Bid to humour Raje & win over Rajputs? ‘Message’ behind BJP’s induction of Rajasthan ex-CM’s aide Bhati

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New Delhi: The BJP high command, known to be reluctant to project former Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje as its CM face for the upcoming state polls, has sought to mollify the party veteran by inducting her loyalist Devi Singh Bhati.

Bhati, 77, an influential Rajput leader as well as a seven-time MLA from Kolayat seat, joined the BJP Thursday along with several other inductees, returning to the party fold after four years.

He had resigned from the BJP in 2019 in an apparent protest after the party gave a Lok Sabha ticket to his rival, Union Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal, from Bikaner that year. He had subsequently also campaigned against Meghwal.

Bhati’s induction came a day after Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP president J.P. Nadda held a Rajasthan core group meeting in Jaipur and separate talks with Raje.

This was preceded by talks between Raje and Jodhpur MP Gajendra Shekhawat last weekend and a rally by Prime Minister Narendra Modi Monday, in which he said, “I want to tell every BJP worker that our identity and pride is only the lotus.”

The BJP’s Rajasthan unit is ridden with factionalism, with leaders loyal to Raje upset with the central leadership for not projecting her as the CM candidate. Raje herself is also said to be disgruntled over her apparent marginalisation in the party over the last few years.

The BJP has maintained that it will fight the Rajasthan election under “collective leadership” — a point that was reiterated by Shekhawat to the media after Wednesday’s core group meeting.

However, a functionary in the Rajasthan BJP told ThePrint that facing a resurgent Congress under Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and worried about losing its Rajput voter-base that is upset over the perceived sidelining of Raje, the party opened the door to her loyalist.

“The induction is meant to send two messages before the polls — one that the party is accommodating Raje and another for the Rajput community,” said the functionary.

A second senior functionary said that “not only was Raje pushing Bhati’s case but Rajnath Singh also played a role in his induction, despite the unwillingness of Meghwal”.

“Bhati is a big community leader, and served as minister during Bhairon Singh Shekhawat’s and Raje’s government. His induction will win over Rajput voters,” the functionary added.

According to a senior Rajasthan BJP leader, Amit Shah assured Raje that her interests will be protected. “It means her supporters will be considered during ticket distribution. Bhati is one example,” said the leader, adding that if the BJP won the assembly polls, the state leadership will be decided after that.

“This strategy will keep every person guessing about their chances and it is the only way to fight the election with a faction-ridden unit,” the leader explained. “How Raje responds is also an issue because she knows that if the BJP won the election without her support, her career is over.”

Speaking to ThePrint Friday, Bhati said: “After five years, my homecoming is happening.”

“I am sure the BJP will form the next government. As far as Vasundharaji is concerned, she is a big leader who commands respect across Rajasthan. Although the party has decided to go to the polls under collective leadership, the high command has assured that they will give her full respect,” he added.

On his long-standing conflict with Meghwal, he said: “Yesterday (Thursday), we met in the presence of (Rajasthan in-charge) Arun Singh and we will work together to bring the BJP back to power.”

Also Read: With ‘FIR camps’, jan adalats, BJP shapes Rajasthan campaign on ‘crime & corruption’ theme

Who is Bhati?

Bhati, who is believed to have a hold in the Bikaner and Jodhpur regions of Rajasthan, has long called for Raje to be BJP’s CM face. In August, he reportedly said he would join the BJP only when Raje was given charge of the state unit.

He has also alleged that Meghwal tried to stop his re-entry into the party. His rivalry with Meghwal harks back to 2018, when the BJP gave a ticket to Bhati’s daughter-in-law Poonam Kanwar from Kolayat seat. She lost the election and Bhati alleged that Meghwal had campaigned against her.

Bhati’s induction into the party was also apparently stalled by farmer Rajasthan unit chief Satish Poonia, with whom Raje had a troubled relationship.

In 2022, during Raje’s trip to Bikaner, Bhati had helped mobilise her supporters and announced that he planned to return to the BJP. But the party instead formed a committee under Meghwal to decide on the re-entry of leaders, which sat on the decision about Bhati.

Earlier this month, Kailash Meghwal, another Raje loyalist, alleged to the media that “Raje’s supporters were singled out in the party and humiliated”.

Now that Bhati has joined the party, BJP sources said, it has dimmed the chances of Meghwal’s son Ravi Shekhar getting a ticket from Kolayat.

Party leadership ‘managing optics’

The BJP high command has had a prolonged tussle with Raje, organising several mass mobilisation programmes without her active participation, which did not get much traction in public.

The former CM did not participate in the BJP’s ‘Nahi Sahega Rajasthan’ agitation in June-July to protest atrocities against women, the rallies against paper leaks and law and order situation in the state, and this month’s Parivartan Yatras.

The BJP also announced two election committees in August but Raje did not find place in either.

According to a second Rajasthan leader, the panels did not suit her stature. “Although the party is looking for a generational change, it is being careful to not push Raje too much and wants to keep giving the impression that it is according her respect.”

He added that, during an Udaipur rally in June, Amit Shah intervened to ask the Leader of Opposition in the assembly, Rajendra Rathore, to make sure that Raje made a speech.

In another bid to make peace in its Rajasthan unit, the BJP leadership this March replaced Poonia with the “more neutral” C.P. Joshi as state unit chief.

A third Rajasthan BJP leader told ThePrint: “It is a well-calculated strategy of the high command to manage optics before the public so as to not lose votes. They want to keep sending the message that the party is giving respect to Raje — but without giving her real authority. They want to keep control of the state unit.”

He added that the leadership “fears that with a powerful Raje, they will lose control of the unit because she has her own style of working. At the same time, they want her active support in campaigning to win the polls”.

However, former state president Arun Chaturvedi asserted that it was “decided” that the BJP would “contest elections under collective leadership”.

“There is no ambiguity and the party is gaining ground every day,” he said.

(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)

Also Read: BJP prepares list of 50 ‘weak’ assembly seats in Rajasthan, may field ‘sitting MPs, Congress rebels’

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