Milk vendor, sarpanch, rebel, CM: Bhajan Lal Sharma’s journey to Rajasthan’s top post

Like MP and Chhattisgarh, the BJP picked a ‘new face’ in Sharma, skipping over Vasundhara Raje.

WrittenBy:Shivnarayan Rajpurohit
Bhajan Lal Sharma, the new CM of Rajasthan, with Vasundhara Raje in the background.

A viral video on social media shows Vasundhara Raje, former BJP chief minister of Rajasthan, at a party legislature meeting in Jaipur. Sitting next to union minister Rajnath Singh, the party observer for Rajasthan, she opens a slip of paper that he hands to her.

Raje looks taken aback by its contents — the script of which was written in Delhi.

That piece of paper allegedly had the name of Rajasthan’s new CM, Bhajan Lal Sharma, announced by the party on December 12. Raje proposed his name at this meeting, and then accompanied Sharma and other senior leaders to meet governor Kalraj Mishra and stake claim to form the government. 

Sharma, 56, is a first-time MLA who won from Sanganer constituency in Jaipur by 48,081 votes. He’s the second Brahmin CM in Rajasthan in 33 years after Congress’s Haridev Joshi. He will have two deputies – Diya Kumar, a Rajput, and Prerchand Bairwa, a Dalit – while Vasudev Devnani will be speaker.

Before his candidature from Sanganer, Sharma was a familiar face at press conferences, often introducing speakers or checking arrangements. Chosen as the state BJP’s general secretary for the fourth time before the assembly polls, he would hold meetings across the state, and also oversaw arrangements of public meetings for Home Minister Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

Sharma accompanied BJP national president JP Nadda to the holy site of Giriraj Ji Maharaj, according to Sher Singh, vice-president of BJP Bharatpur. He’s also said to be close to party president CP Joshi and state general secretary (organisation) Chandrashekhar.

He will take oath as Rajasthan’s fourteenth CM on December 15.

Milkman to sarpanch

Born in Atari village in Bharatpur district, Sharma is described as a “simple and righteous” man by friends and party colleagues. He’s the only son and his father, Kishan Swaroop Sharma, is a farmer who owns 25 bighas of land in Atari.

A day before counting of votes, Sharma visited Atari and sought blessings from elders, said Om Prakash Jatav, a farmer in the village.

Sharma’s schooling took place in Atari and Gangwana villages and Nanbai tehsil, all in Bharatpur. A note shared by the BJP with journalists said, “After completing his primary education in Atari, he came to Nadbai for secondary education and got in touch with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.” The ABVP is the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Schooling done, Sharma enrolled in MSJ College in Bharatpur and graduated in 1989. He was already a BJP member at this point – according to Rakesh Sharma, president of Nanbai BJP (rural), he and Bhajan Lal had joined the party in 1984.

The family depended on agriculture and milk for their livelihood. After Bhajan Lal finished college, he helped out. 

“He would collect milk from his village and sell it to a dairy in Bharatpur,” said his uncle Maniram Sharma, a retired teacher in Atari. “This continued for seven or eight years until he was given bigger responsibilities by the BJP.”

In 1990, Bhajan Lal took part in a “Kashmir march”. He went to Udhampur in Jammu and Kashmir and courted arrest with 100 BJP workers. He was also jailed for participating in the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation in 1992. 

In the early 1990s, he served with the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha in Bharatpur in various capacities. He got on well with Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, who was then the state president of the BJYM. Bhajan Lal, as district president of the BJYM in Bharatpur, would campaign with Birla during elections and take on organisational work for the party.

At this time, Sharma would also often travel to Kota, where Birla lived. 

“At the time, I was posted at a school in Kota,” said his uncle Maniram. “He would come to the city and stay with me. In the morning, he would leave for Om Birla’s house. Bhajan Lal and Om Birla would campaign together during the assembly elections.”

First tryst with elections

In 2000, Sharma contested his first election – a panchayat poll. He won, and became sarpanch of Atari gram sabha. Three years later, the BJP denied him a ticket from Nadbai during the assembly polls. So, Sharma quit and fought on the lock-and-key symbol of a new party, the Rajasthan Samajik Nyay Manch, which had been floated by Devi Singh Bhati and Lokendra Singh Kalvi. 

“He did not tell us that he was denied a ticket by the BJP,” Bhati, a seven-time MLA from Bikaner’s Kolayat, told Newslaundry. “But he did say this to me: ‘Since reservation is the goal of the party, I will fight this battle.’” The RSNM’s main poll plank then was reservation for economically weaker sections.

The Nadbai seat was eventually won by an independent candidate named Krishnendra Kaur. The BJP candidate came fourth with 13,949 votes and Sharma came fifth with 5,969 votes. The RSNM won only one seat in the polls. Bhati, considered a Raje loyalist, rejoined the BJP this September. This election, his grandson Anshuman Singh Bhati won from Kolayat in Bikaner on a BJP ticket. 

Back to Sharma. According to state BJP spokesperson Laxmikant Bhardwaj, a few days after the results, he rejoined the party. When his five-year stint as sarpanch ended, his wife Geeta became a member of the Bharatpur panchayat samiti. The family moved to Bharatpur in 2005.  

While his parents continue to live in Bharatpur, Sharma lives with his wife and two sons in Jaipur’s Malviya Nagar. He has two sons – one is a doctor, the other is preparing for government jobs. 

Signs of new face

During polling in Rajasthan, there were hints that Raje would be bypassed for a new face. She wasn’t included in two key poll panels. Later, when the results were announced, over 50 MLAs met her at her Jaipur residence in an apparent show of strength. 

Meanwhile, the BJP announced two new faces as CM in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh – Vishnu Deo Sai, a tribal, and Mohan Yadav, an OBC. 

While it was likely the BJP would pick a new face in Rajasthan too, Modi-Shah still proved all speculation wrong by choosing Sharma, a first-time MLA. In a group photo of BJP MLAs at the legislature meeting, Sharma was almost invisible in the last row.

But in hindsight, perhaps the central leadership had always eyed Sharma as their candidate. He was asked to fight from Sanganer, a BJP bastion, instead of his preferred seats in Bharatpur or Nanbai. In Sanganer, which the BJP hasn’t lost since 2003, the party also denied a ticket to its sitting MLA Ashok Lahoty, an aide of Raje. While Sharma won from Sanganer, Bharatpur was won by Subash Garg from the Rashtriya Lok Dal, a Congress ally, and Nadbai by the BJP.

The same pattern played out for Diya Kumari, now one of the deputy CMs of Rajasthan. A Lok Sabha MP from Rajsamand, she was fielded from Vidhyadhar Nagar. The latter was represented by BJP’s Narpat Singh Rajvi, son-in-law of former CM Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, and confidante of Raje.

For now, Sharma’s immediate challenge might be to keep the BJP flock together and shut down any signs of rebellion from heavyweights like Raje. But Devi Singh Bhati told Newslaundry this isn’t likely to be the case.

“The BJP is not a regional party such as SP, BSP or RJD where brothers fight each other,” he said. “On the contrary, the BJP is a cadre-based party. The party must have talked to her [Raje] and pacified her. That’s why she proposed Bhajan Lal’s name.”

But was he surprised at Raje’s rejection? Bhati said he had supported Raje even when he wasn’t in the BJP.

“When I rejoined the party, we were given this assurance [that she would become CM],” he said. “After rejoining the party, we don’t think that way anymore. We are disciplined workers of the party.”

Sher Singh, the vice-president of the BJP in Bharatpur, said Sharma’s elevation will encourage party workers.

“This means that anyone who works hard can become CM,” he said. “The BJP is the only party which can recognise such talent and hard work.”

Newslaundry asked Rajasthan journalist Avinash Kalla whether the BJP’s push for new faces in the three states is an attempt to centralise power.

“Why are you using the word attempt? It’s blatant,” Kalla replied. “It would not be wrong to say that the capital of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh is New Delhi. There is nothing left in Jaipur. Today, Jaipur has been bombarded with posters of Bhajan Lal to inform people that he is the new chief minister.”

Kalla added a caveat about first-timers who were “unconventional” politicians: “There is nothing wrong in choosing a first-time MLA. Look at Ashok Gehlot. He became chief minister [i 1998] when he was not even an MLA. He has had an ever-lasting impact on the Congress party because his politics was different. Narendra Modi became Gujarat chief minister when he was not MLA. Vasundhara Raje was a first-time MLA, though she had served in the union ministry before that.”

He added that the BJP may have its task cut out in winning all 25 Lok Sabha seats in the general elections. “It can happen only if the Congress gets its act together.”

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