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November 23, 1998


Jats clamour for CM's post if Congress wins Rajasthan

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Amberish K Diwanji in Jaipur

The demand by the Jat community for a chief minister of their caste in Rajasthan -- if the Congress wins Wednesday's assembly election -- may not fructify, if current indications are anything to go by.

The Jats have demanded the chief minister's chair in return for their support to the Congress. Various Jat leaders have met party president Sonia Gandhi and put forth their desire. However, the party's state and national leadership is so far quiet on the issue of the next chief minister. Party leaders in the state say the high command (read Sonia) will choose the next chief minister.

The Jats are making their demand on the basis of having loyally supported the party for the past 50 years and that so far, Rajasthan has not had a single Jat at the helm, a major grievance with the community's rank and file.

"If the Congress does not make a Jat the next chief minister, they will forever lose our party's support," warns Gangadhar Saran, a Jat student leader. Saran claimed that Jat dominated 40 assembly seats and could influence the verdict in 40 other constituencies.

Jats are mainly farmers with large landholdings (many Jats bear the surname Chaudhary, meaning landlord). Rajputs are the other feudal clan with large land holdings, whereas other backward classes are employed as labourers on the farms. This has meant that traditionally, the Jats have been strongly opposed to the Rajputs and OBCs.

Jats are mostly found in the Agra region, comprising the areas around Delhi-Mathura-Agra. They are politically influential in Delhi, western Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. Only in Haryana do the Jats completely dominate the political class.

"The demand for a Jat chief minister is the outcome of the increased politicisation of the caste that has gained economic strength over the past 30 years from various irrigation projects in the state," said P C Mathur, professor of political science at Rajasthan University.

The Jats boast that they have loyally supported the Congress is taken with a pinch of salt by the local leadership. "The Jats have strongly backed the Janata Party right from the time of Charan Singh (prime minister for four months) and Devi Lal (deputy prime minister in V P Singh's government)", said a Congress leader, "and their support to the Congress is pure opportunism."

Jats have claimed the Congress' improved performance in this year's general election is because of the community's support -- the Congress won 18 seats to the BJP's five out of a total of 25. "The Congress won every constituency where Jats were prominent," said Saran.

However, the Congress leader said the only reason the Jats are unwilling to support the Bharatiya Janata Party is because Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, and many other BJP leaders are Rajputs. "The Jats will never back a Rajput, hence they back the Congress," he added.

To make matters worse, the BJP replaced Sahib Singh Verma, a Jat, as chief minister of Delhi last month and this has further incensed the community.

Shekhawat is the first Rajput chief minister of Rajasthan, and the only non-Congress CM so far. Congress chief ministers over the past five decades have been Brahmins (Jai Narain Vyas, Tiharan Paliwal, Harideo Joshi), Muslim (Barkatullah Khan), Vaishya (Mohanlal Sukhadia, Hiralal Devpura), Scheduled Tribe (Jagannath Pahadia), and Kayastha (Shiv Charan Mathur).

After Independence, the Congress lacked the support of the Rajputs with its land reforms and pro-poor policies, while the Jats then lacked influence and were usually pro-Congress.

However, while the Jats have laid a claim to the top mantle, many in the party and outside expect the top job to go to state Congress president Ashok Gehlot, who is an OBC, if the party wins the election in Rajasthan. The Jats, in turn, are banking on either former Union minister Kunwar Natwar Singh, and Parasram Maderna, leader of the Opposition in the Vidhan Sabha.

Both men lack Gehlot's clout, amply demonstrated when Natwar Singh was unable to get a Congress nomination for his son for the election, in a party where relatives are regularly given tickets. Maderna is held responsible for the Congress rout in 1993 when he was Congress chief in the state. There are 37 Jats in the current fray on a Congress ticket.

"That will hardly be enough to stake a claim for the top job, even if they win all the seats," said the Congress leader. Also, a majority of Congress candidates owe their fealty to Gehlot, who has steered the party to its present position through depressing times.

Jats are hopeful that Natwar Singh will become chief minister because of his proximity to Sonia. "He is intelligent, was in the foreign service and a former Union minister, is well known throughout the state and country, and is acceptable to all," says Ombir Poiswar, a chemistry researcher.

However, Singh suffered a heart attack before the campaign commenced and has been advised rest for its duration. Maderna has stuck to his constituency, as has former general secretary Nawal Kishore Sharma, a Brahmin contender for the top job. Gehlot -- the MP from Jodhpur is not contesting the election -- has addressed 160 meetings so far in the state.

"Many of those who get elected will be beholden to Gehlot and will back him in the legislature. This makes it difficult for anyone else," said the afore-quoted Congress leader.

He doubted if this would ensure the loss of Jat support. "A chief minister has to be acceptable to all, not just a section of the people. In fact, many Jat candidates are backing Gehlot over Maderna or Natwar Singh," he added. Another factor is age: Singh is 68, Maderna and Sharma 74, whereas Gehlot is only 47, something that appeals to young partymen.

There is some debate on the numbers of Jats in the state. The Jats claim they comprise 22 per cent of the state's population, mostly in the east and north. However, Professor Mathur puts their numbers closer to 15 per cent; Rajputs are around 10 per cent; Brahmins 10 per cent; Vaishyas 10 per cent; Muslims 10 per cent; scheduled castes and tribes 25 per cent; and OBCs the rest.

Assembly Election '98

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