In an interview with The Indian Express, Rajasthan BJP president Satish Poonia criticises Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s “minority appeasement”, and talks about the BJP’s prospects in next year’s Assembly elections and reports of factionalism in the state unit involving those loyal to former Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje.
Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has been repeatedly accusing the BJP of trying to use polarisation to win the 2023 Assembly elections in Rajasthan. The CM has cited the violence in Karauli as an example and said the clashes occurred right after BJP national president JP Nadda’s visit to eastern Rajasthan.
The Congress is passing through the worst phase in its history, both nationally and in the state. It has been rejected by people from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, from Kutch to Kohima. Ashok Gehlot is worried about people from the majority community supporting the BJP. It is because of his politics of appeasement. He gives such statements to gather sympathy and to establish that the BJP is against a community. He wants polarisation so that the minority community stays with the Congress. The Congress vote bank has disintegrated to a huge extent, which has resulted in such immature statements by the chief minister targeting the national president of a party.
For the past month, the BJP has consistently taken on the Gehlot government over the Karauli violence, the demolition of a temple in Alwar, and an electricity department order on uninterrupted power supply in Muslim-dominated areas during Ramzan. Is Hindutva the BJP’s only election plank?
The main difference between the ideologies of the Congress and the BJP is that they do the politics of appeasement while ours is nationalism. You can call it Hindutva, but tell me what is Rahul Gandhi ji’s definition of Hindutva? This country is the country of Sanatan traditions of the majority community. The religions of Parsis, Christians, and Muslims have equal space but there shouldn’t be appeasement at a cost where there is a direct attack on the interests of the majority community. If we take the issue of Ram Mandir, if not in India, where can a Ram Mandir be constructed? People call the BJP communal but Ram Mandir is the issue of the public. Article 370 was another hurdle owing to which there was strife in Kashmir. Since it ended, things have changed. I don’t think there is any wrong in the fact that the BJP advocates basic issues pertaining to nationalism and Hindutva.
Even a leader such as former CM Vasundhara Raje, who was perceived as moderate, has now developed a Hindutva-centric tone …
Hindutva is a nationalistic agenda and it is here to stay forever. The public has strengthened and supported it. After Modi ji came to power in 2014, his commitment led to the public rejecting the Congress and its corruption. The majority community has its agenda and the party is naturally working on it. People are connecting with this agenda because there is substance in it.
In the Karauli incident, reports suggested that the DJ accompanying the rally by Hindus played provocative songs.
Karauli violence is a result of the appeasement politics of Ashok Gehlot. Prior to Karauli, the state government gave permission for a rally of the Popular Front of India (PFI) in Kota in violation of Covid-19 protocols. Before the violence, in the peace committee meeting, Congress-backed councillor Matloob Ahmed (one of the accused) was also present. Everybody had assured that the rally would be held peacefully. Videos prove that stones were pelted from above halfway through the rally. The question arises that when the administration had the right to stop the DJ, why did it let the rally proceed? There was an effort by the political establishment to suppress people from the majority community. When there is talk in India about the human rights of minorities, the majority too have human rights … they are not here to die. Section 144 was imposed in 17 districts during Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti. This division has been created by the chief minister to make his party’s high command and the minority community happy. Why do such incidents take place only during the Congress’s tenure?
For a long time now, factionalism in state BJP has been in the spotlight. The Congress says that in the Assembly elections next year, it will benefit from the infighting. It claims 10-12 CM aspirants in the BJP are part of a power struggle.
Who did the Congress project as the CM face in 2008, 2013 and 2018? Even in the last Assembly elections, people say that Ashok Gehlot ji took advantage of Sachin Pilot’s hard work and got the CM post because of his relations with the Nehru-Gandhi family. There is no set phenomenon in the BJP or any other party. At times, we contest elections under a collective leadership and at times a single face is projected. In Rajasthan, the face value of Narendra Modi ji is immense. We will work hard and get the BJP to power. The central leadership will appoint a person of their preference the chief minister. The Congress claims that the BJP does not have leadership but they are proving with their statements that it is not true. If there are a dozen probable CM candidates in the BJP, then how can there be a leadership crisis? It is the strength of the party.
You claim there are no divisions in the state unit. But 20 MLAs loyal to Raje have written letters expressing their displeasure about Assembly proceedings and alleging bias in the party. Won’t that damage the party?
If you compare us with the Congress, we are tied by the central leadership and the party. It is true that there are exceptions at times but there is nothing that can damage the party in general. The central leadership is aware of all these issues and I think all the incidents that took place in the recent past are known to the central leadership. Decisions will be taken in due time.
In a recent meeting, the central leadership asked the state unit to present a united front. With multiple factions, won’t there be disagreement over issues such as ticket distribution before the elections?
When the central leadership is strong, it wants every unit to work collectively. That is their message — that we have to oust the Congress from power in 2023 so that the BJP governments in the Centre and Rajasthan can work in tandem. We are all committed to bringing the BJP back to power. Our parliamentary board and high command are strong, and election management and campaigning in Rajasthan have been excellent. The Congress high command is so weak that it couldn’t resolve a quarrel within the party. The Congress came to power by default. It did not have a majority and won 99 seats, the difference of votes with the BJP was only 0.5 per cent. In dozens of constituencies, we lost by fewer than 1,000 votes.
Do you think the state government’s decision to bring back the old pension scheme will dent the BJP’s prospects?
Since 1990, there has been a politics of perception in Rajasthan. It is a trend that every five years the incumbent government is voted out. This time, the perception is in favour of the BJP. The anti-incumbency is at its highest because of the non-fulfilment of the promise of a farm loan waiver announced by Rahul Gandhi, corruption, poor law-and-order situation, and unemployment. Seventy lakh students appeared for competitive examinations. The CM has presented an unemployment figure of one lakh. They will naturally go against the government. The government is terming OPS (old pension scheme) a masterstroke. But they won’t have to give OPS benefits at present and it will be implemented by the government that is in power after 2030. It was a face-saving political move to counter anti-incumbency, but not all state government employees are Congress-minded. As for the schemes, they are populist but have yet to be implemented. Take for example, the free medicine scheme. We have seen in many sting operations that these free medicines are not available (in hospitals). Around 40 per cent of the schemes announced have not been executed.
Later this year, you will complete three years as the Rajasthan BJP president. What have been your priorities and focus areas?
I am a man of the sangathan (organisation). My first priority was to strengthen the organisation. We helped people during the Covid-19 pandemic because of our ground presence. The prime minister also appreciated the Rajasthan unit during virtual meetings. We have reached 42,000 polling booths from 39,000 booths and we intend to expand our units to 52,000 booths. The party has started a very ambitious mission called the ‘Panna Pramukh’ and in Rajasthan we have completed 70-80 per cent of the work under this plan. I am the ‘Panna Pramukh’ of booth 329. I have the responsibility of 60 voters whom I will approach on behalf of the party. Similarly, all BJP leaders will have this responsibility. ‘Panna Pramukh’ will be a game-changer. Our strength is our ideology and organisation. At present, all the state morchas have good visibility, which is a sign of a strong organisation.