Strict Vetting Process at Raje's 'Public' Hearings Leaves Many on the Wayside

The much-trumpeted about public hearings, where no one is allowed to enter without being screened, have been called a 'sham' by Rajasthan Congress chief Sachin Pilot.

Jaipur: It isn’t just Facebook that knows you inside out. Before being allowed into a public hearing conducted by Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, the state BJP is verifying all possible details to sniff out whether anyone attempting to gain entry has a “rebellious streak” of some sort, who, in their books, could pose trouble.

At these much-trumpeted about public hearings in Rajasthan’s Sikar district, especially meant for the aam aadmi to directly interact with the chief minister, the common man is left at the mercy of the party biggies who decide whether entry ought to be denied. Even something as small as owning a black handkerchief could see the owner barred from being able to participate.

This was the state of affairs at the recently held public hearings at Patan in Neem ka Thana, Khandela, Data Ramgarh and Sri Madhopur between April 6 and 10. All who attempted to gain entry were first screened by partymen and local MLAs before being allowed in to air their grievances, eyewitnesses and local media men told The Wire. Only when the partymen were satisfied that he/she would not create any trouble inside, were they being issued tokens or passes to go in.

“Such strict screening happened for the first time at a public hearing,” said Rajesh Vaishnav, a local reporter.

Mamraj, another eyewitness, said : “Let alone black flags, those wearing black clothes or even black handkerchiefs were stopped at the entry.”

The Congress, sitting in the opposition, has slammed the Raje government for the screening process and called the public hearings a “sham”. State Congress chief Sachin Pilot said common people with genuine problems were deliberately kept away from public hearings. Only those who would not ask uncomfortable questions were permitted inside the public hearings.

“It is discrimination in the name of public hearings. How can you call these as public hearings when no real public was actually allowed in? Only those who were their supporters were issued passes by partymen and government officials. Anyone who got an audience with Raje had the approval of the local MLAs. There was also an undeclared verification of whether the person was “theek thaak”, or was good enough for BJP. Only then did they gain entry into these public hearings,” Pilot told The Wire.

“Also, any kind of black cloth, may it be handkerchief, dupatta or shirt, were not allowed into the public hearings,” said Pilot. Sources say even a cameraman with black shirt was not allowed in.

The hearings, which last for just a little more than half an hour, saw around 250 people attend each session. But only four or five people were actually given a chance to directly speak to the chief minister. “Although Raje solved a few problems on the spot, the rest had to submit their complaints in writing to the officials.”

This defeats the very purpose of the meetings, After all, the Jan Sunwai (Public hearings) Yojna started off as an attempt to provide immediate relief to the common man when they could not get any reprieve from higher officials. The objective is to have direct interaction with the chief minister either through online applications or direct samvad (dialogue). It is aimed at providing equal hearing and justice to the common man.

Raje’s ambitious Sarkar Aapke Dwar programme, which took off in 2014 with the goal of going to the people to address their troubles instead of the other way around, took off well. The public hearings are an offshoot of the programme.

The unique initiative was introduced by Raje soon after she came to power in December 2013, in a bid to to win the trust of the people. Cabinet meetings, inspection of facilities, developmental issues of the region in different divisions of the state, are all part of the scheme. Raje had said the objective was to reach to the last man standing on the periphery who had been denied access to the administration since Independence.

But four-and-half years down the line, Raje seems to have forgotten that same last man on the periphery.  Instead, people were being screened, their credentials being checked before they got into her hearings. Even if one managed to get in, interacting with her directly was also a distant possibility because of the time factor.

Mamraj said: “Even a few BJP party workers were denied entry.”

Sources say the screenings may have been prompted by protesting farmers who had planned to gherao Raje on April 9 during her visit to Sri Madhopur in Sikar district.

The farmers in Rajasthan are protesting against the government’s failure to procure Rabi crops at minimum support price (MSP). While the state government has made arrangements to procure major crops, including wheat, at MSP, farmer unions have alleged that the designated centres for wheat were too less and it was not possible for those living in remote villages to access them.

Apart from the farmers unrest, the black flags that greeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Raje at the Jhunjhunu rally on March 8, likely also contributed to the involving the vetting process. At least 31 people were arrested from across Rajasthan and most are out on bail. Meanwhile, the Rajasthan high court has ordered that the probe be sped up.

So is Raje beginning to feel jittery? Or is it simply one way of ensuring there is no opposition around?

Political commentators say that it her “arrogance at play” and that her inaccessibility was one of the main reasons for her defeat in 2008. “She cannot stand any protest or demonstration against her. No local media has reported anything averse or about these unwanted screenings at public hearings barring one or two. Even in Ganganagar, she asked the protesting farmers to be humble if they wanted her to hear any of their problems.”

There have been an overwhelming number of complaints and grievances, more than one and a half lakh which have piled up over four years. Pilot said, “Every two months, I have been requesting the government to present a white paper on the number of complaints and the action taken on them, but there has been no response from their end as yet. By undertaking these so-called public hearings and yatras, Raje wants to send a message to Delhi that she is on the move.”

Apart from aam aadmi’s grievances, Raje has to confront the problems of rising lawlessness, unemployment, high-handedness of the gau rakshaks exemplified by the lynchings of Muslim cow traders and the inability of the police to rein them in, the government’s indifference to these horrific incidents, corruption and others as well.

Raje, who has been at the forefront of yatras since she began her foray into Rajasthan in 2002-03, was to undertake the Suraj Vikas Yatra from April 15 this year covering all the 200 constituencies in the run-up to the polls. But it has been put off for the moment.

Instead Raje is to undertake short three-four days visits, where she is slated to take feedback on her welfare scheme and interact with all castes and communities, religious leaders, party workers and public in general. The next round of meetings begin on April 13 and will see her visiting Dodh, Laxmangarh and Chomu in Sikar.

Raje, who won a landslide victory for BJP in 2013, is perhaps weary of negative feedback on the ground, more so on the back of three bypoll seat defeats. Congress trounced BJP in Ajmer and Alwar Lok Sabha seats and Assembly seat of Mandalgarh.

“It is definitely not so,” Jhabar Singh Khabr, MLA from Sri Madhopur told The Wire.

Admitting that the screening process did happen for those who came for the public hearings in Sri Madhopur, Jhabar said, “I allowed even those who were in protest mode. There would be all kinds of people, including those with rebellious traits, but we allowed them in. We had seven sessions, where veteran partymen, professionals, party mandal workers, booth level workers and public in general were allowed in. At least 2,750 people attended these sessions. Each session had around 450 people. In all, we received around 700 complaints, most about school and water supply. Some which can be solved at the district level, would be solved within 10-15 days, some need state’s attention. Some were solved by chief minister on the spot.”

Rakhee Roytalukdar is a freelance journalist based in Jaipur.