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August 31, 1999


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The Rediff Election Special/ Chindu Sreedharan

Jats hold the key to Congress's continuing luck in Jodhpur

The dignified gentleman crossed his legs again and made me the centre of his focus.

"Aap ke pita se aapka kya sambandh hai?"

Huh!? What was that again, please?

"Haan, bataayiye, what is your relation with your father?"

That's not the kind of query you would expect from a perfect stranger. Not if he is otherwise normal. Or, like my friend here, if he is a politician.

"This is what you people in the media do," he continued. "You keep asking us 'what's your relation with the RSS, what's your relation with the RSS'! Everyone knows that 30 per cent of our votes come from the RSS. How would you feel if I kept asking you your relation with your father?"

I was at the Bharatiya Janata Party election office, freshly arrived after a ten-minute, chilling autorickshaw ride -- through broad streets devoid of any election make-up, let me put it on record -- that left me weak in the knees. Most of the Jodhpuris, especially the youth, appear to have as much road sense as a blindfolded camel.

The BJP candidate is Jaswant Singh Vishnoi. Quite an interesting man. His importance arises more from the status of the rival party than anything else. Jodhpur, you see, is Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot's hometown. It was from here that Gehlot squeaked into the twelfth Lok Sabha by a margin of 5,442 votes. Subsequently, he resigned his membership of Parliament, opting for the state chief ministership. The man who almost vanquished Gehlot was Vishnoi.

Though he seems to have made a habit of losing elections (he lost the last two parliamentary polls and then lost the Luni assembly seat in November), Jaswant Singh Vishnoi is no pushover. The 41-year-old lawyer -- he practises law when he isn't practising politics -- was a minister in the Bhairon Singh Shekhawat government in Jaipur and swings quite some clout with the electorate.

His fight this time is against Congress veteran Poonam Chand Vishnoi, once state assembly speaker. The other five in the fray -- one Bharatiya Jan Sangh, one Bahujan Samaj Party and three Independents -- aren't expected to cut much votes here.

Jaswant Singh Vishnoi becomes an even more interesting candidate when you take a broader look at Rajasthan politics. Keep in mind that Jodhpur is Gehlot's constituency. A defeat here for the Congress would be a slap in the CM's face -- a slap which could, in the company of a few other factors, even lose him his chair.

Thus, in effect, it is for Gehlot's honour that Congress knight Poonam Chand is fighting.

"Oh, we will win this time, pucca," one activist assures me. Adds another loyalist, "101 per cent Jaswant Singhji jeetenge."

That begged the question why. The profuse answers I received, together with a little research, immersed me in the intricacies of caste politics that are sure to give anyone a mega-headache. Here's the low-down:

Jaswant Singh is banking on 'the Jat turnaround' to see him through this time. These powerful landholders were the Congress vote bank in many pockets of western Rajasthan. In Jodhpur alone, of the 1.5 million-odd voters, some 250,000 are Jats. [The rough break-up of the other major communities is: Rajputs (150,000), Vishnois (100,000 to 150,000), SC/ST (150,000), Muslims (100,000).]

The Jats have fallen out with the Congress on, it would appear, the reservation issue. In the last Lok Sabha election, they had a promise made to them: that they would be listed as a backward class. Which did not happen. So now the Jats are feeling cheated and have turned against the Congress under a religio-political organisation called the Jat Mahasabha.

That is the ostensible reason. The truth, according to political pundits, is something else.

"What they want is not reservation but a chief minister from their community," they claim. "What they want is to have Ashok Gehlot removed. The current agitation is an eyewash. The Jats feel that since they are numerically strong, Rajasthan should have a Jat CM."

The politics behind the move runs thus: If the Congress doesn't do well in Rajasthan -- last time it had won 18 seats; it also won over two Independent candidates, thus taking its strength to 20 of the total 25 -- that would reflect on the state government. More important, that would make Congress president Sonia Gandhi very, very angry with the CM. And once she gets angry, she may well boot him out. Whereupon the Jats could muscle in one of their own as replacement.

There's another interesting angle to the affair. According to the political grapevine, Gehlot is believed to have struck a secret deal with Parasram Maderna, a leader from the Jat stronghold of Bhopalgarh, who is now the state assembly speaker. In return for unadulterated support, Gehlot is said to have promised to make Maderna the CM. The assembly election followed and the Congress came to power in style -- but Maderna never got the top job.

The Jat anger has manifested itself in a few incidents. In July, youths roughed up a minister at the Jodhpur railway station and, for good measure, broke a few panes of the air-conditioned compartment in which he was travelling. A few days ago, in nearby Nagaur constituency, another minister was booed silly when he started to address a meeting and found quite a few missiles coming his way.

"Earlier 80 to 85 per cent of the Jat votes used to go to the Congress. This time, we are trying to give that much to the BJP," says U R Baniwal, local representative of the Jat Mahasabha.

So the Jats don't believe in Sonia Gandhi's recent promise to provide reservation if the Congress comes to power?

"No. Everyone knows that she said that to get our votes. She was only countering Vajpayeeji's statement that they would study the issue," Baniwal says.

"Here caste is the main factor. The entire Jat community is behind us now. I think we should win by over a lakh votes," is how Jaswant Singh puts it. "The people are fed up with the Gehlot government anyway."

The BJP leader dismisses the argument that the split in the Vishnoi votes -- the Congress move pitting Roop Chand was precisely for this -- will not affect his chances. More than 60 per cent, he maintains, is still with the BJP.

Anti-incumbency is another factor working for the BJP. Gehlot stands accused of not acting in time to provide famine relief, not doing anything about the unemployment problem and, worse, creating unemployment himself by lowering the retirement age of government employees from 60 to 58.

The chief minister, however, claims that the people are satisfied with him. That the Congress would 'win well', 'do better than the last time.'

So will the BJP win? Though that appears a healthy possibility, there are quite a few analysts who feel that Jaswant Singh will be disappointed again.

"There is no Jat turnaround. How many of the Jats do you think are with the BJP? Not more than 5 per cent. The Jat Mahasabha has only the students and the young with them," they say, "The split in the Vishnoi votes will offset whatever gains Jaswant Singh gets from the Jats. So he is back to square one."

The Rediff Election Specials

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