Modi's Maharani fights key Indian state election

Jodhpur (India) (AFP) –


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 as autocratic and out of touch of 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.

- Blue blood -

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 AFP that 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.

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 AFP.

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 AFP.

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 AFP.