The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Manager Mahajan’s secret masala
Making of Raje, unmaking of Jogi

New Delhi, Dec. 4: A high-voltage and focused campaign, cohesive teamwork, professional surveys, “meticulous” candidate selection and the ability to juggle social equations have seen the BJP come up trumps.

The party has recorded its best-ever showing in Rajasthan, a stronghold from the Jan Sangh era, and grabbed Chhattisgarh from Ajit Jogi, whom they regarded as the “wiliest” opponent they had to contend with.

From the onset, the BJP thought Madhya Pradesh would be a “cakewalk” since its first internal survey showed it had the “highest degree of anti-incumbency”. Similarly, the Congress-BJP gap in Delhi was shown to be “pretty much unbridgeable”.

Thus, BJP general secretary Pramod Mahajan, who was handed overall charge of the elections, decided to concentrate on Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, leaving Madhya Pradesh to law minister Arun Jaitley.

Party sources said Rajasthan appeared a tough call till a month ago until chief ministerial candidate Vasundhara Raje managed to overcome some initial disadvantages. Even though she is a five-time MP from Jhalawar in southeastern Rajasthan, Vasundhara was not well-known in the state.

One of Mahajan’s first moves was to organise a “parivartan (change)” rally to familiarise the chief ministerial candidate with the terrain and people.

Vasundhara got a blueprint on each district with geographical, social and political data from a polling agency. Sources said the “familiarisation” trip helped her strike a rapport with the people, but still, she did not emerge a household name.

In the penultimate phase of polling, Vasundhara was asked to focus on 37 constituencies in which she was an “unknown”.

In the absence of a central issue and given the over-riding importance of caste in the state, the BJP decided to project its candidate as a leader who did not represent any caste. “She is actually a Maratha married into a Jat family and her son is married into the only Gujjar royal clan Rajasthan has,” a source said.

The strategy to “de-casteise” Vasundhara sprang from the perception that chief minister Ashok Gehlot’s backward caste origins had “antagonised” the upper castes, which are still powerful in Rajasthan unlike in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Also, Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat’s Rajput leanings had made the powerful Jats turn against the BJP. “In a sense, Shekhawat’s departure (from the state) helped us consolidate the Jat support because there was no anti-Rajput feeling left in them,” sources said.

The Jats, who have traditionally voted for the Congress, also veered towards the BJP because they viewed the Gehlot-Samajik Nyaya Manch grouping with suspicion.

The Manch had spearheaded a campaign for the upper-caste poor and challenged the inclusion of Jats in the Other Backward Classes category, saying this would deprive the genuinely backward classes of the benefits of reservation. As a result, the Jats regarded the Congress-Manch grouping to be a “conspiracy” to snatch away their new status.

The BJP cashed in on their disenchantment with the Congress by stepping in to help the four candidates fielded by the Jat Mahasabha and used celebrity Jats in its campaign. The BJP roped in bona fide Jats Sahib Singh Verma and Dara Singh as well as Hema Malini, who is married to a Jat, actor Dharmendra. Verma is a Union minister while Singh and Hema have recently become Rajya Sabha members.

In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP managed to overcome the initial opposition to Uma Bharti’s candidature by getting the RSS to endorse her and by winning over the old guard.

But in Rajasthan, party veterans refused to accept Vasundhara till the last. Some veterans were handed tickets to reduce their potential for damage, but others still tried to hurt her chances.

Faced with their intransigence, Mahajan roped in 175 BJP workers and MLAs from his home state, Maharashtra, and assigned each of them a constituency.

Aware that there had been a “youth upsurge” in the state, a quick poll was conducted among 1,000 young voters to gauge their preference. “Most of them were attracted to Vasundhara’s sophisticated, no-nonsense image,” sources said. On polling day, a special drive was undertaken to mobilise young voters.

If the RSS was non-existent during the Rajasthan campaign, the work put in by the Sangh’s Vanvasi Kalyan Ashrams in tribal Chhattisgarh helped swing tribal votes the BJP’s way. The party won most of its seats from the tribal belt.

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