Rani on the Road to Redemption
Vasundhara Raje takes her government to the state’s most backward villages.
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
RAJE IN FARIYAVILLAGE, SAWAI MADHOPUR DISTRICT, ON FEBRUARY16
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.
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RAJE SHARES AMEALWITH AFAMILY IN FARIYA