Rajasthan Assembly Polls: RSS-BJP 'Rift' in Bhilwara; Candidate with RSS Backing Brands Election as 'War of Dharma'
Bhilwara: As shocking as it seems, there is a clear battle underway between the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Vitthal Shankar Awasthi and the so-called independent rebel face Ashok Kothari – a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) activist – for the Assembly elections. Within the district, there has been widespread discontent for the three-time MLA Awasthi for various reasons, and his work is not deemed a priority, according to the citizens and workers in the RSS that NewsClick spoke to from across the town.
Awasthi comes from a different tehsil and was senior BJP leader Vasundhara Raje’s personal choice 15 years ago to fight the elections from the Bhilwara seat. He has secured three long terms since then, banking on the Brahmin votes – constituting the majority in the constituency.
However, around this time, traders, shopkeepers, and every businessman in the city seem to have picked Kothari as their preferred candidate. Given the fact that the candidate runs a textile business himself and also fits into the ideological parameters of Hindutva, he has garnered support from citizens and backing from the RSS.
In a conversation with NewsClick, Kothari claimed that in previous polls, he had been asked by the party to fight the elections, but he refused due to personal reasons. This time, he felt prepared and wanted to enter mainstream politics.
A member of the RSS told NewsClick, “We wanted someone who would represent ‘dharma (religion)’ and have a clean image over anything else. Kothari calls himself and is known to be a ‘gau sevak (cow helper)’ across the city. He helped people in the dairy business during the lumpy disease crisis as well. He fights and takes a strong stand for religion.”
As much as the portrayal of Kothari suggests that he is a worshiper and advocate for cows, the story of Bhilwara has much more to reveal. It is a place where the Bajrang Dal and other right-wing Hindutva outfits have played a significant role. There have been at least two major incidents in recent times where cow vigilantes have set fire to a truck, alleging cow smuggling, while the police found otherwise. This, coupled with the popular image of Kothari, indicates that cow politics in the area has overshadowed other issues.
According to those in the know, long before Awasthi’s candidacy was announced by the saffron party, a team of workers from the RSS and the BJP had paid a visit to the party’s state headquarters in Jaipur asking for Kothari's candidacy. However, the final list said otherwise, which led to an internal conflict between the RSS and its political arm BJP.
Kothari, speaking to NewsClick, denied being a part of the RSS, but his social media profile tells a different tale, He says he wanted to fight independently, but the campaign and social media profile speak for themselves. If one were to visit Kothari’s Facebook page, where he has over 3,000 followers, it becomes evident that the campaign primarily highlights the RSS’s support for him over Awasthi.
On the day Kothari spoke with NewsClick, he was earlier seen campaigning at the RSS office in Ashok Nagar. On Diwali evening, he was seen celebrating with Bhagwan Singh Chauhan, an RSS member who has been vocal about the conflict between the party and the Sangh. In one of Chauhan’s recent posts, the caption reads: “Sangh never allows anyone to politicise the citizens in the name of RSS. However, it does stop people like Vitthal Awasthi from using its name for the wrong reasons. In the past three Assembly elections, it was the Swayamsevaks (RSS members) who brought the voters to Awasthi’s side.”
The platform of ideology, or 'Vichaar Manch,' is the name Kothari has chosen for this election. The message conveyed is that, although he is not affiliated with any political party, he opts to contest the elections in the name of a movement. The name itself appears to send a clear message. Furthermore, the registration of workers for Kothari’s campaign is conducted under a board that states, “All those Dharma Rakshaks (protectors of dharma) who wish to participate in this ‘War of Dharma’ must register here.”
A sitting BJP councillor, who wishes to remain unnamed, is in charge of 19 other councillors and currently supports Awasthi. For him, the party comes first. The councillor shared some insights, revealing that the dissent is not only confined between the Sangh and the BJP but has extended further, reaching as low as the booth-level workers and post holders of the BJP. As the election dates approached, some individuals from the BJP decided to leave the party and join Kothari instead. This includes the social media head of the party, the former district president of the party, and several others.
The impact of the dissent was significant, leading to a visit from two Union ministers, Prahlad Joshi, the sitting minister of parliamentary affairs, and Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, heading the Jal Shakti ministry. They aimed to find a compromise and convince Kothari to step down, but their efforts were unsuccessful.
Speaking to NewsClick, Ladu Lal Teli, the former district president of the party who relinquished his post just three months ago and aligned with Kothari, confirmed the meeting with Cabinet ministers and detailed the attempt to persuade Kothari to step down and resolve the conflict. He also expressed the view that the BJP and RSS are two distinct organisations and could support different leaders if necessary.
In one of its recent developments, as revealed by the same sitting councillor, several more members of the BJP were shifting allegiance to the Kothari camp. In response to this, he demonstrated how the entire list of the party’s polling booth in-charges was changed, fearing a compromise against the BJP. Additionally, the party is hopeful that the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Bhilwara on November 22, just before the scheduled polls on the 25th of this month, will turn the tide in their favour.
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