Gearing up for the Rajasthan Assembly elections slated for December 2023, the principal Opposition, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has started focusing on the state’s eastern region where the party has suffered several setbacks in recent years. The recent immolation of a Bharatpur seer Vijay Das seems to have given the BJP a major issue for its renewed attempts to foray into eastern Rajasthan.
On July 20, Das had set himself on fire in Bharatpur’s Pasopa village while protesting against mining activities in the revered hills of Aadibadri and Kankanchal there. He was rushed to a Jaipur hospital and then shifted to a Delhi hospital, where he passed away on July 23. He had been holding the protest along with some other sadhus for nearly 15 months.
Close on the heels of the seer’s death, the BJP’s national president J P Nadda constituted on July 23 itself a team of four party MPs, led by party general secretary in-charge of Rajasthan affairs Arun Singh, for a mission to visit the Bharatpur spot and prepare a report on the incident. The team, which also comprised of Sumedhanand Saraswati, the ex-Mumbai Police commissioner Satya Pal Singh and former Uttar Pradesh DGP Brij Lal, visited Bharatpur on July 24. Based on its report, the BJP has demanded a CBI inquiry into “illegal mining” in Bharatpur, alleging the involvement of the Ashok Gehlot-led Congress government’s ministers and officials in it that led to, the party charged, Das’s “sacrifice”.
Currently, the BJP does not have any MLA from five eastern-most districts of Rajasthan — Bharatpur, Sawai Madhopur, Dholpur, Karauli and Dausa. The Congress swept these districts in the 2018 polls, winning 20 seats. The BJP’s lone MLA from the region, Shobharani Kushwah, was recently expelled from the party following her “rebellion” during the Rajya Sabha polls, when she cross-voted in favour of Congress candidate Pramod Tiwari. The remaining three MLAs from the region include the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD)’s Subhash Garg, who is a minister in the Gehlot government, and two Independents who are backing it.
As part of the BJP’s attempts to retrieve its lost ground in eastern Rajasthan, Nadda had himself visited Sawai Madhopur in April to attend a programme organised by the party’s ST Morcha, with the party eyeing the sizeable tribal voters in the belt.
However, in a bid to retain the Congress’s hold on the region, the Gehlot government has kept pushing for the Eastern Rajasthan Canal Project (ERCP) since it came to power, managing to make it a key issue there. The ambitious ERCP project worth over Rs 37,000 crore is aimed at ensuring availability of drinking water and irrigation facilities in 13 districts of eastern Rajasthan.
Continuing to demand the national project status for the ERCP, the Gehlot dispensation has maintained that in his public rallies at Jaipur and Ajmer in the run-up to the 2018 Assembly polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had mentioned the ERCP and had even given assurance at the Jaipur rally that the Centre would have a “positive” approach towards this demand. The state was then ruled by Vasundhara Raje-led BJP.
The BJP has however disputed such claims, with the row touching a flashpoint in April this year, when Rajasthan’s public health engineering department (PHED) minister Mahesh Joshi had a public spat with Union jal shakti minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat at a regional conference of states and Union Territories on the Jal Jeevan Mission and Swachh Bharat Mission in Jaipur.
Shekhawat, the Jodhpur MP, had then claimed that at his Jaipur rally PM Modi had merely said a proposal seeking national status for the ERCP was received and that the latter had not uttered a single word about the ERCP at his Ajmer rally. Shekhawat had also said that both Joshi and Gehlot should leave politics if they were wrong, or he will quit politics if he is proved wrong. Days later, the Congress hit the roads in the 13 eastern districts attacking Shekhawat and asking him to make good on his dare and resign, asserting that his claims were “factually wrong”.
Locally, the BJP leaders have had to face protests too over the ERCP. In May, Vikram Singh Meena, state president of BKU (Yuva Morcha), climbed atop the party’s Karauli–Dholpur MP Manoj Rajoria’s car over the issue.
The BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP Kirodi Lal Meena had announced a rally on the ERCP issue in Dausa on July 10 with Shekhawat as its main speaker, but called it off apparently due to lack of support for it from the party.
With the BJP already accusing the Congress of playing “appeasement politics”, the self-immolation of an anti-mining seer protester would give it potent ammunition against the Gehlot government in the coming days. Attacking the Congress government, senior state BJP leaders, including ex-CM Vasundhara Raje and state party chief Satish Poonia, have already blamed it for Das’s death while accusing it of allegedly shielding the mining mafia in the state. To take on the BJP in the eastern region, Gehlot is set to turn up the heat on the saffron party over the ERCP.