying hard to get the maximum tickets for her loyalists as her strong hold over party MLAs in Rajasthan has been the prime source of her strength in her past battles with the party high command. In 2009, for instance, Raje outsmarted BJP president Rajnath Singh who had attempted to remove her as the Leader of Opposition in the Assembly. She has also fought off several attempts by the Modi-Shah combine to remove her from the helm of the state over the past four years.

In an attempt to beat the anti-incumbency factor, the BJP chief plans to drop a chunk of sitting MLAs. Sources say Raje will be allowed to pick only 50 candidates, while the remainder will be decided by Shah. BJP corridors are abuzz that even several ministers close to Raje – like Rajendra Rathore and Younus Khan – are not getting the safe seats they want.

Raje and Shah are reportedly bargaining hard on the issue of who will get tickets and who will be dropped. All eyes are focused on an upcoming BJP central election committee meeting that could well see some political fireworks. Though Shah is keen to be the Big Boss of ticket distribution, the unpredictable Raje could still spring a surprise in this potboiler that has seen lots of twists and turns so far.