By Ragini Shree, Jaipur
The Congress is finding itself on a sticky ground over the Barmer refinery issue in western Rajasthan. What started as a personal tussle between Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Congress legislator Col (retd) Sonaram, a Jat leader, is taking shape of a mass movement in western district of the desert state with vast implications on Jat politics. Jats, who hold a huge electoral sway in state, are already not much happy with the Congress even though Pradesh Congress Committee president Dr Chandrabhan is himself a Jat.
In the last few days, dissent among Congress leaders has come to the fore in one way or the other. After protests by locals in Lilala area of Barmer over demand of shifting refinery from Pachpadra back to Lilala, state Revenue Minister Hemaram Chaudhary tendered his resignation while expressing his inability to stand by the peoples’ demand. On the other hand, state PWD Minister Bharat Singh offered not to contest next election terming the organisational structure as “inefficient”.
Politics over refinery started when the CM learnt that people in Lilala, where refinery was initially scheduled to come up, had bought huge chunks of land. MLA from Baytu constituency Sonaram, an avowed Gehlot baiter, could be one of the beneficiaries. Initially, the locals demanded exorbitant rates for their land but when government announced to shift it to Pachpadra, close to Jodhpur border, the locals were ready for negotiations.
The government, however, carried out survey at Pachpadra and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited for setting up green field refinery-cum-petrochemical complex in Pachpadra on a government land with an estimated cost of Rs 37,229 crore and scheduled to be set up in four years.
The decision did not go well with Lilala residents who intensified protest and demanded refinery back. Barmer bandh (closure) called by the Refinery Bachao Sangharsh Samiti on July 15 was attended by more than 9,000 people and the local intelligence agencies warned the state government of probable law and order problem over refinery issue.
Main opposition Bharatiya Janta Party had alleged that Congress leaders started massive land deals in Pachpadra, which is closer to Gehlot’s home town Jodhpur as compared to Barmer, and land was bought at throwaway prices through benami deals.
“Shifting of refinery from Lilala to Pachpadra was to serve two purposes. First, it was to kill the political career of Sonaram and second, it would lead to development in areas close to Jodhpur,” said a senior Congress leader who did not wish to be named.
BJP spokesperson Kailash Nath Bhatt said, “The decision shift refinery site was done with an aim to teach a lesson and settle political scores with some powerful leaders of Marwar region.” Bhatt hinted towards Sonaram without naming him.
Irked over the development, Sonaram told AICC general secretary and state Congress in-charge Guru Das Kamat that Gehlot was preparing political ground for his son Vaibhav Gehlot from Pachpadra in coming assembly or general elections. Gehlot obviously denied the charges by saying that his son was not to contest any election.
After this, Sonaram targeted the revenue minister and MLA from Gudhamalani constituency for not being able to safeguard interests of local farmers. Egged by the allegations, Chaudhary resigned on Wednesday and renounced government facilities accorded to a cabinet minister. “I resigned because I could not lie to people of my area. Let Sonaram bring back refinery if he can,” he said.
Gehlot has not accepted his resignation and the development is seen as his ploy to placate Jats. “It is a master stroke by Gehlot to contain resentment among Jats and to isolate Sonaram on the issue. But this may backfire in the coming elections as Jats are not very much impressed with Congress this time,” said a Congress office-bearer.
Jats have been raising demand for a chief minister from their caste and have been alleging less representation in the party executive. Moreover, incident of Bhanwari Devi murder in which Jat leader and cabinet minister Mahipal Maderna was arrested has also given rise to anti-Gehlot sentiments.
“If the Congress did not resolve the issue, it would lose the Jat vote bank. Congress is ignoring the Jat community in Marwar region which will be damaging for the party,” Sonaram alerted.
Meanwhile, Congress leaders have started bashing up Sonaram for instigating people and accused him of joining hands with the BJP. "Sonaram has joined hands with BJP. He has provided documents of land deals to state BJP president Vasundhara Raje after which she made allegations against Hemaram Choudhary,” alleged Madan Prajapat, Congress MLA from Pachpadra. He alleged Sonaram had provoked Lilala people to demand compensation of Rs 1 crore because of the refinery was shifted to Pachpadra.
Congress MP from Barmer, Harish Choudhary, who met protesting people at Lilala, said some leaders with vested interest were doing politics on developmental issues.
The BJP is trying to cash in the issue but is treading cautiously. Raje has accused Gehlot and his ministers of buying benami land in Pachpadra while ignoring plight of people in Lilala. However, the BJP has not been able to clarify its stand whether the refinery should be in Lilala or Pachpadra.
Coming back to another dissenter, PWD Minister Bharat Singh on July 22 told Kamat that he would not contest the assembly polls as the party had appointed officer-bearers without ground level knowledge and base. Singh, however, faced awkward situation when Kamat retorted there were “many more to replace him”. The next day Singh even termed a minister from Kota division as “thief”.