From missing faces of leaders on party posters to long letters written by senior party MLAs against the state leadership, there are several instances in the last two and half years wherein the divisions within the BJP in Rajasthan have spilled out into the open, even forcing the central leadership to rebuke or pacify some of its leaders.
The recent statement by former Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje, who has said that one doesn’t become CM ‘just by wishing for it,’ is expected to only increase the rivalry and factionalism within the state unit in Rajasthan, where several leaders are jostling to get ahead of each other to become the next CM face of the saffron party.
Who are the many CM faces in Rajasthan BJP?
While the Congress has repeatedly attacked the BJP by saying that there are nearly eight CM candidates in the saffron party who are competing for supremacy, apart from Raje, some of the names which are frequently discussed in context to the struggle for power in the Rajasthan BJP are Satish Poonia, Gulab Chand Kataria, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, Rajendra Rathore, Arjun Ram Meghwal and Bhupendra Yadav.
Satish Poonia, the incumbent president of the Rajasthan BJP, is known to have strong RSS roots and among several state leaders once sidelined by Raje when she was in power. A first-time MLA, Poonia is from the Jat community, which holds significant electoral strength in the caste-driven politics of Rajasthan.
After starting off as a student leader from the ABVP, Poonia rose through the ranks of the BJYM and BJP before finally being appointed as the state party president. Ever since taking the reins of the party, in what appears to be veiled references to Raje, Poonia has repeatedly reiterated that no individual can be bigger than the party. In instances of confrontations with loyalists of Raje, Poonia has taken the help of the party central leadership to take action against them. During his visits to Rajasthan, BJP in-charge for Rajasthan Arun Singh has often reiterated the central leadership’s confidence in Poonia.
Veteran BJP leader Gulab Chand Kataria, the current Leader of Opposition in Rajasthan, is another name being discussed as a potential chief minister. Kataria, who is in his mid-seventies, was the home minister during Raje’s previous tenure. Back in 2012, under pressure from the Raje faction, Kataria was forced to cancel a yatra which was poised to establish him as face of the Rajasthan BJP. A stalwart leader from the Mewar region, Kataria is a seven-time MLA and has held multiple ministerial posts in different BJP governments.
Deputy leader of opposition Rajendra Rathore, who is also a seven-time MLA, was once among the leaders closest to Raje but party sources say the relationship soured in the latter’s last tenure. The Congress has often targeted Rathore over his chief ministerial ambitions.
During the last tenure of Raje, the post of the Rajasthan BJP remained vacant for several months after the former chief minister put her foot down against the elevation of Jodhpur MP Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, who is the incumbent Union Minister for Jal Shakti. Shekhawat, considered close to the central leadership of the BJP, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, is often seen as one of the frontrunners for the top post in the state. Shekhawat’s stature in the party increased after he became an MP for the second time by defeating Vaibhav Gehlot, the son of Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot from Jodhpur.
Union Ministers Arjun Ram Meghwal, who is a former civil servant of the Rajasthan cadre and Bhupender Yadav, who is a Rajya Sabha MP from Rajasthan are also often mentioned inside party circles in relation to the battle for supremacy.
Why is the power struggle within Rajasthan BJP is playing out at this point of time?
According to a senior BJP leader, ever since the saffron party’s constitution and rise to power in Rajasthan, stalwart leaders such as Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and Raje had a vice-like grip over the party, which often was overshadowed under their personality.
While Shekhawat was the biggest leader of the BJP since the 90s, Raje, who first became the chief minister in 2003 decimated all her opposition within the party soon after ascending to power and went on to hold the top post twice.
During most of Raje’s first tenure the BJP was playing the role of opposition in the Centre. But months after Raje was elected the CM of Rajasthan for the second time in 2013, the new BJP government came to power in the Centre led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who secured an absolute majority.
Towards the end of her second tenure, Raje differed with the central leadership on issues such as the appointment of the BJP president and ticket distribution. The Assembly seat of incumbent minister Yoonus Khan-who was regarded as one of her closest confidantes- was changed which led to his defeat.
The BJP central leadership’s decisions to change chief ministers in BJP-ruled states such as Gujarat and Uttarakhand has also increased the hope of several BJP leaders who want to get ahead in the race for becoming the face of the party in Rajasthan in the post-Raje era, sensing that the party is on the cusp of a generational change in the state.
Has the divide in Rajasthan BJP spilled into the public domain earlier as well?
While in the last two decades Raje has been the tallest leader from the state and has always managed to quell any voices of opposition against her leadership, in the past two and half years, the scenario has changed.
Ever since the 2018 Assembly election, wherein the BJP government led by Raje lost its power, her role in day-to-day party matters in the state diminished significantly.
In 2019, when the central leadership constituted a new BJP state executive, several of Raje’s detractors such as Madan Dilawar, who were earlier sidelined, found space, a move that was unimaginable while Raje was at the helm. Since then, it has been a flurry of statements and counter statements.
In January, several persons claiming to be supporters of Raje had floated an outfit named Vasundhara Raje Samarthak Manch Rajasthan, with the aim of returning her as CM in the 2023 Assembly elections.
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Earlier this year, around 20 MLAs loyal to Raje had written to the state BJP president, alleging bias in Assembly proceedings.
In September, in a letter written to state BJP president Poonia, former state Assembly Speaker Kailash Meghwal-a known loyalist of Raje- had said that he will bring a censure motion against LoP Kataria.
In another letter written to the party national president, Meghwal levelled a number of allegations on Kataria, saying the BJP’s electoral fortunes suffered due to statements made by the leader of opposition.
A day after the letter was leaked in public domain, Rajasthan BJP in-charge Arun Singh visited the state and after a meeting with Meghwal, the party managed to convince the senior leader to not go forward with the censure motion.
The state BJP had also expelled former minister Dr Rohitashav Kumar Sharma, who is close to Raje and also speaks out in her support, for six years.
What has been the BJP central leadership’s position so far?
While the BJP central leadership has underplayed any reports of divide within the party unit in Rajasthan, during instances such as the action against leaders loyal to Raje or statements against the state unit, it has given the impression that it is keeping a close watch on matters.
“If such statements are made, they result in damaging the party. Since the past few months, we are taking cognisance of every statement and noting them. In the right time, the party will keep in mind such people, whose statements harm the party. People should know that. Whenever such statements appear, the party is not going to keep it in cold storage,” state BJP in-charge Singh had said in September after Meghwal demanded the censure motion against Kataria.