It is early afternoon. The heat is scorching. The landscape is harsh. Vast stretches of parched land interspersed with low-lying hills in the distance. Not a tree to be seen. Sachin Pilot, 31, is about 70 km away from historic Ajmer town, driving his Mitsubishi-Pajero, when he halts for an open-air lunch. His convoy halts behind him.
Tiffin boxes are opened and carefully placed on the bonnets of the different vehicles. Bottles of mineral water and salted buttermilk (chhach) are passed around. Pilot finishes his meal in five minutes flat.
“Thanks to our local MLA, Raghu Sharma, we’re having a proper lunch today,” says the Congress candidate for the Ajmer seat. “For the last 40 days that I’ve been campaigning I’ve usually gone without any food during the day.”
The first stop after lunch is at Barli village, 85 km from Ajmer. There is a cacophony of celebration as the convoy enters: assembled drummers beat their drums, while local netas jostle one another to be the first to garland their ladla (darling lad). There follows the formality of tying a safa (traditional Rajasthani turban) around Pilot’s head.
A host of young women are seen peeping out of the balconies and windows of nearby houses. With his boyish looks, Pilot is a great hit — especially with the women.
Pilot’s speech is short; he makes few promises, but sounds sincere about keeping them; he never attacks his opponents personally.
“May 7 is an auspicious date for marriages, but make sure you perform your vote daan before performing your kanyadaan,” he exhorts. “Remember you are voting to elect the country’s prime minister. Don’t get swayed by local issues.”
Pilot entered politics abruptly after his father, former union minister Rajesh Pilot, was killed in a car accident in June 2000. In the last Lok Sabha polls he contested from his father’s old constituency, Dausa in eastern Rajasthan, and won easily. But following delimitation, Dausa became a reserved seat, and Pilot was allotted Ajmer in central Rajasthan.
Unlike Dausa, Ajmer is a BJP stronghold. Pilot has a stiff fight ahead. His BJP opponent is Kiran Maheshwari, bringing with her the reputation of being a ‘giant killer’ — she defeated veteran Congress leader Girja Vyas in Udaipur in 2004. But if Pilot is new to Ajmer, so is Maheshwari — her Udaipur seat too is now reserved after delimitation.
Unlike Gujjar-dominated Dausa, Ajmer’s population is mixed, though it has a fair proportion of Gujjars. Pilot is also confident that the substantial Muslim vote will go to him.
“I’ve been at it every day for the past month and a half,” says Pilot after his meeting at Barli. “There isn’t a single panchayat in Ajmer I’ve not visited.”