I am 76. Old. Tired. In poor health. I will not leave Rajasthan." And with that, chief minister and veteran BJP warhorse Bhairon Singh Shekhawat debunks speculation that he will be put to pasture in New Delhi before the November assembly polls. Electoral reverses, failing health, demoralised party workers and alienation of influential castes may have slackened the patriarch's grip over the state, but he remains the BJP's best bet.
The party's downward slide continues after its debacle in the 1998 Lok Sabha polls, when it was reduced to five of 25 seats. If it has now staged a marginal recovery, the BJP has to thank not only the combined political skills of Shekhawat and BJP vice-president K.N. Govindacharya, but the Congress' genius for shooting itself in the foot.
This was demonstrated once again when it inducted 14 MLAs and one MP into the party at a much-hyped function in New Delhi last week. The setback to the BJP in real terms was marginal—eight were independents, former Congressmen who quit the party on being denied a ticket in 1993 and hadn't been supporting the BJP anyway. One was a former Janata Dal man and two were BJPMLA s who had been suspended years ago. Three were former ministers who had been dropped from Shekhawat's cabinet. The blow to the BJP was in terms of media projection of the event as a Congress coup over Shekhawat, but one outweighed by the dissension in the Congress ranks over the return of the prodigals.
If AICC secretary and MP Natwar Singh is the leading proponent of the ghar vapasi (homecoming) programme, PCC president Ashok Gehlot has strong reservations. The original idea, to which Gehlot had apparently reluctantly agreed, was to induct six independents who had no truck with the BJP. In their enthusiasm, Natwar Singh and MP Sees Ram Ola (who has also rejoined the Congress) went on a poaching spree. At the homecoming parade, there were 19 new faces—and clearly, the party has no idea what to do with them.
While the MLAs joined the party with no preconditions, a senior Congress leader points out: "If you give them tickets, you annoy loyal party workers and legitimise the politics of dal badal. If you deny them tickets, they will create trouble—as they did last time—for the official candidates. We lose both ways." In 1993, the Congress effectively sabotaged its chances by infighting, specially over the distribution of tickets to relatives of senior party leaders. "At all costs, we should avoid that," he points out.
The Congress is on a strong wicket this time, with the BJP thoroughly demoralised, and disgruntled with Shekhawat's perceived failure to carry the state unit with him. "Our workers have long felt that they have no share in the Shekhawat government. But they put in every effort to bring Atal Behari Vajpayee to power at the Centre. The election results were a severe blow to their morale," admits a senior BJP leader.
At the BJP's Jaipur national executive last week, it was with a sense of vindication that Shekhawat pointed out he had 10 years of experience in running coalition regimes and dealing with the attendant problems now plaguing the Centre. For one thing, the independents whom Shekhawat has had to perforce accommodate in his cabinet have done little to enhance the BJP's image in the state. But pep talks by BJP president Kushabhau Thakre and Govindacharya's efforts to regalvanise the party will have little effect unless the workers experience a greater sense of identity with the government.
An equally pressing problem is the erosion of the BJP votebase. The scheduled tribes were offended when the influential Kirori Lal Meena was denied a party ticket in the Lok Sabha polls. The Jain community's feelings were lacerated by the arrest and subsequent suicide of a religious leader. Traders were upset by the surcharge on sales tax imposed after the abolition of octroi. Women turned against the BJP following several incidents of violence. And most of all, the powerful Jats are returning once again to their Congress moorings. According to a political observer, it's "Rajputs and baniyas versus everybody else".
Natwar Singh and Ola have sensed the opportunity to position themselves as Jat leaders, filling the vacuum left by Ram Niwas Mirdha. The caste composition of the prodigals (most are Jats) is a clear indication that the Congress is looking to consolidate its old votebank. Banking on his proximity to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Natwar Singh may be looking for a shot at chief ministership but has a strong rival in Ashok Gehlot. Stalwarts Nawal Kishore Sharma and Shiv Charan Mathur are compromise candidates at best.
THE Congress' ghar vapasi programme hasn't dented Shekhawat's image as a fabled political engineer. But it has drawn attention to other shortcomings. He's seen as a master manipulator, but not an innovator. As a ruler, he's had to compromise once too often. While in the Opposition, Shekhawat took on the entire Rajput community when he condemned sati. He adopted a strong stand against atrocities on women and scheduled castes. But this is fading from memory, as case after case of assault on women piles up with no satisfactory response from the government.
Ill health has sapped Shekhawat's vitality. "I've lost 10 kilos," he admits, after an operation to remove gallstones at New Delhi's Apollo Hospital. A touch of infection caused pancreatitis, prolonging recovery. He's had two heart bypass operations and one angioplasty. Reports say he's also been asked to avoid stress.
Increasingly, Shekhawat is seen as an ageing monarch surrounded by a coterie of yes-men. Once held up as a model to all BJP chief ministers, valued for his crisis-management skills, Shekhawat now has the central leadership intervening in his troubles. For the moment, Govindacharya has confined himself to boosting morale and the arithmetic of elections. "We led in 57 assembly segments in the Lok Sabha polls and lost by less than 5,000 in 43 others. Twenty other seats were lost through errors on our part and it is on these 120 that we have to concentrate," he said in Jaipur last week.
Although he refuses to comment on whether Shekhawat will be projected as CM, the party doesn't appear to have an alternative. Shekhawat's long shadow has effectively stunted the growth of other leaders.