Caste-based calculations

Print edition : December 05, 2003

In Rajasthan, there have been significant shifts in political loyalties as the main political parties give primary importance to appeasing powerful caste groups.

in Jaipur

Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot filing his nomination for the Sardarpura constituency.-

"I AM Madangopal Ojha, Brahmin, and he is Dularam Godara, Jat," says a resident of Sri Dungargarh in Bikaner district, introducing himself and his friend.

Introductions of this kind are not unusual and caste identities have a tendency to become sharper during elections. It is considered quite natural to mention one's caste or sub-caste as it is a distinct mark of identity, the importance of which cannot be understated. It signifies economic access, political status and social importance.

Caste looms large everywhere and is especially evident in the agriculturally rich Shekhawati belt. But what is unusual is that this identity not only may play a significant role in the December 1 elections, but also could have an impact on the social equations in the long run. This round of Assembly elections will be distinctly different from previous elections, for the caste card is going to be played to the hilt.

The immediate reason for such extreme caste polarisation has got to do with the contentious issue of reservation. First, the politically and economically dominant Jat community was given reservations under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category. The decision was taken by the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre following an announcement by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The result was that the Jat community - not considered a traditional vote base of the BJP - developed an affinity to the party, much to the consternation of the Congress(I). That this populist decision had borne fruit was evident in the Lok Sabha elections that followed soon after the 1998 Assembly polls. The Congress(I), which had literally swept the polls in 1998, realised that they had lost the support of the Jat community.

But there was more trouble in store for both the BJP and the Congress(I). The sections traditionally supportive of the BJP - Rajputs, Brahmins and Vaishyas (the trading class) - were upset by the decision on reservation. Soon afterwards, under the leadership of two BJP leaders, Devi Singh Bhati and Lokendra Singh Kalvi, a demand for the inclusion of all those castes that had not been included in any category in the OBC category arose. A new organisation, called the Samajik Nyaya Manch (SNM, or Social Justice Front), which began mobilising people mainly affiliated to either the Rajput or the Brahmin caste, soon emerged. Meanwhile, Jats organised themselves to form the Jat Mahasabha to counter the Rajput Mahasabha or the Brahmin Mahasabha.

Hence apart from the Congress(I) and the BJP which are vying for the votes of their traditional caste bases, several strictly caste-based organisations have called on their members to vote for candidates belonging to their respective castes, rejecting the political nominees of the dominant parties. The idea is to support the candidate who would project the interests of his or her caste and not the ideas or manifestoes of any mainstream political party.

BJP leader Vasundhararaje Scindia filing her nomination for the Jhalrapatan constituency in the presence of party leaders Pramod Mahajan and Shahnawaz Hussain.-

In any event, the vote share of all those parties categorised as "Others" has been steadily going up with each election. Observers feel that in the absence of a clear wave, "Others" might be in a position to play a significant role. These include the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Janata Dal (United). Significantly, all these parties barring the INLD and the Janata Dal (U) are opposed to the BJP. Although the INLD does not have an alliance with the BJP in the State, it is supporting the party at the Centre.

The SNM has been formed to oppose the BJP and also the Jat community which, it says, has cornered all the reservation benefits provided to the OBC category. The SNM has rallied some other OBC communities as well. Its main slogan is "Upekshit ko aarakshan, aarakshit ko sanrakshan" (Reservation for the excluded and protection of the rights of the reserved categories). Says SNM coordinator Prahlad Singh Peeh: "We are not for a particular community. There are members from all castes who come to our office. But so far not a single Jat has entered our office." The SNM, he said, was not for reservations based on the economic criteria suggested by the Ashok Gehlot-led State government. "We want reservation in the same manner as the Jats have been given," he said.

The SNM registered itself as a political party soon after it became clear that the BJP too was not taking it seriously. "The Prime Minister promised he would raise the issue in Parliament, but he gave us the slip. Until and unless we do not get reservation, we are not going to be quiet," added Peeh. He clarified that the organisation's main adversaries were the BJP and, to a lesser extent, the Congress(I). "They called us stooges of the Congress(I), but we disrupted the meetings of Gehlot as well," said Peeh, referring to the SNM's disruption of the Parivartan Yatras led by BJP State president Vasundhararaje Scindia. The SNM has already taken in several BJP and Congress(I) leaders who have been denied the ticket by their parties.

One of the prominent rebels in the BJP is Pratap Singh Khachriyavaas, nephew of Vice-President and former Chief Minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat. After being denied the ticket for the Baneepark segment in Jaipur district during the last Assembly elections, Khachriyavaas contested as an independent and lost. He was hopeful of the BJP ticket this time and apparently had the blessings of Vasundhararaje Scindia. He was offered the Dholpur seat, but he refused. Another BJP rebel, contesting from Baneepark this time, is Rajpal Singh Shekhawat, a relative of the late Sarsanghachalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), Rajendra Singh (Rajju Bhaiya). Similarly, in the Assembly segment of Sanganer, former BJP Minister Vidya Pathak is contesting as an INLD candidate. Other senior leaders such as Lalit Kishore Chaturvedi, Ghanshyam Tiwari, Shanti Lal Chaplot, Kirori Mal Meena and Gulab Singh Kataria have changed seats in order to contest from safe constituencies. As a result, many local ticket-seekers have been peeved.

Among the prominent Congress(I) rebels are Minister for Jails Chandrashekhar Singh, Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee vice-president Dula Ram, who may contest on the INLD ticket, and Gopal Joshi, former Congress(I) legislator, now contesting as an SNM candidate.

Chief Minister Gehlot, by nominating all legislators barring 18 (there are 157 Congress(I) members in the 200-member Assembly), has somewhat stemmed the rebellion in the party. But all the renominated legislators may not find the going easy, owing to the anti-incumbency factor and the presence of party rebels as candidates. Gehlot's image alone will not be enough to win votes for the Congress(I). An observer said: "Gehlot may be popular. But then we will have to find 200 Gehlots to ensure that the party sweeps the polls."

One significant section expected to vote heavily in favour of the Congress(I) is the minority community. Although the BSP, whose vote base is considered similar to that of the Congress(I) barring the votes of the Jat community, could cause a dent on the minority votes, it is believed that the party may not do anything that might directly benefit its current bete noire, the BJP. Currently the BSP's presence in the State, unlike Madhya Pradesh, is nominal. It has no legislators, and with Mayawati out of power the electoral prospects of the party may not be as bright as before. Most people belonging to the minority community with whom this correspondent spoke categorically stated that they would vote for the Congress(I), primarily because it had helped maintain law and order in the State.

Said an autorickshaw driver: "We will vote for Gehlot. He has done good work; but, most important, he has not allowed riots and communal violence to erupt in the State." In the Chomu Assembly segment in Jaipur district, Bhai Mohammad Salim Sahab said: "What is wrong with the BJP? How so ever much we try to be sincere, we will always be disloyal in their eyes."

The Shekawati belt has seen several prolonged peasant and farmer struggles. But this legacy has faded into the background as such issues no longer seem to dominate the political agenda. Said Bharat Singh, a businessman in Chomu, on the outskirts of Jaipur city: "Unlike previous elections, the caste factor will be very dominant this time." The Left parties too feel similarly.

Said Sheopat Singh, the CPI(M) candidate from Nawan in Nagaur district: "The BJP has unleashed a genie which has the potential of destroying all the democratic movements in the State. Its fake promises will lead to terrible social unrest." The CPI(M) has fielded several veterans this time, mainly peasant leaders. Some of them, like Het Ram Beniwal and the 78-year-old Sheopat Singh, are former legislators.

Samajik Nyaya Manch leader Devi Singh Bhati filing his nomination for the Kolayat constituency.-

In Sikar district, both the Congress(I) and the BJP face the rebel problem in several constituencies. The SNM, the CPI(M) and the INLD are also in the fray. In Sikar district, the BJP faces open rebellion in Sri Madhopur, Khandela, Data Ramgarh, Sikar and Neem Ka Thana Assembly segments. In fact, political observers in the State say that the contest could be multi-cornered. But the consensus is that the BJP's grip in the Shekhawati region has weakened considerably.

The Assembly segments in Jhunjhunu district will see some tough contests between the Congress(I) and the BJP. The sitting legislator from Jhunjhunu, Sumitra Singh, won as an independent last time, with the help of the BJP, defeating Brajendra Ola, son of the Jat leader Sis Ram Ola. This time Sumitra Singh is contesting on the BJP ticket. Overall, the situation favours the Congress(I) candidates, who may win by default. "Even if the BJP candidates were to raise serious issues like the steep power tariffs, their upper-caste vote base has problems accepting Vasundhararaje Scindia as the leader," said a local journalist.

The situation does not seem to be any different in Churu. Although the Congress(I) has an edge over the BJP in the Assembly segments of the district, the presence of rebels in some constituencies may queer its pitch. Ratangarh in Churu is an important seat as it happens to be the place from where Hari Shankar Bhabhra, Deputy Chief Minister during Bhairon Singh Shekhawat's regime, will be contesting. In 1998, Bhabhra, like many other BJP leaders, had lost his seat.

One district where the SNM will play a decisive role is Bikaner. One of the founders of the SNM, Devi Singh Bhati, is a legislator from the Kolayat Assembly segment in the district. Bhati, who has been elected five times in the past, contested on the BJP ticket in 1998 and won by a narrow margin. A few weeks ago, he was expelled from the party after the SNM made it clear that it was out to ruin the prospects of the BJP. The BJP has fielded Gopal Gehlot against Bhati. According to Gopal Gehlot, he is in the fray primarily to defeat the "politics of fear" that is associated with Bhati. It is pertinent that Gehlot, until very recently, was associated with Bhati. As for Bikaner, the Congress(I) is confident of winning the seat once again and returning Education Minister B.D. Kalla to the State Assembly. Kalla himself sounded confident. He said: "I have won four elections so far and my victory margins have only improved each time. I have done a lot for education at all levels." Kalla said that for the first time, the minorities were solidly behind the Congress(I). He was also certain that the SNM would affect the BJP much more than the Congress(I) in Bikaner division. "We will take more than three seats in Bikaner," he added. In 1998, the Congress(I) won the Dungargarh, Loonkaransar and Bikaner Assembly segments. Interestingly, while the Congress(I) believes that the BJP is in the third place in Bikaner, the BJP believes that the fight is mainly between the Congress(I) and itself, with the SNM in the third place. Congress(I) leader Gopal Joshi, who is contesting on the SNM platform from Loonkaransar after being denied the party ticket, may affect the re-election of the sitting Congress(I) candidate, Virendra Beniwal. Another formidable candidate is Lalchand Bhadu, Kisan Sabha leader who is contesting on the CPI(M) ticket. Bhadu is known to have led several peasant and farmer agitations in the area. In another constituency, Nokha, the contest will be a multi-cornered one, with the INLD, the RLD and an independent in the fray.

The outcome of the elections will be decisive for both the Congress(I) and the BJP. The traditional vote base of the BJP, comprising Rajputs, Brahmins and Vaishyas (Banias), has shifted following the entry of the SNM. The Jat vote base - traditionally allied with the Congress(I) - has also somewhat shifted in favour of the BJP. The BJP continues to appease this community by fielding candidates who are Jats. Therefore the old pattern of Jats being fielded by the Congress(I) and Rajputs and Brahmins being fielded by the BJP no longer holds. Similarly, with Gehlot's improved image as a person who took on the Centre on more than one occasion, the Maalis (or Sainis), the caste to which he belongs, appear to be rallying behind the Congress(I). The Maalis have traditionally voted for the BJP. Said Ram Prasad Saini, a vegetable seller in Fatehpur, Sikar: "Gehlot is one of our kind." The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, another traditional vote base of the Congress(I), are expected to support the party.

Whoever forms the next government will have to reckon with increasing unemployment and industrial unrest. The revival of thousands of closed factories, the regularisation of jobs, including those of hundreds of para-teachers, long-term planning for drought and increased provision of water for irrigation are issues that the electorate would like their new government to take up. Unfortunately, none of these issues will be high on the agendas of the main political parties as all attention seems to be on appeasing predominant castes to win their support.

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