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Wednesday, Oct 16, 2019

Lok Sabha elections 2019: Jodhpur outcome to have implications for Ashok Gehlot, Vasundhara Raje

The fight is keen in Jodhpur and Barmer-Jaisalmer; the BJP has an edge in Pali and Jalore-Sirohi.

opinion Updated: Apr 30, 2019 11:58 IST
Vinod Sharma
Vinod Sharma
Hindustan Times, Jodhpur/Barmer/Pali
The verdict in Jodhpur will impact the fate of two titans, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his predecessor Vasundhara Raje
The verdict in Jodhpur will impact the fate of two titans, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and his predecessor Vasundhara Raje(HT File Photo)

Rajasthan showcases a straight battle between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

There’s no wave in the Marwar region of the desert state; the soft winds are whistling the Modi name in pockets dominated by the BJP’s core constituents. The Prime Minister has galvanised them by his nationalist pitch.

The April 29 vote in the first leg of the two-phase poll has sealed the fate of contestants in 13 of the 25 seats. Of these, the outcome in Jodhpur could be the microcosm of the big picture that emerges on May 23.

Chief minister Ashok Gehlot was not in the fray in the constituency from where he first entered the Lok Sabha in 1980. What transformed the poll to a battle between him and Narendra Modi was the candidature of his son, Vaibhav, against the BJP MP and central minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat. The latter is the PM’s protege.

Vaibhav’s campaign rode on the Gehlot name. In Jodhpur’s Mali-dominated Mahamandir area, where the CM spent his childhood, many people saw him for the first time when he came campaigning with his father.

The electorate’s refrain there was that they’d back him for Gehlot’s sake: “Yahan vote Ashok ke naam par hoga [the vote here will be in Gehlot’s name].”

His clansmen’s rally behind the CM made clear the de-facto nature of the face-off. If Gajendra wins, he’d be a giant-killer/ If he doesn’t, he could say he lost to Gehlot, not to a rookie that’s Vaibhav. In either case, the outcome would have far-reaching political implications.

Gehlot has to retain Jodhpur to ensure his regime, which rests on a small majority in the 200-member assembly, keeps going. The amateur magician has had to use multiple tricks to try and conjure up a win for his son.

There will be no looking back for Gajendra if he retains the prestigious seat. With Modi’s blessings, he’d be ready then to fill, in the longer run, the vacuum left by the other Shekhawat — the late Bhairon Singh, who, like Gehlot, was the CM of Rajasthan three times. The BJP direly needs a Rajput face in the state where the community has an influential presence.

Gajendra fits the bill. His family migrated to Marwar from the Shekhawati region associated with Bhairon Singh, who rose to become India’s 11th vice-president. His 2002 elevation in a parliamentary vote saw Rajputs members transcending party lines to back his candidature by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime.

Gehlot’s ostensible advantage in the fight was his long association with Jodhpur as its five-term MP.

As CM, Gehlot represents Sardarpura, one of the city’s three assembly segments. His position was bolstered by the six legislators his party has out of a total of eight in the parliamentary seat.

Gajendra’s counter push was bolstered by the near-total support of Rajputs, whose 250,000-strong community outnumbered other communities by a big margin. His bid was to ensure a higher turnout of his relatively laid back clansmen, in an expression identical to the kinship that helped Bhairon Singh become vice-president with more votes than the National Democratic Alliance’s strength in the electoral college.

For an on-ground check, I went to the Rajput-dominated Shergarh segment along the 500km journey from Jodhpur city to Pokhran.

Most homes in the constituency nestling in the Thar desert have a family member in the armed forces. Not surprising then that the seat won by the Congress in the 2018 assembly polls now supports Modi’s nationalism call and his allusion to India’s nuclear arsenal at a rally in nearby Barmer.

“The vote here is for national interest,” said Jabbar Singh Bhati. He was a taxi driver who didn’t know who the BJP candidate was. Nor was he moved, like so many others, by the local Congress legislator’s appeal for a vote for the CM’s son. A few residents talked, however, about silent voters who might back Vaibhav: “He had a good meeting here...he has androoni [subterranean] support.”

The voices on the ground altered, as did the political terrain, a 100km down the megaway to Pokhran, the testing site for India’s nuclear programme. The Muslim-dominated assembly seat has a sizeable sprinkling of Rajputs and scheduled castes and tribes. “Here it’s the Congress,” said a local journalist, Chandrashekhar Dave. He said the constituents owed a lot to the CM, who’s a regular visitor to the area.

The arguments one heard from the common people in Pokhran reflected the mood one had countenanced at the start of the long journey.

At the Luni assembly segment’s Dawa village, a group of Bishnois celebrated the Congress’s one-plus-one offer: “What better can we ask for than an MP who’s father is the CM....”

Amateur caste experts abound in the Marwar countryside. They insisted the outcome would be determined by the Jats and Bishnois in the Jodhpur Division’s four Lok Sabha seats.

The fight is keen in Jodhpur and Barmer-Jaisalmer; the BJP has an edge in Pali and Jalore-Sirohi.

In Barmer, Manvendra Singh, son of former defence minister Jaswant Singh, is on a Congress ticket against the BJP’s Kailash Chaudhary. He depends for the Jat vote on fellow Congressman, Harish Chaudhary, the Bayatu MLA who is a cabinet minister.

The BJP candidate for the Lok Sabha stood third last year in the assembly elections in Bayatu. The situation has since changed with Jat chieftain Hanuman Beniwal sealing a pact with the saffron party.

As the Jats generally vote for Jats, Manvendra, a Rajput, has had to walk the extra mile to woo them. Questions nevertheless linger about the level of support he may get from the community despite the denial of ticket to sitting BJP MP, Sona Ram.

The Sona Ram factor cannot be deciphered without studying his mentor Vasundhara Raje’s role in Gehlot’s Marwar.

As an in-house adversary of Gajendra, she has reportedly helped Vaibhav by persuading a cabal of local leaders, including sitting and former BJP MLAs, to not actively campaign for Gajendra. These quasi-renegades included prominent Brahmin and Rajput leaders. The tacit understanding between the Congress-BJP old guard rested on their commonly shared fears. For Gajendra’s victory could spell the eclipse not just for Gehlot but also Raje.

The whole of Rajasthan knows about the former chief minister’s hand in stalling his elevation as the BJP’s state unit chief after the removal of her camp-follower, Ashok Parnami.

Having always fought Shekhawat-1, Raje wouldn’t brook the rise of Shekhawat-2 in her fiefdom. Moral of the story? In Jodhpur’s hands is the fate of two titans: the incumbent CM and his predecessor.

First Published: Apr 30, 2019 07:38 IST

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