‘Missing’ MLAs, bitter fights: No papering over cracks in Rajasthan BJP

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When the BJP herded its MLAs to the Rajasthan Assembly on the morning of June 10 for the crucial Rajya Sabha elections, its leaders didn’t have any inkling that by late night the Congress would be expressing gratitude to one of its legislators.

Ironically, before the elections, BJP-supported independent candidate and media baron Subhash Chandra had claimed that some Congress MLAs would cross-vote for him. The tables turned as the Opposition party’s Dholpur MLA Shobharani Kushwah voted for the ruling party’s Pramod Tiwari. In the end, the Congress’s candidates had polled exactly 126 votes — the number of party and supporting MLAs. While a Congress legislator’s vote was rejected, Kushwah’s support kept the Congress score at 126.

Worse still for the BJP, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, all smiles, expressed gratitude to Kushwah. “I would like to thank the one MLA from BJP who supported us,” Gehlot said on Friday evening. “She saw that the party (BJP) has started a tradition of horse-trading and she didn’t like it. I feel that is why she voted for us. I want to thank her especially.”

The BJP subsequently suspended the MLA but the episode has placed the spotlight back on increasing factionalism and internal power struggles in the party. Multiple leaders are reportedly nursing chief ministerial ambitions and former CM Vasundhara Raje continues to hold significant influence in the party. But the Kushwaha cross-vote is not the first time BJP MLAs in Rajasthan have left the BJP red-faced in crucial situations.

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During a political crisis in the state in August 2020 when the stability of the Congress government was in question following the rebellion of former Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot, the BJP had issued a whip to all its MLAs to be present in the Assembly for a vote of confidence. But MLAs Gopi Chand Meena, Kailash Chandra Meena, Harendra Ninama, and Gotam Lal left the Assembly and gave the vote a miss in violation of the party’s orders.

The four MLAs were subsequently issued notices but they gave a range of reasons, including the need to leave early for their constituencies and illness, to explain their absence. The four were, incidentally, among the 15 legislators the BJP shifted to Gujarat in the middle of the political crisis. The move was seen as part of the saffron party’s efforts to prevent the poaching of its MLAs.

Another instance during the 2020 crisis also exposed the fissures within the state BJP. At the time, Gehlot consistently accused the BJP of trying to topple the government by engaging in “horse-trading”. The Opposition party vehemently denied the allegation, terming Pilot’s rebellion as “an internal feud of the Congress”.

But senior BJP MLA and Raje loyalist Kailash Meghwal went against the party’s stand and issued a statement saying it was “unfortunate” how horse-trading was going on in Rajasthan. He added, “The conspiracy to topple the government that is going on by ruling parties together with the Opposition parties, I have never seen such a thing.”

Like on Friday, Gehlot even thanked Meghwal for his statement – a clear validation of his allegations – that left the BJP on the back foot. The BJP was again in a soup in February 2021 when Meghwal led a group of around 20 MLAs loyal to Raje to sign a letter to state party president Satish Poonia, alleging bias in Assembly proceedings.

Meghwal, a former Rajasthan Assembly Speaker, again put his party in a tricky position in September 2021 by launching a scathing attack on party colleague and former state Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria, even saying that he will move a censure motion against Kataria in a meeting of party legislators. Kataria is known to not get along with Raje. The fissures were evident in 2012 too when Kataria’s proposed yatra (procession) in southern Rajasthan to position himself as the party’s face was cancelled allegedly due to pressure from the Raje camp. Following the outburst against Kataria last year, the central leadership pacified the octogenarian leader.

Raje rival in Upper House

The churn in the BJP camp following Kushwaha’s cross-vote came to the fore as Rashtriya Loktantrik Party (RLP) chief Hanuman Beniwal, a former BJP leader and current BJP ally, launched a scathing attack on both Gehlot and Raje. He accused the two of working together to defeat Chandra.
“The CM was levelling allegations of horse-trading on Subhash Chandra and the BJP. I feel that horse-trading has been done by Congress. Big leaders of the BJP are also involved in this. Once again, the alliance between Gehlot and Raje was openly seen in Rajasthan,” Beniwal alleged while talking to reporters.

Beniwal has consistently alleged that Gehlot and Raje have an understanding about going soft on each other since they have held the chief ministerial post as part of subsequent governments in the past 22 years.

Kushwah is an MLA from Dholpur, which is considered a stronghold of Raje whose son Dushyant Singh, a BJP MP, is a scion of Dholpur’s erstwhile royal family.

In the Upper House polls, the former CM supported both senior leader Ghanshyam Tiwari, who was fielded by the BJP as its official candidate and was elected to the Rajya Sabha, and independent candidate Chandra. Tiwari in 2018 left the BJP over differences with Raje and in the past has been among her fiercest detractors. This time, the BJP, to project all was well between the bitter rivals, ensured Raje as the proposer of Tiwari’s nomination. After the election, Raje was seen smiling and congratulating her former critic along with other BJP leaders.

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