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|September 2, 1999||
Campaign Trail/Manvendra Singh, Barmer
The reporter makes news now
Like the good politician he is learning to be, Manvendra Singh ducks into four plastic garlands in quick succession, comes up for breath briefly, and then takes two more.
It isn't five minutes since he arrived at Thapan, this village some 130 km from Barmer town. My appointment with him was for 11.30 am, three and a half hours ago. Unfortunately, an exigency of my profession delayed me -- this time it was the fact that it took me a good hour more to finish a report than I had anticipated -- with the result that I ended up chasing Singh all over the countryside. I missed him at Pachupatra, Balotra, Asotra, and then accidentally bypassed him to reach Thapan some 40 minutes before him.
By the way, I think I haven't introduced Manvendra Singh or his appeal for me. He's the Bharatiya Janata Party's knight in the Barmer Lok Sabha constituency in Rajasthan, an enormously sprawling one that includes the huge desert districts of Barmer and Jaisalmer. Area-wise, it is the largest constituency in the country, the size of a small country, and borders Pakistan for a few hundred kilometres.
Singh hails from Jaisol, a nearby village. He was a journalist with The Indian Express till a couple of months ago and is a captain in the Territorial Army.
If these aren't interesting enough for you, he is the son of Prime Minister A B Vajpayee's current right arm, Major Jaswant Singh. Young (as politicians go), only 35. Dashing. A first-timer who seems to have got the hang of electioneering pretty fast.
The candidate, meanwhile, has started his speech. Dressed in white kurta-pajama and colourful headgear, he speaks in Marwari, thus giving the finishing touch to the 101 per cent Rajasthani packet that he is selling: himself. The address is short, and from the response of the 100 or so locals, sweet. Kargil, Atalji, and that foreign lady Sonia are dealt with efficiently.
He lights a cigarette as the Tata Sierra carries him on to his next destination, inhales deeply, and says: "It's tough!"
Ah, he must be speaking about the campaigning part, the heat, the dust, etc.
"No, no, I mean the fight," he corrects me. "It is the sitting MP that I am taking on. Also, the BJP has never won this seat. But I am hopeful."
Candidate Singh's opponent is Sonaram Chaudhary, retired colonel, pucca Congressman, the winner of two consecutive Lok Sabha elections in Barmer. Last time around, he had beaten the BJP candidate with a margin of around 86,000 votes. Not an easily dethronable man.
"The people want to see Vajpayee back," Singh details the factors that he is counting on to see him through as he continues to puff on his cigarette. "My main election point is whether the Indian prime minister should be a foreign-born or an Indian. The people are very resentful of the fact that a foreigner could become PM. Then the state government has been a disaster beyond comparison. It has deceived many communities."
Deceived? As in?
"Well, they had promised to make a Jat the chief minister, and that the Jats, Vishnois, etc would be given OBC status. They backtracked on it. They also cut down the retirement age [from 60 to 58]. There's a lot of resentment about these."
I wonder whether the reservation issue is enough to make the Jats vote for him, a Rajput, their age-old caste enemy. Besides, Colonel Chaudhary is a Jat himself and it would be natural for the community to vote for him.
"I am not saying I will get all the Jat votes. But I will definitely get some of it. There are 230,000 Jats in Barmer -- that's a substantial vote bank," he replies. [Barmer has a total electorate of 1,450,000. The break-up of the other major communities is: 215,000 Rajputs, 175,000 Muslims, 270,000 Scheduled Castes and Tribes, 80,000 Mahajans and 50,000 Vishnois.] "Then Colonel Chaudhary was in the forefront against the reservation thing. So there's a lot of anger against him, especially among the younger Jats."
Rajput Versus Jat: look like the poll here might turn communal.
"No, not at all," counters the candidate, "my campaign is not based on caste. It is based on the fact that I belong to this place. And that I represent Atal Bihari Vajpayee. I ask votes on the basis of his Indianness versus Sonia's foreign-ness."
He must also be using his father's name.
"I have not uttered his name in the entire campaign. That's something that I don't really need to do. Here his name is very well known."
So much for the factors that will help Singh. What about the things that will work against him?
"I think insufficient polling. Otherwise, there's a lot of support for the BJP."
Insufficient polling because the people have had enough of polls? I ask. We have now reached Village Indrana, the venue for the candidate's next address.
"It could be because of the weather, anything," he replies before disappearing into the crowd with folded arms and a smile.
Arriving in the candidate's car can be a little too conspicuous, I immediately find out. Someone jumps to hold open my door, and the two-member band set includes me in its performance. A local leader, probably seeing me in a kurta and overhearing that I am from Bombay, decides that I am Manohar Joshi's right arm or someone equally important till I wave my dictaphone in his face and proclaim my innocence.
The meeting here is a repeat of the last one, except that Singh speaks longer and makes a crack at Sonia's roots: "Even when you are electing a sarpanch [village chief], you take into consideration his family background, his father's standing, etc. You should do the same when you vote in this poll. We know she's from Italy. But do we know anything about her family, her father's name at least?"
Ten minutes later we are on the move again. I ask Singh about his attraction to mandirs. The question is prompted by the fact that he has, to my knowledge, visited two temples already today.
"I always carry my Hanuman Chalisa. I pray every morning. I don't eat a grain without praying. That's the extent of my belief," he says.
We return to where we had stopped earlier. The factors that could be his undoing. Was it a fact that a local BJP leader wanted the Barmer ticket for his son and, when denied, had vowed to work against Singh?
"No, there's no such in-fight," he assures me, "seriously, there is no such rivalry."
Incidentally, what is the motivation for his entry into politics?
"I became a politician to be here, to do something here. What clinched the decision was the terrible fear that Sonia Gandhi might become PM. If I win, well, that's one vote against her."
I ask him about his army background. "I am in the Territorial Army. It's a part-time engagement. We have to go when we are called. I quit my job with the Express [where he worked his entire journalistic career, nine years] because of the Kargil thing. I was at Army Headquarters. I took off my uniform on the 30th of July."
With the Kargil conflict fresh in the people's mind, his army status must be helping with the voters. "Yes," he agrees, "it does."
The switchover from journalism to army to politics -- as a beginner what were the difficulties he faced?
"In politics -- I mean if you want to play honest politics -- the main thing is how you present yourself. In places like this, that's through speeches. I had never done any public speeches before. It was difficult in the beginning. I was nervous, my sentences weren't forceful, there was some mumbling -- but now I am comfortable speaking."
And what if he loses? Will it be back to journalism?
"No," he replies, "I have come to stay."
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