Rani on the Road to Re­demp­tion

Va­sund­hara Raje takes her govern­ment to the state’s most back­ward vil­lages.

India Today - - INSIDE - Ro­hit Par­i­har

Two months af­ter get­ting re-elected, Va­sund­hara Raje takes her govern­ment to the state’s most back­ward vil­lages

Stink­ing streets that could be mis­taken for open sew­ers; a 12-year-old govern­ment school build­ing on the brink of col­lapse; buf­fa­los chew­ing cud in­side the lo­cal land records of­fice—Va­sund­hara Raje is be­wil­dered by what she wit­nesses in Gho­tra, just one among 45 equally squalid vil­lages she vis­ited across four of Ra­jasthan’s most back­ward districts.

Sur­pris­ingly ag­ile at 60, the Chief Min­is­ter matches step with a young­ster ea­ger to show her the rot that suc­ces­sive state gov­ern­ments have forced upon large sec­tions of ru­ral Ra­jasthan. “Just 30 stu­dents in 10 classes. The hand­pump is bro­ken. Toi­lets are con­demned. The ceil­ing and walls are full of cracks,” she an­grily de­scribes the dis­as­ter of the school­house, briskly ne­go­ti­at­ing the pot­holed streets of Gho­tra as three very ner­vous and out-of-breath civil ser­vants try to keep pace.

Sarkar Aapke Dwar, a 10-day cam­paign that, pos­si­bly for the first time, took top govern­ment func­tionar­ies to the re­motest vil­lages of Ka­rauli, Bharat­pur, Sawai Mad­hopur and Dholpur districts be­tween Fe­bru­ary 9 and 18, has been a rude re­al­ity check for Raje and her min­is­ters. They wit­nessed a state in de­cay—ram­pant en­croach­ments on pub­lic land and govern­ment build­ings; school af­ter vil­lage school with­out elec­tric­ity or drink­ing wa­ter, lack of teach­ers and doc­tors; bad or non-ex­is­tent roads, poor pub­lic trans­port and un­em­ployed youth.

Like scores of oth­ers in the district, the state-run se­nior sec­ondary school in Bharat­pur’s Sam­raya vil­lage is a truly de­press­ing place to be in. Its class­rooms are dark and dank. The school proudly sign­posts a com­puter lab but seven out of the 10 com­put­ers pur­chased five years back are not func­tion­ing. Learn­ing lev­els are abysmal. A ma­jor­ity of more than 200 stu­dents in classes IX to XII can­not read even a sim­ple sen­tence of English. The elec­tric­ity con­nec­tion was cut two months ago and there is no money for diesel that could power the long-dis­used gen­er­a­tor set. Even drink­ing wa­ter for the chil­dren is a chal­lenge.

Some dis­tance away in Mehndi Bagh vil­lage, Health Min­is­ter Ra­jen­dra Rathore, 58, is hor­ri­fied at the plight of Ran­jit Ku­mari, a 23-year-old col­lege girl who se­verely dam­aged her spine when the roof of her class­room caved in on her. Moved by her ob­vi­ous dis­tress, the min­is­ter promised


her a job in the state health depart­ment but there is a ver­i­ta­ble moun­tain of press­ing prob­lems that con­fronts Raje and her fledg­ling ad­min­is­tra­tion. In just 10 days, the govern­ment re­ceived 29,489 pub­lic com­plaints that have been posted on the state govern­ment por­tal, Sugam. This, from just 665 of the 994 pan­chay­ats across just four districts.

GET­TING GOVERN­MENT ON TRACK The cam­paign has been a hec­tic ride. The Chief Min­is­ter, each of her 11 Cab­i­net min­is­ters and Chief Sec­re­tary Ra­jiv Mehrishi tra­versed an aver­age of 3,000 km to con­duct 1,477 first-hand in­spec­tions. And for the first time, keenly aware of the Arvind Ke­jri­wal-in­spired con­tempt for the VIP cul­ture, the min­is­te­rial cav­al­cades were de­lib­er­ately kept sim­ple. Raje limited her­self to eight ve­hi­cles, even tak­ing the train from Sawai Mad­hopur to Bayana on Fe­bru­ary 17. It was a clever ploy with scores of people throng­ing the S4 coach of the Golden Tem­ple Ex­press for the com­pletely un­ex­pected op­por­tu­nity to greet the newly elected chief min­is­ter. Clearly bask­ing in the at­ten­tion, Raje hap­pily ac­cepted food from her fel­low trav­ellers’ tif­fin boxes. She said it re­minded her of the lazy train and cart jour­neys she took with her mother to the forests of Mad­hya Pradesh as a lit­tle girl.

But this was no fam­ily hol­i­day with ‘royal’ rel­a­tives: It was se­ri­ous work, an at­tempt to build on the whop­ping 163seat (of 200 in the state As­sem­bly) man­date the people of Ra­jasthan gave her as a sec­ond chance. In part, it is a clev­erly crafted po­lit­i­cal strat­egy aimed at help­ing good friend Naren­dra Modi in his quest to be­come prime min­is­ter. She en­cour­ages slo­gans of “Modi zind­abad (long live Modi),” at her pub­lic in­ter­ac­tions dur­ing the cam­paign. Raje prom­ises in Ra­jasthan a re­peat of what Modi did in Gu­jarat: “If Gu­jarat, Mad­hya Pradesh and Ch­hat­tis­garh can do a turn­around in 10-15 years, why can’t we?” she tells des­per­ate people who clearly want to be­lieve her.

Many, in­clud­ing her min­is­ters, have ques­tioned the Chief Min­is­ter’s wis­dom in try­ing to ex­pose Ra­jasthan’s ab­ject un­der­de­vel­op­ment en­gen­dered by decades of po­lit­i­cal and bu­reau­cratic ap­a­thy. They worry that the task of res­ur­rec­tion, which in­cludes de­liv­er­ing potable wa­ter to half of the state’s 40,000 in­hab­ited vil­lages and re­build­ing over 20,000 km of the dev­as­tated net­work of roads, could prove in­sur­mount­able. But she dis­misses the naysay­ers as “prophets of doom”, in­tent on re­veal­ing the rot she in­her­ited af­ter five years of the Ashok Gehlot-led Congress govern­ment.

Va­sund­hara Raje is 10 years wiser from her de­but as chief min­is­ter in De­cem­ber 2003. Then she was seen as im­pa­tient, even a tri­fle brazen. Per­haps a nos­tal­gic re­minder of her blue­blooded lin­eage, she loved to be ad­dressed as “ma­ha­rani” and was quite prone to the machi­na­tions of vested po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests. A decade on, she ap­pears dis­tinctly more de­ter­mined and prefers be­ing spo­ken to as “CM sahiba”. The ubiq­ui­tous co­terie that sur­rounded her has van­ished.

“We have to give back to the people,” she says. Be­sides the im­mi­nent Lok Sabha polls, Raje has set her sights on the state As­sem­bly polls at the end of 2018. Within three days of nam­ing her Cab­i­net on De­cem­ber 20, she called her first ad­min­is­tra­tive meet­ing with se­nior of­fi­cials and min­is­ters to out­line her grand plan of tak­ing the govern­ment from the civil sec­re­tariat in Jaipur to the re­motest vil­lages in the state.

So what is her plan? “It is dole ver­sus de­liv­ery now,” Raje de­clares point­ing to the suc­ces­sion of sops handed out by the pre­vi­ous govern­ment. “In­stead of pay­ing a few hun­dred ru­pees, give people ba­sic ameni­ties like wa­ter, elec­tric­ity, teach­ers, road con­nec­tiv­ity and the skills to gen­er­ate in­come,” she says. Sig­nif­i­cantly though, Raje is wary of dis­con­tin­u­ing any of the sub­si­dies handed out by Gehlot. The Chief Min­is­ter also ques­tions the ef­fi­cacy of cen­trally-spon­sored schemes like NREGS and UPA’s much-de­bated Food Se­cu­rity Bill. She says the Cen­tre’s “one-siz­e­fits-all” so­cial wel­fare ven­tures will not work for Ra­jasthan. “I need Rs 25,000 crore to trans­form my 33 districts. Give me my money, not your schemes,” she says.

BACK­LOGS AND RIS­ING EX­PEC­TA­TIONS But the chal­lenge she must con­front is noth­ing short of Her­culean—a fact ap­pro­pri­ately un­der­scored by her 10-day ex­cur­sion into the des­ic­cated, da­coit-riven ravine hin­ter­land in east­ern Ra­jasthan. “It is crim­i­nal the way

back­logs have been cre­ated,” she fumes, cit­ing un­be­liev­able short­falls—9,000 doc­tors when just 700 grad­u­ate from all the med­i­cal col­leges in the state an­nu­ally. The sit­u­a­tion with the school ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, she says, is worse.

Union Min­is­ter for Cor­po­rate Af­fairs and the in­cum­bent Ra­jasthan Congress chief Sachin Pi­lot thinks Raje’s tak­ing-govern­ment-to-the-people cam­paign is a poll gim­mick and mis­use of the state’s ma­chin­ery. Point­ing out that the Bharat­pur di­vi­sion and its ad­join­ing ar­eas have been BJP’S weak­est link dur­ing the re­cent As­sem­bly polls, Pi­lot says the Chief Min­is­ter is only try­ing to rebuild her party in an area that could sig­nif­i­cantly af­fect six par­lia­men­tary con­stituen­cies. How­ever, he doesn’t be­lieve Raje’s gam­ble will work.

Just a day af­ter Raje re­turned to the rel­a­tive com­fort of her of­fice and home in Jaipur, por­tions of a still-to-be-in­au­gu­rated bridge con­structed by the state-owned Ra­jasthan State Road De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion col­lapsed hours af­ter it opened for its first trial run on Fe­bru­ary 19. While this served as yet an­other in­stance of the cor­rup­tion dur­ing the pre­de­ces­sor Congress regime, Raje and her mantris will not have the con­ve­nience of such a cush­ion for fu­ture ven­tures.

Will her sec­ond term in of­fice bring re­demp­tion for the omis­sions of her first ten­ure? Watch this space.

Fol­low the writer on Twit­ter @Ro­hit0


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