In Rajasthan, BJP vote bank may upset CM Vasundhara Raje’s apple cart
Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje faces a formidable challenge in retaining the backing of the Rajputs and Gujjars, two of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) strongest support bases, in the next state assembly elections.
The two communities, together with the Jats whom she has tried to woo in the past four years, make up about one-fifth of the state’s population and can upset Raje’s bid for a second successive term in office in the desert state.
Rajasthan’s biggest Rajput leader, the late Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, cultivated the support of the community in the erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the forerunner of the BJP, and the Janata Party.
After the BJP came into existence in 1980, Shekhawat led two BJP governments in the state — from 1990 to 1992, when it was dismissed by the Centre and central rule was imposed in Rajasthan after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and from 1993 to 1998. Shekhawat also became Rajasthan chief minister after the Janata Party won the 1977 assembly election following the end of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule.
Thanks to Shekhawat, the Rajputs have remained loyal to the BJP over the years. About 15-17 Rajputs have been elected to the 200-member Rajasthan assembly in every state election, most of them on the BJP slate. In the current assembly, of the 27 Rajput members of the legislative assembly, 24 belong to the BJP.
But the community is resentful that its representatives in the government had not supported it when cases were lodged against Rajput leaders, especially for violent protests in Sanwrad in July last year following the death of gangster Anandpal Singh, a Rajput with a long list of criminal cases against him, in an alleged police encounter.
“After the violence during April 2 Bharat Bandh, the representatives of scheduled castes managed to convince the government to consider withdrawing police cases against them, but our leaders kept mum on cases against us,” says Giriraj Singh Lotwara, president of the Shree Rajput Sabha, a social organisation.
What further enraged the community was the loot and burning of Rajput houses by Jats in Samrau village of Jodhpur district early this year while the police watched silently, he said .
Raje faced Rajput anger when she went for a meeting of the Shri Kshatriya Yuvak Sangh, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-like organisation of Rajputs in western Rajasthan, where slogans were shouted in favour of Jaswant Singh, a sidelined member of the old guard in the BJP.
Rajputs claimed that the BJP’s loss in the Ajmer and Alwar Lok Sabha by-elections in February this year was because of their campaign against the party. “The BJP lost because of us,” said Lokendra Singh Kalvi, who led protests by the community against Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film, Padmaavat, leading to Raje banningthe screening of the movie in the state.
Lotwara and other leaders of the Rajput Sabha have been holding press conferences in divisional headquarters since May this year to mobilise the community against the BJP before the assembly elections due later this year.
The Gujjar Factor
The Gujjars have traditionally been BJP voters because their arch rivals, the Meenas, supported the Congress.
The pastoral community veered towards the Congress only after Rajesh Pilot, an Indian Air Force pilot, started his political innings, and got elected to the Lok Sabha from Bharatpur in 1980. Prior to the late Pilot, the biggest Gujjar political leader was Nathu Singh, who became an MP from Dausa in 1977 on a Bharatiya Lok Dal ticket. The Gujjars now believe that they have the best chance of one of their own becoming chief minister—Sachin Pilot, Rajesh Pilot’s son
Sachin Pilot lost from Ajmer in 2014 but the Congress wrested the seat from the BJP in the by-election in February this year when Raghu Sharma defeated the BJP’s Ramswaroop Lamba, whose father Sanwar Lal Jat had beaten Pilot in 2014.
The Gujjars are also upset with the BJP for failing to give the community reservations in government jobs and university seats. Despite losing 70 of their men to police firing and caste conflicts in 2007 and 2008, the Gujjars have failed to reap the benefits of reservations, which have been struck down by the courts because it crossed the 50% ceiling on quotas imposed by the Supreme Court.
The Gujjars have edged towards the Congress and the BJP is now banking on their archrivals, the Meenas, for support. The party re-inducted the community’s tallest leader, Kirodi Lal Meena, a former MP who left the party after differences with Raje in 2008, and nominated him to the Rajya Sabha.
Both martial communities co-exist in almost equal numbers in Dausa, Karauli, Sawai Madhopur and Tonk districts and Kirodi Lal’s presence would help the BJP in weaning the community away from the Congress.
“The Gujjars want to assert their political identity because they have been out of the power structure for a long time. They have a hope in Sachin Pilot. Yes, if Gujjars move towards the Congress, the Meenas can support the BJP, meaning not much gain for the Congress,” says sociologist Rajeev Gupta, who tracks political developments in the state.
Why Jats Matter
The Jats have traditionally been Congress supporters, crediting the party for abolishing the jagirdari system and giving them land rights. Jat leaders like Nathu Ram and Ram Niwas Mirdha from Nagaur, Kumbha Ram Arya from Bikaner, Sis Ram Ola from Shekhawati and Parasram Maderna from Jodhpur prospered in Congress party.
Nathu Ram was the lone Congress MP from north India to be elected in 1977 when the Janata Party romped home to victory. The farming community dominates the Shekhawati (comprising Sikar, Jhunjhunu and Churu districts) and Marwar regions (western Rajasthan districts of Barmer and Nagaur).
The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government included them in the other backward classes (OBC) category for reservation in education and jobs in 1999, following which the community’s support has been split between the Congress and the BJP. The Congress’ decision to choose Ashok Gehlot, not a member of the assembly at the time, over Parasram Maderna as the CM in 1998 also cost the party the Jats’ support.
“They are the most influential community, both in terms of numbers and presence in the Assembly. On an average, every Assembly has around 30 Jat lawmakers,” said political analyst Narayen Bareth. “They vote in large numbers and are most aware politically.”
Barmer MP Sonaram Chaudhary who is the senior most BJP lawmaker from the community, feels sidelined in the party with no major responsibility entrusted to him. Same is the case with other senior Jat leaders who deserted the Congress to join the BJP. “The community is not happy. We feel we have no voice in the party,” the Barmer MP says.
Former bureaucrat and former member of the Rajasthan OBC Commission, Satya Narain Singh, says the Jats continue to feel that the BJP is a pro-Rajput party and sense a a vacuum of Jat leadership. “The Jats came to the BJP with the hope that they will have a say in party’s politics but that didn’t happen.”
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