Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje (left) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a function in March 2018. Photo: AFP/ NurPhoto

After a two-month-long inner-party struggle that saw a face-off between Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief Amit Shah and Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, the saffron party has appointed Madan Lal Saini, 74, as party chief for the election-bound state.

Saini, who is regarded a political lightweight, is a veteran Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangha (RSS) warhorse, an ideological flank of the BJP,  who represents the Other Backward Caste community known as the “Maalis”. Congress strongman Ashok Gehlot – two times chief minister – also belongs to the Maalis caste, who are thin in numbers but evenly spread across the state.

Beyond the symbolism of the Congress versus BJP fight over the vote, is there more than meets the eye in the unexpected nomination of Saini to lead the BJP charge for the state election due in October-November?

By appointing Saini, Raje has emerged the only party chieftain to have successfully defied the might of the party high command; but is the focus now off the standoff between Shah and Raje?

Rajasthan’s importance

In 2013, the BJP won 163 of the 200 seats in the state assembly. And it followed that up with a massively successful showing in the 2014 national election, when the BJP won all 25 of the state’s Lower House seats.

Replicating the 2013 verdict may well be considered a tall order, but the saffron party can be expected to try everything within its means to put up a satisfactory show for the November state elections. Its failure to do so would massively dent the BJP’s image of invincibility in the run-up to the 2019 national election. This could be the reason that, as party sources indicate, the BJP President is himself planning to take charge of the Rajasthan campaign and also planning to shift to Jaipur as the poll nears.

Like several Indian states, Rajasthan has demonstrated a trend of swinging one way or another each election. While the Raje-led BJP romped home in 2003, Congress strongman Ashok Gehlot was able to retrieve power in 2008; Raje then won a second term in 2013. Going by past trends, the Congress is being pitched as the frontrunner this time.

However, statistically, after having remained in power for five years, Raje’s party gave the Congress a run for its money in the 2009 state poll; with the BJP winning 78 seats against the Congress’ 96. But it Raje suffered a last-minute hiccup when tribal leader Kirori Lal Meena ditched the BJP, which may have cost him a second shot at power.

Subsequently, the minority government headed by Gehlot passed the assembly floor test with the support of six MPs from Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), who subsequently merged with the Congress, plus the support of some independents. The crux of the argument is at this point the BJP may be down, but cannot be counted as being out.

Shah versus Raje

Following the BJP’s poor performance in by-elections for both state and national seats in the state, Ashok Parnami was called on to resign from the position of state party chief last April. But the post remained vacant for more than two months because the Chief Minister’s strongly opposed the central party leaders’ choice of Jodhpur MP Gajendra Singh Shekhawat to fill that position.

With Saini’s elevation, Raje seems to have emerged the winner in the short term. But the flipside of that is none of the candidates proposed by her were considered, while Saini is seen as being close to the anti-Raje camp headed by a former state party chief. Meanwhile, with Shah himself planning to take charge, it is likely that other Raje-detractors such as Upper House MP Bhupinder Yadav, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat or Sunil Bansal will be entrusted with important assignments during the campaign. The BJP’s central leaders are doing everything to show that Raje is the undisputed party leader in Rajasthan.

Raje’s gambit

Many have wondered what has spurred Raje to take a confrontationist attitude with her own party leaders. Is it the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah were relatively small players at a time when her late mother Vijaya Raje Scindia was the chief promoter and financer of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad – an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swamyasevak Sangha (RSS), which is the mother organization of the BJP?

Or, does her attitude stem from a realization that the Shah-Modi combination is unlikely to retain their present clout after the 2019 election and that defiance at this juncture could endear her to the moderate lobby within the BJP? Or, was it all shadow-boxing between Raje and Shah to achieve the aim of winning back the support of the BJP’s traditional voters among the Rajputs?

The caste matrix

Rajputs make up approximately 10% of the state electorate and have reportedly been drifting away from the BJP for two reasons: The encounter killing of gangster Anandpal Singh – a figure with a Robin Hood kind of image who was active in Western Rajasthan. After he was shot dead by police in June 2017, Rajput groups staged uprisings in about half a dozen districts. Singh’s family members have claimed that he wanted to surrender, but was killed because he was privy to certain secrets of a minister in the Raje government. The government’s failure to defend the community in regard to the “Padmavat” film controversy is said to be another factor that angered Rajputs.

Rajasthan provides a kaleidoscopic mix of castes and communities: Jats, Gujjars, Other Backward Castes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes including the Meenas, apart from the minority Muslims. Political managers of both the BJP and Congress are once again at work to delve into the caste arithmetics. As past elections have shown, the saffron party’s success or otherwise at the state election will depend heavily on the party’s ability – or inability – to polarize votes along religious lines.

In April last year there was a mob lynching of Pehlu Khan at Alwar and Rajasthan has witnessed a spate of crimes conducted in the name of preventing cows from being slaughtered in recent months. With an obvious eye on the upcoming state vote in October-November, the Modi government recently revived plans to give citizenship to Hindu families who migrated from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh after the 1971 Indo-Pak conflict.

From the BJP president Amit Shah’s point of view, the polarization plans will work for the BJP only when the party succeeds at winning back the support of the Rajput community. The symbolism of appointing a Rajput (Shekhawat) as the Rajasthan BJP chief has not worked, but the messaging of the BJP leaders’ outreach to the community has gone out well enough.

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