by SAGARIKA GHOSE | First published in Hindustan Times | Jaipur
For BJP general secretary Pramod Mahajan, the Rajasthan elections are a road to political rehabilitation. In January, the snappily dressed, inky-haired, cellphone-decorated Mahajan left his ministerial portfolio and was sent back to party trenches. He was placed in charge of Rajasthan. Just as Law minister Arun Jaitley has been given responsibility of steering Uma Bharati to victory, it is Mahajan’s task to ensure that Vasundhara Raje defeats Ashok Gehlot. Thus the Rajasthan elections are a test for the Pramod Mahajan brand of political management.
No wonder his men are rampaging around Rajasthan. Among others, there is the young chartered accountant Rajiv Goel, amateur psephologist-cum-businessman Sudhanshu Mittal, and Harish Sharma , who is a senior official in the Indian basketball federation. They zoom around Rajasthan in their choppers, Sumos and Mercs, with an aggressive in-your-face style of campaigning that they describe as ‘‘professionalising politics’’.
The jolly round figure of Mittal is seen bustling around the BJP office. ‘‘Arre, what do all these TV psephologists know?’’ he shouts. ‘‘Which result have they got right so far?’’ He hands out a slick, laminated folder containing detailed breakdowns of seats and districts. ‘‘Our psephology shows we are winning.’’
Mittal adores elections and he believes that this time the BJP’s ticket distribution has been clever. Hugging his newly acquired friend Jagdeep Dhankar, the Jat leader who has switched to the BJP from the Congress, Mittal is cruising around Jaipur in a white Merc, constantly talking on his cellphone and working out Vasundhara’s programme down to the last dinner.
Chartered accountant Goel says the preparations for these elections have been nothing short of ‘‘ highly scientific’’. Precisely because Vasundhara was new to the state, she had no favourites or lobbies who had to be accommodated. He says Mahajan’s team spent months gathering data and carrying out surveys. They then formed a core committee, then another 25-member committee, to decide who should be given tickets. In assessing candidates, the criterion was nothing but sheer ‘‘winnability’’.
He claims that the BJP has been keen to project a younger leadership and to bring in e-governance, and that they have been urging Vasundhara to give more time to the media. Posters and hoardings all over Jaipur show that Mahajan’s men have been very busy.
No wonder the older generation is feeling marginalised. Bhanwarlal Sharma, former state BJP president and a minister in Bhairon Singh Shekhawat’s government, says in his time, the BJP was a cadre-based party and they considered themselves lucky if they could travel by cycle. ‘‘In my time, we were happy if we got Rs. 11 as chanda. Now they are not happy even if they get Rs. 11 lakh.’’
Shekhawat was accepted by all castes, not only because he was male and local but also because he was a ‘small Thakur’, unlike the anglicised ‘big royals’ like Gayatri Devi. Yet Shekhawat failed to build a second level of command, resulting in leaders like Hari Shankar Bhabra and Ramdas Agarwal, now national treasurer of the BJP, being cast into the wilderness once he left for Delhi. Into this crumbling (and grumbling) bastion of khadi-clad veterans, with its peeling office and rickety chairs, has come the snazzy flashy Mahajan team, with their cellphones, digital diaries and starched white kurtas.
‘‘Our ticket distribution system this time,’’ says Goel, ‘‘should be a blueprint for other states. There have been no favours. We have carried out an entire demographic profile of the state. We have given the highest number of tickets to women. We have given tickets to youngsters.’’
But the verdict is awaited on whether Mahajan’s Washington DC -style electioneering will work among the caste-obsessed village republics of Rajasthan. If the BJP loses, Mahajan’s claim to being the “strategist” of the BJP’s GenNext might be in question.