THE ERA of egalitarianism notwithstanding, caste is still playing a pivotal role in the by-elections to Pandhana Assembly constituency in Khandwa district - and no one knows it better than the major political parties who are fine-tuning their strategy with an eye on that factor.
Both Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Bharatiya Janshakti (BJ) candidates, Devendra Verma and Vasudev Atut respectively, are from the dominant Balai community that accounts for one-third of the 1.53 lakh strong electorate in the constituency. Congress candidate Hiralal Silawat, though a Khatik, has been traditionally relying on a combination of Gujjar, Tribal, KurmiPatel, Muslim and upper caste votes to see him through.
Of course, in the last elections he badly lost to BJP candidate Kishorilal Verma, the late father of the present candidate, Devendra Verma. The BJP’s poll strategy appears to be simple - throw in ministers of a particular caste to woo voters of that segment. Not surprisingly, among those camping there is Backward Class and Minorities Welfare Minister Rustam Singh who belongs to the Gujjar community.
There is a sizeable number of Gujjar votes in the constituency, numbering anywhere between 40,000 to 42,000 and in meeting after meeting Rustam Singh is being introduced more as a stalwart of the Gujjar community to influence the voters, than a Minister with political base in Morena. The Congress perhaps realises this strategy.
While on one hand the Congress State spokesman K K Mishra lashes out at the BJP for “blatantly playing the caste card despite being ministers”, they themselves are trying their utmost to rope in Sachin Pilot to tour the constituency before the polling date. Needless to say Congressmen hope that Pilot, who is perhaps the tallest national Gujjar leader, would be able to counter Rustam Singh’s influence.
Tribal Welfare Minister Vijay Shah is also camping there and the erstwhile tribal king is eyeing the 20,000-odd tribal votes in the constituency. Gangaram Patel, Minister of State of Water Resources, who is from Haata in Damoh, has also been roped in to woo the sizeable KurmiPatel population in the constituency.
The BJ candidate Vasudev Atut is an old RSSJana Sangh hand and hopes that his Balai background, the RSS stamp and backing of Uma Bharti, a Backward Class leader herself, would tilt the scales in his favour.