Newsmaker: Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje's self-goal

One morning, Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje came across a newspaper article about a successful water conservation project in Maharashtra’s drought-hit areas. She immediately asked her officers to explore the possibility of replicating those techniques in Rajasthan’s drought-prone areas. Thus, Raje’s morning newspaper-reading habit resulted in her launching the ambitious Mukhya Mantri Jal Swavlamban Abhiyan scheme on the second anniversary of her swearing-in ceremony as state chief minister on December 13, 2015. Raje’s water conservation scheme is believed to have benefited people in 7,500 villages, where water bodies were either being created or repaired to harvest the rain-water. 

Big initiatives of this kind have marked Raje’s second innings as chief minister.  Some of her reforms have received wide-appreciation from all quarters including industrialists, policymakers and economists, and people close to Raje, 69, say the chief minister doesn’t shy away from borrowing successful ideas from different states.

But not all the borrowed ideas have enjoyed the same success, not least the recent headline-grabbing Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Ordinance, 2017, under which the Raje government intended to restrict the power of the judiciary and prevent the media from reporting cases of allegations against those serving in the state government. 

It can be assumed that Raje borrowed this idea again from Maharashtra, which had passed a similar Code of Criminal Procedure (Maharashtra Amendment) Act, 2015. Perhaps she hit on the idea after reading about it in the newspapers, since no one in the government has come forward to accept the blame of the fallout. 

Maharashtra, which is also ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is the only state to have such a law, but it is less restrictive than Raje’s version.  Under the Maharashtra Act, the time frame for granting a sanction to register a case against government officer is kept at 90 days, compared with 180 days in Rajasthan. Unlike Rajasthan, the Maharashtra Act doesn’t restrict the media from reporting the allegations against any magistrate or government official.

So why did Raje take a step ahead and pass this draconian ordinance  that has been sent to the state select committee after an uproar from the Congress and the BJP’s own legislators? Moreover, even the draft Bill, the Criminal Laws (Rajasthan Amendment) Bill, which was tabled in the House earlier this week, has now been put into cold storage. People close to Raje say the ordinance has been in the works for the past six months and only a few people were kept in the loop when it was being drafted. The state government notified the ordinance after it was vetted by the Union home and law ministries. 

“The ordinance was brought to break the growing nexus between media, politicians and activists. The nexus is engaged in blackmailing activities. There is not a single bureaucrat in the state who has not received some sort of a threat of a false case. Many middle-rung officials have stopped taking decisions or are simply not signing the files,” an officer tries to explain the rationale for the move. The officer’s views were independently supported by serving and retired officials belonging to the Rajasthan cadre. 

The state government, too, tried to defend its ordinance with data. It said the incidents, for which the First Information Report (FIR) was registered, were fictitious in more than 70 per cent of the cases in the past five years. Such false cases wasted the exchequer’s time and resources. “In more than 73 per cent of the cases people were wrongly defamed. They had to bear mental trauma and approach higher judiciary”.

Manish Godha, a Jaipur-based senior journalist, says it was a fact that the number of cases registered through a magistrate order under Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) section 156 (3) has increased in the past few years in Rajasthan. “The frequency of such cases increase during  elections or when some official is about to be promoted,” Godha says, recalling a case of a senior Rajasthan-cadre officer who had to face an inquiry in Rajasthan upon his elevation in the Union government. 

That’s one explanation. Those who closely track Rajasthan, however, blame Raje for her authoritative approach to governance, including her relations with the media. “Unlike her predecessor Ashok Gehlot, Raje doesn’t enjoy cordial relations with the state media. She is barely accessible to them and has  soured her relations with one of the biggest media houses headquartered in Jaipur. She stopped all state government advertisements to that publishing house. The publishing house also launched a campaign against the state government. Any chief minister would like to avoid negative publicity in the election year,” says the government official quoted above. 

The stakes for Raje are high because it is an open secret that she wants to be in the list of BJP chief ministers  to  have  won consecutive terms in the state and be taken more seriously by the party high command. Although she has reportedly patched up her differences with senior BJP brass, including party president Amit Shah, she continues to remain inaccessible to most party legislators. She is often criticised for taking decisions without keeping her senior ministers in confidence. There is a group of BJP MLAs who are permanently opposed to her and miss no opportunity to embarrass her. 

Raje’s public image has also taken a beating because some of her decisions — such as allowing private players to run state schools and setting up primary health care centres on public-partnership model —have not gone down well with party workers and activists. A gag ordinance would certainly not have helped her cause.