Livelihood worries

Print edition : May 24, 2019

Bhanwarilal Saini, a tea vendor at Mohanpura village in Dausa, cannot afford a shutter for his kiosk. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Anokhi, a vegetable vendor in Dausa, said the Ujjwala stoves were useless. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, featured in this election hoarding, remains the BJP’s star attraction, but the Modi wave of 2014 is missing. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

At the Congress election office in Bharatpur, posters prominently feature Cabinet Minister Vishwendra Singh (in dark glasses), party candidate Abhijeet (far left) and B.R. Ambedkar. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

While political parties rely on caste and communal polarisation and nationalist rhetoric, the man on the street remains grounded in everyday irritants.

Voting in Rajasthan started in the fourth phase on April 29, when 13 of the State’s 25 parliamentary constituencies went to the polls with a turnout that was almost 4 per cent higher than in 2014. (The other 12 seats will go to the polls on May 6.) The average turnout was, however, 6 per cent lower than the 74 per cent polling recorded in the Assembly elections held in December 2018. A high percentage of voting was observed also in the 2013 Assembly election, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the desert State with a three-fourths majority. In 2014, the party won all the 25 parliamentary seats.

The 12 seats where elections will be held on May 6 comprise eastern Rajasthan and parts of north, north-west and central Rajasthan. The prestigious Jaipur (Rural) and Jaipur (Urban) constituencies will vote in this phase. Union Minister Rajyavardhan Rathore and his party colleague Ramcharan Bohra are seeking re-election from Jaipur (Rural) and Jaipur (Urban) respectively. Both face tough opponents in Congress candidates Krishna Poonia and former Jaipur Mayor Jyoti Khandelwal.

Voter enthusiasm on April 29 did not appear to have been affected by the soaring temperature or the generally low-key campaign. It was difficult to say which specific community or class contributed to the higher turnout, but certain sections are evidently unhappy with the BJP. The general voter has been silent, barring the stray aggressive BJP supporter in tea stalls and roadside kiosks attempting to shape public opinion in favour of the party. A member of the minority community told Frontline that Muslims would vote heavily again this time, referring to the recently held Assembly elections in December where he said, almost every Muslim made it a point to vote.

The battle is primarily between the Congress and the BJP. Contests in some seats are triangular, thanks to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in eastern Rajasthan, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in parts of northern and central Rajasthan, and the Bhartiya Tribal Party in some southern constituencies. The BJP’s lavish spending on hoardings and posters makes it by far the most visible party, though in some cities such as Alwar, Dausa, Bharatpur and Jaipur, the Congress’ hoardings with the message of “NYAY” were also fairly noticeable.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s images dominate the BJP’s campaign material, while former Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje makes an occasional appearance in some cut-outs and hoardings. In fact, murmurs of the slogan “Vasundhra teri khair nahi/Modi tujhse bair nahi”, suggesting that the Rajasthan voter ought to be looking at Modi’s and not Vasundhara Raje’s performance, which had appeared out of the blue in the Assembly elections, has been doing the rounds again. The idea clearly was to project Modi as the BJP’s face for the Lok Sabha elections and thus beat the anti-incumbency factor. Yet, despite Modi’s frenetic campaigning, the BJP lost the Assembly elections in the State. Modi is once again the party’s principal face in the campaign for the Lok Sabha election. None of the BJP’s recently sidelined margdarshak mandal (a euphemism for leaders like L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, who have been denied the ticket), not even State leaders, features significantly anywhere in cut-outs and hoardings. The text of all such campaign material invariably exhorted voters to vote for a “Modi sarkar”, reflecting a campaign where voters were expected to vote for Modi and not the candidates contesting the elections. Yet, the campaign seemed to be faltering. While BJP supporters talked aggressively of how Modi was required to “save the country”, the anonymous voter seemed more engaged with the question of how the two main parties gave short shrift to promises once the elections were over. Vasundhara Raje’s promise of two lakh jobs and Modi’s pledge to generate 10 crore jobs are cases in point.

Frontline spoke to a cross section of voters in four of the 12 seats that were to go to the polls on May 6. Basic issues of water, employment, electricity, wages and jobs seemed to preoccupy most of them. Almost all agreed that the Modi wave was absent this time. Some were hopeful that the four-month-old Congress government in the State would deliver on its promises, though others were sceptical in view of the unfulfilled promise of all farm loans being waived within 10 days of the party’s coming to power. The BJP has been exploiting the consequent resentment among farmers. Still, the Ashok Gehlot government’s policy initiative of disbursing free medicines in government hospitals has struck a chord with voters, especially the rural poor. The Congress hopes to win 10 to 15 seats. “It could be either that or a complete sweep. We can only improve from zero,” said a Congress worker.

Congress stronghold

In eastern Rajasthan, the Congress has been winning in Dausa almost uninterruptedly since 1952. From 1984 onwards, Rajesh Pilot represented the seat for close to three terms until his death in an accident. After his demise, his wife, Rama Pilot, successfully contested the Dausa byelection held in 2000. Their son, Sachin Pilot, now Deputy Chief Minister, won from Dausa in 2004.

In 2009, Dausa became a reserved seat. It has eight Assembly segments, most of which are held by the Congress. The incumbent MP is former Director General of Police Harish Meena, who won against the BJP rebel Kirori Lal Meena. Harish Meena left the BJP in November 2018 and successfully contested the Assembly elections on the Congress ticket from Deoli-Uniara in Tonk. K.L. Meena is now back in the BJP. The Gujjar leader Colonel (retired) K.L. Bainsla is also back in the BJP.

This time again it is a “Meena versus Meena” battle here, and the candidates from both parties are women. The BJP fielded Jaskaur Meena, who was Union Human Resource Development Minister in 2003. The Congress candidate is Savita Meena, wife of the sitting Congress MLA from Dausa. The Congress is hopeful of a win because its candidate is a local, unlike Jaskaur Meena, who was elected MP from Sawai Madhopur in 2003. Both candidates are from the Meena (Scheduled Tribe) community. How the other castes have voted is the big question.

In Dausa’s Bassi Assembly segment, a young voter told Frontline that the Bassi “market” was a “Brahmin” stronghold where most Brahmins would vote for the BJP. Mohan Singh, another young voter, said that the 10 per cent reservation for economically weaker sections had an appeal for upper castes. “People feel they might get jobs. But whenever there is a vacancy, crores of people apply. It is not easy,” he said. At Mohanpura village in Bassi, voters said that there was a wave for “both Gehlot and Modi”, indicating that the contest was evenly poised. Ordinary workers lamented that there was “no work”, especially after the ban on sand mining. Construction had come to a stop completely, and though Mohanpura panchayat is situated on a national highway, there had been no work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act for years in all the five villages of the panchayat.

“We go to Jaipur looking for work every now and then. Whether this is because of the State or the Centre, we do not know. What we know is that we are suffering and no government seems to address that problem. Only 10 per cent of the people are employed in the government. The rest here, like us, are daily wagers. There is no other source of employment,” said a daily wage earner, Kalu Meena. “Whether it is a Congress or a BJP government, nothing ever happens for the poor,” said Sitaram, another Bassi resident. Bhanwar Lal Saini, a tea vendor, said he was unable to even afford a shutter for his shop. “You ask me how are things. I tell you, nothing has changed, nothing ever will.” He and others were indifferent to the BJP’s “surgical strike” campaign and to the various schemes of the Central government. Mukesh Saini, a barber, said he was refused a “Mudra” loan. The bank he approached told him that the “scheme hadn’t come” to it.

Election promises

Anokhi, a vegetable vendor, told Frontline that the stove given under the Ujjwala scheme was “useless” as it could not take the weight of heavy vessels. Moreover, it was not “free”, she said, as the money for it was being “recovered” and the cylinder refilling costs were not as cheap as one had expected them to be. “It takes a lot of time to cook chapatti and vegetables on the stove, and it doesn’t cook well, either,” she said. Referring to Modi’s 2014 promise of Rs.15 lakh in every Indian’s bank account, she said: “Forget Rs.15 lakh, let him at least give Rs.15,000.” Talking of drinking water shortage, she said: “We have to buy water every three days. The Vasundhara Raje government did not do anything about that. We hope the Congress government will address this.”

Nationalism hype

There were not many people at the BJP’s sprawling election office in Dausa when this correspondent visited, but loudspeakers blared out Modi’s name repeatedly with no reference to the local candidate. Recorded slogans of “Modi lao, desh bachao” (Bring Modi to power, save the country) were heard in and around the office. The 2014 stress on development was noticeably absent. The mood in the BJP election office was not optimistic despite the return of K.L. Meena and K.L. Bainsla to the party.

Murari Dhomkariya is in charge of the BJP’s election campaign in Dausa. When asked why the party did not do well in the Assembly election, he said it was because of “caste factors”. He was referring to the BJP rebel Om Prakash Hudla from the Gujjar community who won from the Mahua Assembly segment. “We have his support now. Seventy-five per cent of the Gujjar vote is going to come to us. Last time we did not get these votes. This time, we have the S.T. [Scheduled Tribe] and the general category votes. It is a vote for Modi,” he said. Yet, K.L. Meena does not seem to be campaigning very hard for the party’s candidate, nor is Bainsla’s hold over the Gujjar community strong enough to swing the election in the BJP’s favour. Gopal Trivedi, a BJP supporter, admitted that unemployment was an important issue.

Voter sentiment

At Sikrai (Dausa), known for its stone work and sandstone idols, masons and artisans complained about the economic slowdown. Demonetisation and the goods and services tax (GST) regime had hit small traders and shopkeepers hard. “If there is money in circulation, it will come to us in the form of purchases. We are sitting idle. There is neither a Modi wave nor any meaningful presence of the Congress,” said Giriraj Sharma. Yet, in Alwar, the mood seems decisively in favour of the Congress candidate, Jitendra Singh. “As an MP from 2009 to 2014, he did a lot of work for the people here. No one knows Balaknath, the BJP candidate. He is a seer. The incumbent MP was also a seer who won owing to the Modi wave in 2014,” said Ravidas Prajapat from Moonpur village in the Rajgarh Assembly segment of Alwar Lok Sabha constituency.

Interestingly, in the byelection to the Alwar Lok Sabha seat, which had been vacated following the death of its BJP representative, the former Minister Karan Singh Yadav of the Congress won handsomely. But then Karan Singh contested in the Assembly election in December and lost. His defeat was attributed to “wrong” seat selection. Yet farmers like Dashrath and Rameshwar Singh were confident that the Congress would win from Alwar. They regretted not voting for Bhanwarji (Jitendra Singh) in 2014 and asserted that there was no BJP wave in Alwar following the “surgical strike” in Balakot. They said that the Yadav votes were crucial in two Assembly segments and might swing towards the BJP. But the votes of the other communities, including a sizeable minority vote, would favour the Congress, they said.

In the reserved seat of Bharatpur, it was interesting to see prominent mug shots of the Congress candidate Abhijeet along with those of Vishwendra Singh of the Bharatpur royal family, a Cabinet Minister in the Gehlot government, and B.R. Ambedkar. The Congress banks on the Jat, Dalit and minority votes in this seat. Abhijeet, a former Indian Revenue Service official, is new to politics. His opponent from the BJP is Ranjeeta Koli, daughter-in-law of Gangaram Koli, a three-time BJP MP.

In April 2018, eastern Rajasthan witnessed violent protests by upper-caste groups in response to a Bharat bandh called by Dalit organisations over the changes made in the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The homes of a former Congress MLA and a sitting MLA from the BJP, both Dalits, were razed by frenzied upper-caste mobs in Hindaun in the Karauli-Dholpur Lok Sabha constituency. The Congress and the BSP have been trying to cash in on the Dalit anger.

Frontline met two disgruntled Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh workers, Kamal Singh and Brajendra Singh, in the Weir Assembly segment of Bharatpur. “We went to build the temple in Ayodhya but we were jailed instead. Neither was Article 370 removed, nor was the Mandir built. The BJP is like the Congress. We will vote again for the Congress like we did in the Assembly elections,” one of them said. “Modi did not complete the river-linking project. National security is important, but one shouldn’t make so many false promises.” Frontline spoke to shopkeepers who complained about the implementation of GST. On the Agra-Bharatpur national highway, Deendayal Tambi, a hotel owner, told Frontline that the POS (point of sale) machine was useless as there was no Internet. “This is the highway and connectivity is so bad. It must be worse in the interiors,” he said.

Congress confident

Although the BJP kept harping on the absence of a credible prime ministerial face in the Congress, the electorate did not appear vastly bothered. On the other hand, the BJP is perceived as being responsible for the caste and communal polarisation and the economic slowdown that have taken place over the last five years. There is no BJP wave.

Yet, there is no Congress wave, either. However, the Congress is confident of winning the Barmer, Jodhpur, Ganganagar, Bikaner, Nagaur, Kota, Tonk-Sawaimadhopur, Dausa and Sikar seats. The BJP is reportedly likely to win in Jhalawar, Bharatpur, Churu, Ajmer, Bhilwara, Rajsamand, Chittorgarh, Udaipur and Jalore. “Which way the remaining seven seats will go is anyone’s guess,” said a Congress insider.

T.K. Rajalakshmi has travelled in the districts of Dausa, Alwar, Bharatpur and Jaipur for this story.

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