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November 21, 1998

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In Jodhpur, the die is caste

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Prem Panicker in Jodhpur

So now, what were those election issues again?

"Misgovernment by Shekhawat," insists Congress candidate Ram Singh. ''During the BJP rule, prices of everyday items have gone through the roof. Crime is at its worst, and even women are not safe. Why, today Rajasthan is the rape capital of India! The people are fed up, they want a good, stable government and they know that only the Congress can provide itů'

"Development is the issue," says Jaswant Singh, the BJP candidate. "In 40 years of Congress rule, Jodhpur was dying. Today, we are thriving again. Look at infrastructure. The BJP government has connected all the villages with paved roads. Water and electricity have been provided. Today, from just one village, Solawan, carpets and dhurries are being exported to 38 countries. And Jodhpur is on the tourist map now -- take one of the RTDC's tours and see how many foreigners are coming in!"

Assembly elections are like a kaleidoscope -- give your wrist a twist, change the angle of the prism, and the entire view, the pattern, changes -- as found out after six parched hours of driving through the sub-baked desert.

Both Ram Singh and Jaswant Singh are contesting the Loni assembly seat. The third angle of an interesting triangle is provided by Independent candidate Vijay Punia -- a Congressman from Jaipur who, denied a ticket in his hometown, has migrated here with the backing of the Jats. Punia, too, is the reason -- so aver the local constabulary -- why Loni (one of nine assembly segments in Jodhpur, the others being Balasar, Bilada, Bhopalgarh, City, Oshian, Padodhi, Sardarpura and Sursagar) have been declared volatile, why five battalions of the BSF and two of the RAF are deployed here, why there is an underlying tension in the region.

You see, both the BJP and Congress candidates are Bishnois. And Punia is a Jat -- reportedly, a warlord of repute in Jaipur. In the villages, the talk is that Punia has threatened their pradhans with muscle, if votes cannot come his way the regular way. And the Bishnois are closing ranks, spoiling for a fight.

Early morning, I hire a jeep and set off from Jodhpur to Loni Tehsil. And from these, into the interior. Here, there are no roads -- merely foot tracks and tractor trails along a sombre, brown and white landscape occasionally relieved by a cluster of thorny trees, a thatched hut, a cattle-holding stockade.

And yes, amazing wildlife. Peacocks shorn of their feathers (this apparently is moulting season). Vultures, dark and brooding, perched on the bushes and the tops of gnarled trees. Chinkara -- deer with brown bodies and jet black tails twitching impertinently as they walk. Two gazelles, streaking across our path, seemingly lost to all but the pure joy of their athleticism.

And yes, the legendary black buck. Black on top, that is, with a white undercarriage, and black and white spiralling horns. We spot a herd of them, numbering about, oh, some 35. Three proud males -- there are the black, horned ones -- and the rest brown-bodied does. The driver eases the jeep closer and closer and still they graze, sun-bathed, completely untroubled.

Finally, I am as far from the herd as, say, midoff would be from the wicket-keeper -- and still they hold their ground. And that is when the sheer enormity of what Salman Khan and Saif Ali Khan did shocks you to the core.

For there is no skill, no machismo, involved in shooting the animal here -- so used are they to the human presence, so accustomed to the protective umbrella the Bishnoi community has thrown over wildlife in the region, that when the jeep moves gently forward, one of the males trots alongside, keeping pace. To kill a black buck, I realise as I stare fascinated, needs no hunting skill, no special ability -- all it takes is an unfeeling heart and cold, very cold, blood.

Still sticking to irregular pathways, we fetch up at village Guda -- BJP candidate Jaswant Singh's hamlet. Around 60, 70 huts, whitewashed walls capped by thatch roofs. Goats and cows everywhere. Humans too -- the women peering from doorways, a knot of men on a fallen log outside a bidi shop.

I buy a packet of bidis, light one, offer them around -- the best ice-breaker there is. Soon, we get chatting on politics. This being the BJP candidate's bastion, the impression I am given is that the election is a one horse race -- and Jaswant Singh Bishnoi is that one horse.

I leave, but not before making a complete ass of myself. Wanting to see a Bishnoi home close up. I ask Kheraj Ram Bishnoi, the village elder, if he will take me to his home. He obliges. Outside his home I see more goats, cropping what little grass there is. And what looks like a young horse, with a most unusual coat of metallic blue.

"Is this horse yours?" I ask, it is very beautiful. The question and compliment are met by a sudden fit of giggles and rapidfire chatter from two women standing at the doorway. Perplexed, I look at Kheraj Ram -- and he is grinning fit to burst. "It is not mine, beta, it is god's," he explains to the accompaniment of more feminine hysterics.

It is not a horse, either, but an antelope. The Blue Bull. Niglar. How the hell was I to know?

In some confusion, I retreat to the jeep. An hour's drive along a thin black ribbon stretched across the desertcape -- ''We have made roads in the villages," thus spake Jaswant Singh -- brings me to village Dudhiya. Here, happily, the population is more mixed. Bishnois dominate, but there are also a goodly number of the semi-nomadic Raika shepherds, the Paliwals, predominantly into farming; and the Meghwals, who are weavers by profession.

Given this mix, I figure it is a good place to quiz them on the issues relating to this election. I do so from the home of Mortaj Singh Rathore, where I am invited for lunch.

Prices of essential commodities? "Pyaaz?" I venture tentatively.That provokes another sudden guffaw. I look around, wondering what I did wrong this time. "Beta," Rathore explains, "onion prices affect only you city boys. We in the desert know how to eat."

The plate in front of me contains three Bajra rotis. Thick, metallic black with edges burnt. A huge helping of Tuvar dal, made into a dry gravy. A katori of what tastes like dahi-kadi. And an earthern cup of what I am told is curd made from goat's milk.

"This is our food," Mortaj Singh explains. ''The desert is too dry to grow vegetables and rice, so we only have that on special occasions. This is what we grow, and what we eat.''

Bottomline, onion prices are not an issue. So what is?

"Well," explains Champalal, "for us water is the main problem. An no government, the BJP or the Congress, has done anything to solve it."

Champalal is that most elite of individuals in a village -- a young, unmarried, government employee. To wit, the schoolmaster at the government-run school in village Dudhiya. That explains why he is an honoured guest at Mortaj Singh's house, it explains why each of my questions, irrespective of to whom it is addressed is deflected to him.

Past lunch, Champalal, Mortaj Singh and what appears to be all the children of the village take me along the village bylanes, to show me their 'cistern' which turns out to be a large, man-made catchment area surrounded by mud walls.

"Rain water collects here, and that is what we use for drinking," Mortaj Singh explains. I am puzzled for right next to where we are standing is a huge stone tank and three pipes dripping water.

"Oh, that is the government supply, you can't drink it, we use it only for washing and cooking," comes the explanation.

I let the water flow, cup my palm under it, take a mouthful -- and spit it out at once. Brackish? The damn thing tastes like unadulterated salt solution, the kind we use to gargle with when afflicted with a sore throat.

So what do you drink, I ask, since the 'cistern' is as parched as its surroundings. For answer, Champalal leads me down the mud embankment. In the middle of the catchment areas are two deep holes. Their diameter slightly larger than a water pot. I peer inside one -- and the awful reality of life of the edge of the desert hits me with unlooked-for force.

Inside the hole, there rests a pot, tilted at an angle. On the wall of the hole, there is an opening, seemingly gouged into rock. And through this hole, there drips -- so slowly that you have to concentrate to see it -- those precious drops of water. At the speed, it should take about an hour to fill a pot. And outside the hole, there is a long line of pots, waiting for their turn.

Earlier, during lunch, I had asked my host what the local voters felt about the Pokhran nuclear blasts. As always, it was Champalal who answered me: "What do we have to do with all that? Woh sab rajniti ki baat hai, hamme tho jeene se matlab hai! (those are matter of politics, our only concern is to exist.)"

That indifference, so geographically close to ground zero, made no sense then. Now, as I stand over a hole in the parched earth, watching the painfully slow drift of water into a pot, it does.

When your life depends on your ability to wrest, in thimblefuls, water from the very heart of stone, what does a nuclear blast, more or less, mean to you anyway?

"So when you vote, what will your choice depend on?" "Jathivaad," says Champalal, short and crisp. This time, it is Bishnoi versus Bishnoi -- so village loyalties will dictate to a large extent. As for Punia, he adds in response to my query. "The Jats are not numerically strong enough to win on their own. And if they try to make trouble, we are ready for them."

So much for election speeches, informed analysis and scientific opinion polls. In this erstwhile land of kings and princesses, it is the villager who decides. And come the time, none of the issues raked up by the media, and elaborated on by the candidates in their speeches from the stump, seem to matter.

To perpetuate a very bad pun, in Jodhpur the die is caste.

Assembly Election '98

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