Modi's maharani fights key Indian state election

Bhuvan BAGGA
1 / 5
Vasundhara Raje (centre) is the daughter of a former maharaja who married an erstwhile ruler of another dynasty

An Indian princess allied to Prime Minister Narendra Modi faced a tough battle for re-election on Friday as the hard-fought desert state of Rajasthan went to the polls.

Defeat for Vasundhara Raje, Rajasthan's chief minister, in the western state of 47 million people would be a blow for Modi's image as a surefire vote-winner ahead of general elections in 2019.

That the charismatic but fiery Raje is a maharani, or princess, is nothing unusual in Rajasthan, a state famous for its forts and grand palaces with peacock-filled lawns.

It is one of India's few regions where the local royal families going back centuries -- and outlasting British rule -- have flourished in democratic politics since independence in 1947.

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

Another is Siddhi Kumari, also a princess and a two-time state lawmaker who lives in a wing of her ancestral palace in Bikaner around 340 kilometres (210 miles) from the state capital Jaipur.

The rest, its walls decorated with family portraits of resplendent kings, queens and princes of yore and mounted heads of hunted beasts, has been converted into a hotel.

"I do my work and go. No one needs to know (me) apart from my work," said Kumari, 45, perched on a sofa next to a stuffed leopard.

"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 AFP.

Ayodhya Prasad Gaur, author of a book on one of the state's leading royal families, said the nobility's popularity had to do with their "permanence" compared to ordinary politicians who just "come and go".

"The erstwhile rulers of Jodhpur still receive a wedding invite -- just like kings of earlier 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 AFP.

"Family name only works in the first election," cautioned Vishvendra Singh however, a Congress lawmaker running in the state election from the erstwhile royal family of Bharatpur, around 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 AFP.

- 'Aloof and autocratic' -

Raj Singh, a voter in Bikaner, said he voted for Kumari 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 AFP.

State premier Raje, representing Modi's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), swept to power in a landslide in 2013, much like Modi did nationally a year later.

But her personal popularity has waned, with critics calling her aloof and autocratic and out of touch with the interests of ordinary people. Like Modi, she never holds press conferences.

Her government's handling of caste protests and problems boosting investment and creating jobs have also gone down badly with voters.

"There are so many things that were promised but not delivered," said Shiv Prakash, a voter in Jodhpur.

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 likely be published on December 11.

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.

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