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September 1, 1999


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Constituency/ Jalore

Buta Singh on shaky wicket, Bangaru Laxman puts up a stiff challenge

The twin constituency of Jalore-Sirohi in Rajasthan holds an unenviable record that would send shivers down the spine of many a seasoned politician -- it had never returned a candidate for a second consecutive term in the Lok Sabha.

However, sitting member and former Union home minister and Congress nominee Buta Singh is unperturbed in seeking a second term. In fact, he had himself fallen victim to the jinx and lost in 1989, having won the seat for the first time in 1984. He won it the next time in 1991, stayed away from the contest in 1996 and emerged victorious once again in 1998.

He says he will not fall a victim this time as he had contested the 1998 elections as an independent under a different symbol. This time he is relying on the Congress's 'Hand' symbol to work the magic.

The constituency is tied in a multi-cornered contest but the actual fight is between the Congress and the BJP which has fielded its vice president Bangaru Laxman who also heads the party SC-ST Morcha. The BJP had taken a strategic decision to put Laxman here as SC-STs and OBCs constitute about 75 to 80 per cent of the electorate.

Although a new face to the local people, Laxman, a Rajya Sabha member from Gujarat, is giving sleepless nights to the sitting member. During his earlier stint in the Congress, Buta Singh used to contest from Ropar Lok Sabha constituency in Punjab. He came to this constituency in 1984. He was accepted by the people who returned him with a comfortable margin, and he stuck to this constituency thereafter.

Bangaru Laxman, who is contesting his first Lok Sabha election, originally belongs to Andhra Pradesh and is a stranger here compared to Buta Singh who is well known in the region. However, despite his long association, all is not well with Buta Singh, who is suffering from a malady that afflicts politicians. As a grocery shop owner in the town puts it, ''Buta has made many promises to the people over the years which he failed to fulfil. Besides, the people are angry with him that after winning the last election, he never visited this region''.

Singh has promised, besides other things, to make available adequate drinking water in this arid region and bring the broad-gauge rail link to Jalore town which is the main demand of the people. He, however, has to his credit the setting up of an oil mill, which unfortunately is now closed, an agriculture research centre and an air strip at Sirohi.

The electorate also seems to be not happy with Buta Singh for joining the BJP after being elected. During his campaign, he had told the people that although he was contesting as an independent, he would join Sonia Gandhi's Congress which has a stronghold in the region. Buta Singh, who was communication minister in the Vajpayee cabinet, was, however, removed allegedly on corruption charges. He later floated a regional outfit, the Rajasthan Vikas Party, at the time of the last assembly election but has now returned to the Congress.

Bangaru Laxman, being new to the region, starts with a clean slate as far as having not made any promises in the past. He is centring his campaign on the speedy development of the region and the stability plank. With the backing of the BJP and RSS cadre, he has been trying to establish a rapport with the people, helped in no small measure by his fluency in Hindi. Buta Singh has accused him of playing up religious sentiments by changing his name to Laxman Bangaru to convey that just like Laxman's unstinted service to Lord Ram, he would serve the people.

The third candidate who can tilt the balance is Dr Kusum Meghwal, contesting on a Republican Party of India ticket. She is the sister of former Rajasthan home minister Kailash Meghwal, who has the distinction of defeating Buta Singh in 1989. Being a Meghwal, she could take away that community's votes which otherwise generally go to the Congress. Besides, she has as her poll symbol, the rail engine on which Buta Singh had contested the 1998 Lok Sabha election as an independent.

In this constituency, which has a very low percentage of literacy, the symbol, Buta Singh feels, may mislead the voters and work to her advantage.

Talking to this correspondent, Buta Singh alleged that the BJP had indulged in ''a dirty game'' as she is basically a BJP candidate and not of the RPI. He also conceded that victory won't be easy for him this time.

Electioneering in this constituency, spread over more than 10,000 sq km, is on a low key with few banners, pamphlets or hoardings visible. The emphasis is more on public meetings. Video and audio cassettes were seen being used by the Congress and the BJP.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot had launched the Congress campaign on August 26 by addressing a public meeting here. Buta Singh is concentrating more on local issues like water, electricity and development. He also assails the BJP on the Kargil issue, alleging that the government had failed to act on intelligence reports about Pakistani activities on the border.

Bangaru Laxman in his speeches says that the people had tried and seen Buta Singh and now they should give an opportunity to a new entrant. As the National Democratic Alliance is bound to come to power at the Centre, if elected, he would be able to look after the development of the region. He also promises adequate water and expedite laying of broad-gauge rail line.

Jalore-Sirohi together has a joint voter population of 12 lakh in which OBCs account for 4.50 lakh and SC-ST 4 lakh. The dominant castes are Meghwals (2.25 lakh), Kallavi Chaudhary (Jats, 1.50 lakh), Umar, Gachi, Bheel, Gracia and Meenas (1.50 lakh), Jain, Rajput and Shrimali Brahmin (1.50 lakh) and Muslims (1.50 lakh). Feudalism continues to run deep in the region, with the upper castes trying to influence the others.

The caste factor would decide the voting pattern, says a photographer, Rajendra Saini from this town. There are allegations that liquor and money play a pivotal role in the elections. Candidates route the stuff through the Thakurs, the landlords who wield considerable influence among the masses. According to Saini, Kargil and Sonia Gandhi's foreign origins are not big issues in the constituency. People are more concerned about the local issues and development of the region. A large section of the people, he says, is angry with the state government for lowering the retirement age from 60 years to 58 years and for not paying retirement dues to the people even seven-eight months after superannuation.

Another shopkeeper said while Jalore district has always been a stronghold of the Congress, Sirohi favoured the BJP. Of the eight assembly seats, the Congress has won seven. Only the Jalore seat was won by BJP nominee Ganeshi Ram Meghwal in the last election.

Local leaders feel that this being the harvest time there are chances of low voting percentage. Rich traders and the business community are maintaining a silence, giving no impression whom they will support.



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