VASUNDHARA Raje frequents temples. And to see her in the temple of the goddess is to see a woman who is at once vulnerable and entirely in her power. This is the story of that woman.
There is much that she has achieved and built through her years in politics. There is much that she can be criticized for. But this is not an objective profile. In fact, it is decidedly subjective.
When I was growing up all of my role models were men. Women icons, I was told, either served selflessly like Mother Teresa or fought only because they were left with no choice, like Rani Lakshmibai. The frames around the stories of these women were impossibly constricted and I longed for a larger canvas for my own story. I longed to make mistakes and own them. I longed to live outside the box until the end of my life.
In getting to know Raje, I found the conviction to stake my claim on every single thing this world has to offer.
There is a persistent image of Raje in my mind. The year is 2018.Winter is losing its bite but there is still a nip in the air. Dense fog has been replaced by a nightly haze and at about 10 pm, Raje, then Chief Minister of Rajasthan, has just about come back home after a long day of meetings and campaigning for the upcoming state elections.
I am led into the room I often see her in, with its unmistakable scent of lilies. A frugal meal set on a fine china plate lies untouched next to her chair. She is listening intently to someone, a cordless telephone pressed hard into her right ear and her eyebrows furrowed. Her personal assistant is holding another call on another device, patiently waiting for her to finish.
For the next twenty odd minutes I sit, watching her juggle calls. I am tired yet struck by her appearance: not a hair out of place, not a crease on the drape of her sari, despite the long day. Outwardly she is of a piece with the immaculate interiors of her room but if you know her you know that the comforts of her home are entirely incongruous with the life she has chosen for herself.
On that evening she was in the midst of multiple battles: a critical session of the assembly was in progress and the upcoming state elections were set to be a close contest. Close but also highly vexatious. Raje was at the centre of attacks mounted by both opposition parties and factions within her own party. A common slogan used to discredit her went, ‘8 pm, no CM’, implying that she is more interested in leisure than governance. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I have never known Raje to not be at work. Her single–minded focus on what she does reflects the visage of a woman possessed; a woman fighting for her life even though, ostensibly, she has little to lose.
Rajasthan is what is commonly referred to as a ‘swing state’. The Bharatiya Janata Party, with Raje as their chief ministerial candidate, forms the government every alternate term. The upcoming term, by that tradition, is likely to see the Congress party led by Ashok Gehlot form the government and Raje is almost certain to come back for the term thereafter. What, then, could possibly make her so fervently invested in the outcome?
I found an answer on one of her campaign trails. She stopped to speak to a group of men, along the way, and confronted them by asking why they have made a habit of alternating between the two main parties, term after term. ‘It is turning into a comfortable zone for us – we can sit back with the knowledge that we can sit out one term and then come back. But, what about you? The work I start on is undone or stalled by the next government. There is no continuity and no incentive to do what is right by you in the long term.’
In a political culture where politicians inundate the electorate with false promises in the lead up to elections, Raje’s characteristic candour is unconventional. But she is not one to patronize voters. Her belief in their potential is unwavering. As is her feeling that they deserve much more than what they have grown accustomed to.
In India political cycles can be tyrannical. Leaders spend almost all of their time and resources in acquiring power and protecting it. Raje is no exception. She knows that politics is a cruel mistress and serves its needs with dedication, but not necessarily at the cost of governance. It helps that she has a sharp instinct for recognizing and backing viable ideas when it comes to policy making.
Rural development and the effective digitization of public services have been frequent preoccupations of hers. When in power, and despite the lack of cooperation from some of her own MLAs, she pioneered the establishment of a digital delivery system for various public benefits – targeting the poor, the old and the differently abled – aimed at wiping out the leakage and obstruction of such benefits by middlemen.
Raje's vision consisted of not just providing subsidies to the needy but going beyond that to ensure a sustenance that would help them gain financial independence in the medium to long term. To align with this, she mounted a juggernaut of a statewide skilling programme, delivered through existing as well as newly built institutes, so that able members of poor households could eventually upskill themselves and support their families.
This is but one example – there is much else to write about when it comes to her policy initiatives for the state, but what I find most admirable is her commitment to women and the arts and culture sector.
Empowering women is a personal mission for her. In an event in Jaisalmer in 2018, surrounded by women in the audience, and wielding a sword presented to her, she reminded her audience of the oppression and prejudice they are subjected to, as well as the power of their potential. ‘You think I have no problems just because I am the chief minister?’ she asked. ‘But I understand your woes. Because, even in this post, I have faced problems as a woman. That is why we have designed schemes to empower women, so that they don't have to plead before anyone.’ These policies encompass financial incentives for families to welcome a girl child, and educate her, as well as financial empowerment and health insurance for women.
She has been equally invested in her dream of turning Rajasthan into India’s culture capital. Despite being a hub of tourism, Rajasthan’s heritage and culture had been woefully neglected for decades. Raje took it upon herself to change this. She began with attempting to change the mindset among the bureaucracy about the importance of cultural economy and went on to energize as many corners of the state as possible – with international events, the renovation of museums, the reimagining of public spaces to showcase local arts and craftsmanship, mobilizing public-private partnerships for conservation efforts and turning Jaipur into a truly global city. She leveraged technology and imagination, in equal parts, to bring heritage and arts to the ordinary Indian while also adhering to the highest standards from across the world.
Her work with women, and with the arts and culture sector, have both been an uphill struggle. Both require going against the tide of norms, and precision in the crafting and executing of plans and policies. But, if anyone brings up the difficulty of the task at hand, she will tell them the people deserve better: so, it must be done.
Listening to Raje talk about the people of Rajasthan is a strong antidote for cynicism. But her passion for them is not the only reason she put up the fight she did in 2018.
Three years later I saw her in a different setting. Now out of power, she was dressed in a loose-fitting linen kurta, no trace of make-up on her face and her feet up on a stool. Still juggling calls but not nearly as much on edge. I asked her then if she was not tempted at times to walk away from it all. ‘I will leave when I really want to leave,’ she replied. ‘They cannot make me leave.’
Her need to live her life strictly on her own terms is best understood in the context of her personal history.
Raje had a privileged up-bringing, but also a cloistered and traditional one. She grew up hearing that if women were not married off young, they would risk ‘remaining on the shelf forever’. Like many women in this country, she had little say in whom she was to marry. But, even so, when a woman’s marriage breaks up, the failure and the shame are hers, and hers alone to bear. Raje found herself unable to return to the place she had known as home, having, instead, to fend for herself and her newborn boy in a hostile environment, in a strange land, surrounded by ravines where dacoits ruled the roost.
This was not all. When it comes to her family life, politics has always been personal. The family had been torn asunder due to political differences between her mother, Vijaya Raje Scindia, who belonged to what would go on to become the Bharatiya Janata Party, and her brother, Madhavrao Scindia, the titular Maharaja of Gwalior and a member of the Indian National Congress. The upheaval of the Emergency era heightened this friction when her mother was imprisoned and, for a while, Raje did not even know where she had been taken.
Despite what politics had already put the family through, her mother thrust Raje into politics even as she was picking up the pieces of a broken marriage. The year was 1984 and, in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination, she was almost certain to lose. She knew that, but her mother gave her a terse lecture against abandoning a sinking ship and packed her off to fight a battle whose fate had already been decided.
Next year, an even bigger challenge awaited her: her first contest in the Rajasthan state elections, from Dholpur, the principality she had been married into and was then being forced out of by her husband’s extended family. She had no money to mount a real campaign and no real force behind her. As she went from village to village, she was presented with small tokens; nazranas for the titular Maharani. With those small sums of money, she stitched together the unlikeliest of victories. Her first political win, but certainly not her last.
Speaking of her decision to contest from Dholpur she had famously said – ‘I came here in a doli and I will leave on my arthi.’ Perhaps it was the raw emotion of this statement by a wronged woman that struck a chord with the people, whom she now calls her own, but scarcely knew back then. It was also the beginning of her deep bond with the ordinary women of Rajasthan. Raje has always credited women voters for standing by her year after year, election after election. But her affinity for women runs deeper than politics.
There is a lived feminism that stands apart from polemics: the quality of recognizing the struggles, big and small, that every woman must face on a daily basis, and ferociously defending every woman’s right to live the life she would like to choose for herself. Raje embodies this.
A couple of years ago, I was in Jaipur for work and meant to see her on my last evening there. Well past dinner time, she was still in the state assembly and rang up to say she was likely to be stuck there indefinitely, so I should just come by for a quick goodbye. When I got there, I found her in a room full of men, with more men waiting outside for an audience with her: colleagues, aides, foes, supplicants, allies and detractors. As soon as I walked in it struck me that I was perhaps inappropriately dressed for the setting and I drew my shawl around myself tightly, so as to cover myself up as ‘properly’ as I could.
When we sat down for a quick cup of tea, I mumbled something about not thinking my attire through. She was aghast and, worse, disappointed in me for apologizing for being myself. Her response was simple – ‘You look beautiful, and you should not be ashamed’ – but it was powerful and, more importantly, it was instinctive. I believe myself to be a feminist but, in that moment, it was clear to me that I have a long way to go before I get to the place Raje occupies, where the defiance of patriarchal norms is one's natural and only response.
Raje is a quintessential woman in a man’s world and a great example of why women are natural born leaders.She has the sharpest of instincts, is an effortless multitasker, is quick to learn and adapt, has never been a slave to her ego and takes nothing for granted. These very traits have seen her through the deep end.
In 1998, after yet another extra-ordinary victory, this time from Jhalawar during the national elections, Raje was inducted into Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's cabinet as the Minister of State for External Affairs. She was just about learning the ropes when, in the middle of her first multilateral conference, she found out about the nuclear test in Pokhran. From then on, the learning curve had to be dizzyingly steep, but she came through as a critical part of a team that managed to counter the backlash against India in the aftermath of the test, smoothly and effectively.
She recalls feeling increasingly comfortable and confident over time in her achievements as part of Vajpayee’s cabinet. But that feeling of comfort was not to last. In 2002 she was called into a room by senior BJP leaders and told, without warning, that she would be taking charge of the party in the state of Rajasthan. The politics of Rajasthan is fraught with caste divides and violence and has been – like large parts of its society – an exclusively male bastion. She was less than thrilled by this appointment and positively wary of being plunged into chaos after the order she had gotten used to while serving in Delhi.
But perhaps it was in the early days in this role that she truly came into her power. She learnt quickly to play rough, and to take battles into political playgrounds designed to keep women out.
Politics in India is not welcoming of women and if and when they are let in, they must mould themselves to make men comfortable. Cast themselves as virtuous and modest: a didi, a behenji, an amma or a long-suffering widow. Raje dodged the labels and made no attempts to conceal her grace and charm. This would not have struck me as particularly courageous had I not travelled around Rajasthan during her rallies and heard, first-hand, from men that she was not to be trusted because she left her hair loose when campaigning. When I brought it up with her, she laughed. She knew. But she was not about to fall into the trap of projecting the ideal woman in the imagination of patriarchal consciousness. Because that woman is nothing if not powerless.
It is difficult to think of the young woman who was introduced to politics as a distraction from the torment of a difficult marriage, in the context of the leader Raje is today. She is elegant and has boundless reserves of self-belief and fortitude, but more significantly, she is a die-hard political animal. In fact, there is nothing else that she can speak of for long enough.
Raje will tell me every now and then that she longs to retire, to read and go for long walks and sit in cafes. Perhaps, in London. But we both know she would not last a day outside her natural habitat. Because Raje truly is Rajasthan.