Rajasthan Vidhan Sabha election: Changing caste equations upset Congress and BJP's plans in Barmer-Jaisalmer region

Driving on the 250-kilometre Jodhpur-Jaisalmer highway that runs through the Thar Desert, you will come across some fascinating names for villages. There is an entire family of them, literally, with names like Baap (father), Chacha (uncle), Kudi (Punjabi for girl), Jhootha (liar), Gelawas (abode of idiots), Lathi (stick), Dechu (the onomatopoeic cry of donkeys) and Suwar (pig).

Legend has it that these painful names are a result of Brahminical conspiracy. When the literati of the area wanted to malign a group of people, they chose the most absurd names for their villages. And, tragically, the names got stuck in popular culture and revenue records.

Some of the villagers actually corrected the historical wrongs by going global, literally. A bunch of them rechristened their settlement as America, a name they chose to replace the original, which is considered both unmentionable—thus unprintable—and unlucky.

In a region where the names are so fascinating and intriguing, the political talk is even more entertaining and conspiratorial. There are complicated plots—BJP vs Congress; subplots—Jats vs Rajputs, Muslims vs Meghwals; side stories of revenge—Manvendra Singh vs Vasundhara Raje; and the engrossing narrative of one faith competing against the other through its fakirs and gurus. In essence, the politics of Barmer-Jaisalmer is a typical potboiler with all the essential ingredients of Indian polity.

File image of Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje. PTI

File image of Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje. PTI

This is, perhaps, one of the few regions in India where the so-called upper castes—Brahmins and traders—are a minority. The population in these two districts is dominated by Rajputs, Muslims, Jats and Meghwals (a Scheduled Caste). The reason is simple: The hard terrain sustains only those willing to work hard in the fields or rear cattle. For the rest, this is an inclement terrain.

These four communities—Muslims, Jats, Rajputs and Meghwals—thus decide the outcome of almost every election. If any three of them unite, they contribute to a clean sweep by a party. If there is a vertical split, it leads to a close contest, which is what is unfolding in the 2018 Assembly elections.

There are nine Vidhan Sabha seats in Barmer-Jaisalmer. On each one of them, Rajputs, Jats, Muslims and Meghwals are fighting with each other for every vote, giving the Congress and the BJP a fair shot at most of the seats. And, this close fight is a fascinating denouement of the drama of caste politics that played out in what is referred to by the Indian army as India’s western theatre.

The best laid plans of politicians often go awry. For five years, starting with the marginalisation of Jaswant Singh, the BJP wooed the Jats of Marwar (western Rajasthan). To its shock and surprise, it is now watching a third player—local Jat heavyweight Hanuman Beniwal—snare a large number of Jat votes.

The Congress, concerned by the BJP carrot for Jats, tried to lasso the rival Rajputs. It even managed to pocket Manvendra Singh, son of Jaswant Singh and scion of the most influential Rajput family in the region, before the elections. However, Rajputs are not expected to desert the BJP altogether, bound by their decade-old loyalty to the party. To the discomfiture of the Congress, some Jats are now supporting the BJP because of the party’s coquettish overtures towards the Rajputs.

So, the BJP tried to attract Jats, who ultimately turned out to be “disloyal” and joined Beniwal. The Congress tried to woo Rajputs, who after pledging fealty, went back to the BJP. As a result, both parties are wary of the result.

Caste, as you can surmise, is the king here. There is ideology, poll philosophy or chemistry. The only factor that’s going to decide the outcome is arithmetic. Some of it works against the Congress because of former chief minister Ashok Gehlot, whom the Jats do not want to see as the next chief minister. Marwar is Gehlot’s backyard, so the political envy against him works the maximum here.

The BJP is trying to address both caste and Hindutva factors. It is sending Narendra Modi, Yogi Adityanath, Rajnath Singh and Amit Shah in waves to tap their core constituencies—Hindus and Rajputs. Meanwhile, chief minister Vasundhara Raje is focusing her energies on Jats.

The defining feature of the BJP’s campaign is the reluctance of its top brass to seek votes in the name of the chief minister. Modi is going around citing his own achievements and asking voters to support him and destroy the naamdaris and exponents of Raag Darbari who malign him, his government and his lineage. In his 30-minute speeches, embellished with his own name, he refers to Raje just once or twice, that too at the end.

It is a clear sign that the BJP is afraid of anti-incumbency. If the mood for change prevails, Rajasthan may see a change in government, if not in names of villages like Baap, Chacha and Suwar.

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Updated Date: Nov 26, 2018 18:13:14 IST

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