Caste cauldron in poll-bound Rajasthan: Jats weigh options, Congress ropes in Rajput leader to woo community

In Rajasthan’s politics, several sets of castes are like Rudyard Kipling’s East and West— opposite ends that are destined to never meet. This year's Assembly election is likely to yet again showcase the deep fault lines between these communities.

In the context of the elections scheduled for December, four castes have acquired importance: Jats, Rajputs, Gurjars, and Meenas. Their interplay and rivalry are coming to the fore as the polling day approaches — best underlined by Manvendra Singh’s decision to join the Congress, and Meena heavyweight Kirori Lal’s attack on Congress chief Sachin Pilot.

Jats and Rajputs have been traditional political rivals in major parts of Rajasthan. Since the two never had a common meeting ground, they generally supported rival political parties in Rajasthan.

 Caste cauldron in poll-bound Rajasthan: Jats weigh options, Congress ropes in Rajput leader to woo community

Hanuman Beniwal, Manvendra Singh, and Kirori Lal.

Traditionally, Jats were considered loyal to the Congress, while Rajputs supported the Opposition — first the Swatantra Party and later the BJP. However, this year, the Jats are weighing several options, one of them being Hanuman Beniwal, a firebrand youth leader from the community who can influence community voters in western Rajasthan.

Beniwal is a bit of a maverick with a sharp tongue. In the past, he has fought bitter battles against both the BJP and the Congress. On 29 October, he is slated to hold a show of strength in Jaipur, where he is expected to announce details about his new party and its coalition partners. Both the BJP and the Congress are watching Beniwal with anxiety since his proposed party could be the third force in several parts of the state.

To counter his influence, the Congress has made its first move — that of inducting Rajput leader Manvendra Singh.

Singh’s family can influence several constituencies in western Rajasthan, where Beniwal is also a force to reckon with, and, thus, make up for the loss of Jat votes in the region. And since the Rajputs are already said to be unhappy with the BJP for their marginalisation, Singh’s entry may further help the Congress hardsell itself to the community.

The challenge, of course, would be to ensure the gains from wooing Rajputs are politically much more than the potential loss of Jat votes. In western Rajasthan, where Jats are in sizable numbers and vote en bloc, this may be one of the decisive moves on the poll chessboard.

The Congress might be getting ready for a scenario, where mobilisation by a powerful community leads to a counter movement by other communities threatened by the aggressive rise of the former.

In this case, the Congress is hoping the rise of Beniwal — and with him, the Jats — would help it bring together Muslims, Rajputs, and Brahmins votes.

The other rivalry that seems to be blossoming is that of Gurjars and Meenas, two castes that fight for the same political space in eastern Rajasthan and areas around Jaipur. On Wednesday, Meena strongman Kirori Lal, who recently returned to the BJP, tried to stoke the old rivalry by targetting Pilot, a Gurjar.

Kirori asked the Rajasthan Congress chief to clear his stand on the Gurjar demand for inclusion among Scheduled Tribes (STs). Since Meenas are the biggest beneficiaries of the quota benefits extended to STs and Gurjars have been demanding similar benefits, the two communities see each other as rivals.

Kirori’s ploy is simple: Raise the fear of a Gurjar chief minister, and mobilise the Meenas against the Congress.

As he lost most of his political equity with his frequent flip flops during the past two elections, it is not certain if the Meenas still listen to him. But, Kirori's effort to play the 'Gurjar versus Meena' game will force the Congress to tread with caution.

Meenas are not only politically significant in eastern Rajasthan, they are also seen as a martial community that controls voting behavior in villages. Again, like in western Rajasthan, threat of a Meena resurgence can lead to counter polarisation among other castes. How the equations shape up will determine the outcome of the election in the region.

Historically, castes have played an important role in Rajasthan’s politics, except in wave elections. Jats and Rajputs voted for the same party for the first time perhaps only in 1989, when Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and Chaudhary Devi Lal spearheaded the campaign against the Congress, following an alliance between the BJP and VP Singh’s Janata Dal. In 2013-14, the Narendra Modi wave also demolished the caste barriers and helped the BJP sweep the state.

This year, an undercurrent of anti-incumbency is palpable in Rajasthan. If it gathers momentum during the campaign, caste arithmetic may become largely insignificant. If not, it could play a major role.

One thing, however, is certain: Hindutva is no longer an issue in the state. Caste is the kingmaker again.

Updated Date: Oct 18, 2018 21:43:53 IST