Modi's Ma­ha­rani fights key In­dian state elec­tion

Daily Messenger - - International -

JODH­PUR: The In­dian state of Ra­jasthan voted Fri­day in an elec­tion that is a key test for Prime Minister Naren­dra Modi, with a lo­cal princess rep­re­sent­ing his party fac­ing a tough fight to stay in power.

The vote in the west­ern state fa­mous for its palaces, forts and deserts, home to 47 mil­lion peo­ple, is one of five state elec­tions be­fore Modi runs for a sec­ond term in na­tional polls in 2019.

Re­sults from Ra­jasthan, as well as for Te­lan­gana, also vot­ing on Fri­day, plus from Mad­hya Pradesh, Ch­hat­tis­garh and Mi­zo­ram -- which have al­ready cast bal­lots -- will be pub­lished on De­cem­ber 11.

The most closely watched will be the cen­tral state of Mad­hya Pradesh, where 73 mil­lion peo­ple live, which polls sug­gest Modi’s BJP might suf­fer a bit­ter de­feat af­ter 15 years in power.

The con­tests are seen as a dry run for 2019, with Modi and his likely ri­val from the Congress party, Rahul Gandhi - - scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dy­nasty -- both cam­paign­ing ac­tively.

Va­sund­hara Raje, Ra­jasthan’s chief minister and a charis­matic "Ma­ha­rani" or fe­male Ma­haraja rep­re­sent­ing Modi’s BJP, swept to power in a land­slide in 2013.

But her per­sonal pop­u­lar­ity has waned, with crit­ics call­ing her au­to­cratic and out of touch with the in­ter­ests of or­di­nary peo­ple. Her gov­ern­ment has also been crit­i­cised for her han­dling of caste protests and for fail­ing to boost in­vest­ment and cre­ate jobs.

Ra­jasthan is one of In­dia’s few re­gions where lo­cal royal fam­i­lies go­ing back cen­turies -and out­last­ing Bri­tish rule -have suc­cess­fully tran­si­tioned to demo­cratic pol­i­tics since In­dia’s in­de­pen­dence in 1947.

Raje, 65, is the daugh­ter of a for­mer Ma­haraja who mar­ried an erst­while ruler of an­other dy­nasty. Her main chal­lenger in her con­stituency is Man­ven­dra Singh, an­other blue blood from a fam­ily in west­ern Ra­jasthan.

Ay­o­d­hya Prasad Gaur, au­thor of a book on one of the state’s lead­ing royal fam­i­lies, told that the no­bil­ity’s pop­u­lar­ity had to do with their "perma- nence" com­pared to or­di­nary politi­cians who just "come and go".

"The erst­while rulers of Jodh­pur still re­ceive a wed­ding in­vite -- just like kings of earli- er times -- from hun­dreds if not thou­sands of peo­ple in the re­gion each year. And they main­tain that re­la­tion­ship by send­ing a to­ken amount as a gift for ev­ery in­vite they re­ceive," Gaur told .

Raj Singh, a voter in the city of Bikaner, around 210 miles (340 kilo­me­tres) from the state cap­i­tal Jaipur, said he voted for Sid­dhi Ku­mari, an­other princess, in the last two elec­tions. "Un­like or­di­nary politi­cians, (roy­als) won’t in­dulge in lo­cal schemes to make money or shield crim­i­nals as that could tar­nish the fam­ily name," he told . But Ku­mari, who re­mains per­son­ally pop­u­lar af­ter two con­sec­u­tive wins and is treated by many with a def­er­ence not af­forded to her com­moner ri­vals, is locked in her tough­est bat­tle yet as the BJP’s face.

"I don’t take the peo­ple’s trust in me or the fam­ily I come from lightly. But the trust that is there has to be earned ev­ery day. I take it very se­ri­ously and work ev­ery day," she told .

Ku­mari lives in one wing of an an­ces­tral palace in Bikaner. The rest, its walls dec­o­rated with fam­ily por­traits and stuffed heads of hunted an­i­mals, has been con­verted into a ho­tel.

"I do my work and go. No one needs to know (me) apart from my work," Ku­mari said.

"Fam­ily name only works in the first elec­tion," cau­tioned Vishven­dra Singh, a Congress law­maker run­ning in the state elec­tion from the erst­while royal fam­ily of Bharat­pur, around 115 miles (190 kilo­me­tres) from Jaipur.

"I have been in pol­i­tics for three decades and have been elected mul­ti­ple times as par­lia­men­tar­ian and a state law­maker. I am in con­stant touch with the peo­ple, meet ev­ery­one and that is what works in pol­i­tics," he told .

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