A hope and a challenge in western Rajasthan - Hindustan Times

A hope and a challenge in western Rajasthan

By Vinod Sharma
Apr 25, 2024 08:59 AM IST

Ravindra Singh Bhati is an Independent candidate from the Barmer Lok Sabha constituency in Rajasthan that goes to polls in the second phase on April 26

There are but only a few past examples of the electorate declaring a candidate the winner before vote. Like in Punjab-2022, the marvel seems to be in the making in the Barmer Lok Sabha constituency spread across 72,000 square kilometres of the Thar’s sand dunes and shrub lands.

Ravindra Singh Bhati, Independent Lok Sabha candidate from Barmer. (Photo from X)
Ravindra Singh Bhati, Independent Lok Sabha candidate from Barmer. (Photo from X)

The suitor, Ravindra Singh Bhati, isn’t with either of the main players in the game, the BJP and the Congress. A blend of the modern and traditional, he’s a social media “champion” who communicates on the ground in Marwari, highlighting issues that strike a chord with the electorate seeking educational opportunities, employment, accessible health facilities and drinking water that’s scarce.

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His war cry is convivial and energetic, not hateful or divisive. Waiving a clenched fist suggestive of a resolve, he breaks into fluent Marwari, urging people to stay strong and fight frontally (on issues): “Tantha rehsan, bhached bolan san.” The lexicon worked wonderfully and he stole the thunder from his party-backed opponents in the 2023 assembly polls as an Independent candidate. In a triangular contest he emerged the winner in Sheo which is one of Barmer’s eight vidhan sabha segments.

Born to a local schoolteacher in 1997, Bhati has been making waves in the desert state since 2019. That’s when he was elected president of the Jai Narain Vyas University student’s union (JNVUSU). Cold-shouldered by the BJP’s students’ wing, the ABVP, he became the first elected chief of the students’ union without a party affiliation in the university’s 57-year history.

Having made the grade sans political crutches as a student leader and a legislator, Bhati is one of the kind in Rajasthan’s bipolar polity. In fact, he spurned chief minister Bhajan Lal Sharma’s belated outreach to make him withdraw from the Barmer race. “The CM asked me not to contest. I couldn’t agree as this election is being fought by the people of Barmer, not me,” he told Hindustan Times. Asked to name his main rival in the three way fight, he responded with a chuckle: “The Congress (Ummaida Ram) and the BJP (Kailash Chaudhary) are fighting for the second slot.”

Given that his major opponents are from the Jat community, Bhati could be at risk if Chaudhary, a central minister and incumbent MP improves his prospects. That could create an opening for Ummaida Ram, a Congress import from INDIA ally Hanuman Beniwal’s Jat-centric Rashtriya Loktantrik Party. Benwial himself fought the Nagaur seat that went to polls on April 19. In the satta bazaar of Jodhpur’s Phalodi, speculators rate high the RLP leader’s chances against Congress renegade and BJP nominee Jyoti Mirdha.

“Bhati’s special because he gets votes in his name without a party tag,” said a Rajput leader, admiringly adding: “Bandey mei hai dum.” The compliment is well-deserved! Other past presidents of JNVUSU who rose in politics in recent decades did so under party flags: former MLA Jalam Singh (BJP), sitting MLA Harish Chaudhary (Congress) and Jodhpur MP Gajendra Singh Shekhawat (BJP) among others.

A promise belied

The hope the youth see in Bhati was once invested in Shekhawat. When he first returned to parliament in 2014 from the adjoining constituency of Jodhpur, Shekhawat, a tall impressive man, had worn a matching aura. He was seen at the time as one handpicked by Narendra Modi to be groomed as the BJP’s pan-Rajasthan face.

The strategy made sense. The influential Rajput community capable of moving subaltern castes was leaderless with the passing away of three time chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and former Defence minister Jaswant Singh. Also gone was Kalyan Singh Kalvi, another tall Rajput figure from western Rajasthan. Known for his defence of the ‘sati pratha,’ he was a minister in the short-lived 1990-91 Chandrashekhar dispensation.

At different points in time, Barmer, from where Bhati seeks another quick political elevation, was represented in the Lok Sabha by Kalvi and Jaswant Singh.

Gajendra Singh’s political base is in Marwar. But like Shekhawat senior, he originally hails from the Shekhawati region, a point on which his Congress rival, Karan Singh Uchiyarda, harps to paint him an outsider. That’s minor pinprick however, compared to the palpable anti-incumbency the Jal Shakti minister faces in his bid for a hat-trick win in Jodhpur.

The city’s political landscape that gave him a rousing start a decade ago has turned slippery for the BJP leader affectionately called “Gajju Banna” by his supporters.

Shekhawat has encountered a difficult terrain in Jodhpur. The pincer offensive to stultify his political growth was led by two divergent power centres, analysts say: the BJP’s Vasundhara Raje who didn’t want a younger claimant to the CM’s office, and the Congress’ Ashok Gehlot who needed to salvage his home base of Jodhpur after his son Vaibhav’s resounding 2019 defeat. (Vaibhav Gehlot is in the fray this time from Jalore, from where Buta Singh returned to parliament on four occasions; thrice on the Congress ticket and once as an Independent. A pocket borough earlier of the Congress, the seat’s altered demography has made it a toss-up.)

Raje’s opposition denied Shekhawat the top slot in the BJP’s state unit. Such impediments are par for the course however, in politics. But he has also had open spats with a couple of state legislators whose active support he now needs.

On the plus side, the minister enjoys Modi’s patronage. “Those who want to see Modi win will vote for Shekhawat,” insisted a local tea seller, Chattar Singh. His forecast: “the fight’s tough yet winnable.”

A recent entrant to the BJP from the Congress , Marwar Rajput Sabha president, Hanuman Singh Khangta is confident the incumbent MP’s rearguard action will mollify alienated sections to reclaim lost goodwill.

“The Congress lacks the organisation to fight the BJP,” insisted Khangta, who fell out with Gehlot on being denied the Jodhpur Lok Sabha ticket. Going out of the way to help stabilise Shekhawat’s campaign, he set up a meeting at the Brigadier Zorawar Singh Society (BZS) that houses nearly 5000 Rajput families from across Rajasthan. Located as the BZS is at Gehlot’s Sardarpura stronghold in Jodhpur, the pro-BJP gathering there was a raid of sorts on the former CM’s citadel.

Charisma that doesn’t need crowd renting

To be sure, the battle in which Bhati is engaged in Barmer isn’t also a cakewalk. Only time will tell whether the youthful challenger viewed as the knight in the shining armour can deliver. “He has come at the right time to the right place. There’s a vacuum to be filled,” remarked Hindu Singh Soda, who leads the sarpanch sangh comprising Barmer’s 690 panchayat heads. Aligned though with the BJP, he admitted to Kailash Chaudhary’s feeble connect in the constituency where the rival campaign is on the upswing: “People descend like locusts at Bhati’s rallies. They don’t turn up in such numbers on our call even with the lure of a cash stipend.”

A cafe Soda runs in Barmer city was packed with an eclectic mix of youth supporting Bhati. They said they’ve rallied around him for his zest, his sincerity to serve “beyond caste prejudices in a region where the Rajputs and Jats have always been at loggerheads.”

Many among those chatting over coffee followed Bhati on X (twitter). In response to rival tweets alleging their leader’s links with “anti-national forces,” they trended the hash-tag #AayegaTouBhatiHi.

But the best acknowledgement of Bhati’s people’s skills came from a committed Shekhawat supporter in Jodhpur. Recalling their chance meeting at Mumbai airport, Harishchandra Singh said: “He offered a gracious dhok (pranam) before helping me with my grandchild and a handbag with which I struggled. That’s my first and last impression of the man. I don’t have a vote in Barmer. But he has my support.”

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