The conversation in Rajasthan usually turns to two topics: caste, and the past. There are few people as obsessed by an accident of their birth, and few states as proud of their history.
So, when a closely fought assembly election pits a nondescript Congress CM against a feisty royal, with a larger-than-life tribal leader adding spice to the contest, don’t expect the usual issues to be discussed.
Instead, the debate on the streets of Jaipur’s walled city focuses on personalities, past conflict and which way the state’s big caste groupings will vote. The future doesn’t feature, beyond vague talk of development and drinking water.
In one corner, Ashok Gehlot, seeking a third term at 62, blessed with a Teflon image but a poor record in implementing the populist schemes so beloved of the Congress. He is thought to have mismanaged a free medicine project handed to him as a vote-winnner.
In the other, Vasundhara Raje of the BJP, at 60 hoping to reinvent herself after a first stint in power (2003-2008) marked by dynamism but marred by allegations of graft against her government.
The third player is a potential spoiler: Kirori Lal Meena, a father figure to the Meena tribe, who make up 12% of the population and who have all too often been involved in violence, provoking resentment from other groups like the Gujjars (5.5 %).
“There are very few real issues in this election, and no real anti-incumbency against Gehlot. Each seat is a multi-cornered contest, the first time there has been such a confusing situation,” says former journalist Narayan Bareth.
TOO CLOSE TO CALL
With just a few days to go for polling in India’s largest state, most observers give Raje a slight edge, but are quick to add that this could be neutralised by Meena throwing his lot in with the Congress. The BJP’s PM candidate Narendra Modi has been campaigning for Raje.
“Modi is clearly a factor in the BJP edge. And Rahul’s (Gandhi’s) system of allocating seats does not work at the grassroots. There’s nothing more unfortunate than a party that has to rely on application forms to get to know its candidates,” says Rajendra Bora, a political analyst.
“The free medicine scheme could have won the Congress votes but the delivery systems were poor.”
Raje, initially cool towards Modi, saw the way the wind was blowing and wooed the Gujarat strongman. The Congress has not formally named Gehlot as its CM candidate, allowing speculation to build around CP Joshi (for the Brahmin vote) and other leaders such as Jeetendra Singh (Rajput) and Sachin Pilot (Gujjar).
Most political observers expect both the BJP and the Congress will fall short of the halfway mark of 100 seats. Currently, Gehlot runs a government with 96 lawmakers plus six BSP legislators (who merged with the Congress even before party chief Mayawati could congratulate them on their victory) and independents, and has clearly failed to establish any sort of dominance.
In recent years, Rajasthan has voted out its incumbent party. But this time, the picture is muddied by Meena, who has sway over some 25 seats and may ask supporters to vote for the Congress in seats where he has no chance of winning.
The perception of the BJP having an edge may have something to do with the fact that the Congress’ support base — the poor and Scheduled Castes — lacks voice in public platforms, while business and the middle class, the BJP’s traditional backers, are more voluble.
TRIANGLE IN TIGER COUNTRY
Drive 150 km south from Jaipur to Sawai Madhopur and the encounters along the way are all about caste. At the destination, personalities begin to feature.
The route is firmly Meena country, Kirori Lal’s choices of candidate are sometimes unconventional: In Bassi, it’s Avanti Meena, a comely 27-year-old with a postgraduate degree in environmental sciences from Australia. She and her sister, an advocate, seem out of place in a caste-based battle where violence is never far below the surface. It’s clear that Kirori sees himself as the Mayawati of Rajasthan, dabbling in “social engineering” by granting tickets to 11 Brahmins, four Gujjars and even one Kinnar, or eunuch.
“The Congress has been corrupt for 50 years and the BJP for 15 — they have taken turns to loot the state,” he growls, maintaining that he will not support the Congress because Gehlot sent him to jail in the past. But his antipathy for Raje is thought to be greater.
The burly leader is standing from two adjacent seats, Lalsot (Reserved ST) and Sawai Madhopur. The more interesting contest is in Sawai Madhopur, an election fought within earshot of the tigers of the Ranthambore reserve.
The BJP candidate there is Diya Kumari, the princess of Jaipur, who campaigns door to door as clearly overawed local women look on.
“I am an ordinary person… I do the same things that you do — shopping, eating out and so on. I just live in a slightly bigger house,” she tells HT. While that’s a bit of an understatement — she is an occupant of the grand Jaipur palace — she does have a common touch. She fought against tradition to marry a non-royal member of her father’s staff.
“Diya will have an impact — they have almost neutralised Meena,” says Bora. “The Muslims will vote with Diya because of the affection they have for her (late) father Bhawani Singh.”
The Congress candidate is Danish Abrar, shy of 30 and the son of the late central minister of state Abrar Ahmed.
Muslims, maintains Rajasthan State Minorities Forum general secretary Sikander Khan, will vote for the Congress because they have no other option.
“They’re not happy with the Congress, but will go with them in the end.”
VOTE YOUR CASTE
The same story repeats itself across the breadth of the state: if it’s not Meena territory, it’s Gujjar, or Scheduled Caste (see caste influence map of Rajasthan).
Industry would like to see a Raje win. She’s seen as the driving force behind the state’s successful tourism thrust and the theory goes that she will market the state better to investors. The low-key Gehlot is less accessible to businessmen.
Each party has its traditional vote base: Jats, Rajputs, Brahmins and traders support the BJP, while Scheduled Castes, Muslims, Bhil Meenas (not the Meenas, who vote for Kirori), Malis and some OBC (Other Backward Classes) tend to vote for Congress.
Kirori and Gujjar leader KS Bainsla — who supports the Congress this time despite past proximity to the BJP — could upset some of these calculations.
“A churning is going on in state politics and how it will impact the traditional BJP and Congress constituencies will get clearer 48 hours before polling,” says CP Joshi, a potential Congress CM.
As night falls on scenic Jaipur, the view from the Nahargarh fort tells its own story. Admire the beautifully lit, partly submerged Jal Mahal. Strain your eyes for any sight of a futuristic high-rise. But crane your neck and you’ll see other fortresses, emblematic of the fact that each party has its bastion. It’s all about them, and history.