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September 1, 1999


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The Rediff Election Special/Chindu Sreedharan

Desert sunsets, sarson and Saffron

I am pretty sure it isn't a touch of sun that makes me see only saffron today -- or is it?

Less than an hour away from Jodhpur City, I am passing through the villages of the Pali Lok Sabha constituency. The gulf between an assembly and a parliamentary election is evident all over. That and the fact that this is the third poll in less than two years -- campaign is low-key, banners and posters are as common as sand dunes on Marine Drive, and there is no poll fever among the local populace.

But the few posters that I do manage to see, and the 10-odd villagers whom I assault with my questions are all saffron.

"Only the Mohammedans [here people don't say Muslims] vote for the Congress," informs one, "we [Hindus] will vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party."

In Pali Congress Member of Parliament Motilal Jain is pitted against BJP newcomer Pushp Jain. The last poll had seen the Congress leader making it to Delhi by a margin of around 27,000 votes. The electorate, since then, have grown by some 50,000: from 10,30,601 to 10, 80,508. The other two candidates - one from the Bahujan Samaj Party and the other an independent --- are considered inconsequential.

" Idher log bahut parishan hai (here the people are a worried lot)," a villager in Rohat, about half-an-hour before Pali proper, tells me. "There were no rains this year, but the Congress government of Ashok Gehlot did not do anything for the farmers, " he complains.

The bajra and sarson fields that I pass on the road seem to attest his charge. Though punctuated by brief stretches of crops, acres on both sides lie barren, their bared insides burnt to a deep brown. The drought this year has gone unaddressed, says my driver, and this is what the farmers have to show for their efforts. The farmer's place the blame squarely on Ashok Gehlot's shoulders.

The highway I am on now is broad, as broad as any national highway. Typical of Rajasthan, it has hardly any traffic. A few farmers cycle along, their colourful turbans --- sapa, as it is known --- and majestic moustaches embodying the essence of rustic Rajasthan. Trucks roar past at infrequent intervals. But for these, the searing mid-day sun that sucks you dry in no time is our sole companion all the way to Pali district headquarters.

Here, things are different. There is some political activity to be seen. An election song with the adventures of Atalji as its theme blares from a shop window. Quite a few banners of Vajpayee and Pushp Jain are visible: the former looking kind of heart-broken and benevolent at the same time.

A visit to the BJP office throws some light on what Pushp Jain is counting on to see him through. It isn't well, er, courage in Kargil or Sonia Gandhi's Italian origins. Sheer anti-Congressism is to be the BJP's ultimate saviour. Plus a little in-fighting in enemy camp. Apparently, Bhimraj Bhati, a leader here, wanted a ticket himself. His sympathisers "are now with the BJP to ensure Motilal's defeat."

''Our chances are improving day by day. How we are campaigning! The Congress campaign jor nahi pakada ab tak (is yet to take off)," says a saffron loyalist.

Congressmen, expectedly, scoff at this. Don't look around in the town, they tell me, go to the interior where the farmers are; there every child in every village knows Motilal. He's a venerable leader, trustworthy. He's a common man, who made it big as a builder in Maharashtra's Thane district. He knows Sharad Pawar very well.

"Motilalji haar nahi sakte," the Congressmen conclude enthusiastically.

I bring up the Jat issue. That doesn't cut any ice here. I am informed, there are only 10,000-12,000 Jats here. The rest are Rajputs, Jains etc.

The road from Pali to Jalore, where Buta Singh, as a resurrected Congressman, fights the BJP's Lakshmana Bangaru, doesn't do Rajasthan proud. For one, it is liberally sprinkled with patches. Then, it is too narrow, with jagged sides. My driver isn't making things any easier by seldom taking his foot off the accelerator.

We stop at Kamba, a little before Jalore. Jabbar Singh, a Rajput, tells me that he will give his vote to the Congress. ''Why Congress?'' "Because Buta Singh now belongs to Congress," is his answer.

Singh, however, appears to be in a minority here. The others I talk to say that ''not a single vote from here will go to the Congress. Reason, they haven't done a thing for us."

Seeing a solitary water tap, I ask the villagers about the water situation. That sets the ball rolling; in no time they gather around me.

"We get water sometimes in seven days. Sometimes in three," they tell me, " bahut pareshani hain hum, and even then it comes for only one hour."

And drinking water, I ask in my ignorance. Where do they get it? How frequently. " Arre, saab this pipe water is all the water we get for washing everything! Today and yesterday, we got water. It came yesterday for one hour after three days," they enlighten me.

''If you had come one month earlier, and you needed some water for your vehicle we wouldn't have obliged you. Now because of the election water has started coming," says Manuala, the young villager who was acting as spokesman.

So then, I tell myself as we move towards Jalore proper, the elections has done some good after all.

Both Bangaru and Buta Singh aren't in Jalore, and won't be returning today, I find out. Buta Singh is in Sanchore a long way off while Bangaru is in another village too far to chase this late in the evening. Sarabjot Singh, Buta Singh's son should be back in about three hours -- would I like to meet him? the local Congress campaign manager asks.

I decline the offer and try to locate the BJP office. There, party workers inform me that the people of Jalore would accept Bangaru though he's from Andhra Pradesh.

But why did the BJP choose a non-Rajasthani, and that too from the South? Their answer is: the BJP wanted a "strong" candidate against Singh. Bangaru, though not a local man, is a Rajya Sabha MP, a ''respected'' figure in Hyderabad, where ''a lot of Rajasthanis have business.''

An hour from Jalore, I stop to check out the local sentiment. "Both contestants are neck-and-neck here," a villager tells me. We move towards Barmer and another story.

The Rediff Election Specials

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