INDIA bloc gathers steam in Rajasthan

For BJP, equipped with resources, star campaigners, and the Modi factor, retaining all 25 or over 50 per cent of seats is proving to be a challenge.

Published : Apr 22, 2024 19:28 IST - 10 MINS READ

A jan sabha in Chomu, for the INDIA bloc candidate, Amra Ram (standing in red turban). Seated is Shikha Meel Barala, Congress MLA, Chomu, Sikar Lok Sabha.  

A jan sabha in Chomu, for the INDIA bloc candidate, Amra Ram (standing in red turban). Seated is Shikha Meel Barala, Congress MLA, Chomu, Sikar Lok Sabha.   | Photo Credit:  T.K. Rajalakshmi 

In the marketplace of Itawa Bhopji tehsil, Chomu town, Rajasthan a public meeting or a jan sabha is being held. Here, Shikha Meel Barala, Congress MLA from Chomu is giving a speech. She will soon introduce the INDIA bloc candidate, Amra Ram from here. The MLA is a medical professional and her family runs a hospital in the town. “The only caste is unemployment,” she says exhorting the people who voted for her in the Assembly election to now extend support to Amra Ram, a four-time MLA from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for the Lok Sabha election. Amra Ram faces Sumedhanand Saraswati from the BJP, who won consecutively from Sikar in 2014 and 2019 with huge margins. Sikar is one among twelve constituencies that went to polls in the first phase on April 19.

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In her speech she refers to the violence in Manipur, the plight of women and the harassment of women wrestlers. She also talks about the predicament of farmers. “We should not make the same mistake we made 10 years ago,” she says, obliquely referring to NDA victories in 2014 and 2019. “If they win, they will finish the right to vote by changing the Constitution,” she says, adding that the chunaav chinh or election symbol people had to vote on was the daantli, hathoda and sitara (sickle, hammer and star) referring to the CPI (M) election symbol. “You used to vote for the hand but now you have to vote for this symbol. Amra Ram has to be sent to the Lok Sabha. He needs no introduction. He has led many of your struggles,” she says.

Left, equidistant

It is a fact that the Amra Ram is a known name in Sikar and Rajasthan. As president of the All India Kisan Sabha, he had steered several farmers’ struggles against both the Congress and BJP governments. In 2005, he led a 70,000-strong mahapadaav in Jaipur and got the then government to agree to the demands of the farmers. “The Left movement in the State emerged from the kisan movement,” says Vasudev, former State Secretary of the CPI (M). He recalls a peasant struggle in 1974-75 over water when five people were killed.

The Left has a relatively good presence in the Jat belt primarily due to peasant and student movements. Its electoral performance has been erratic due to many factors, resources being one of them, besides the deep-rooted caste and feudal character of the State’s social fabric. Its areas of influence are the Shekhawati districts stretching up to Ganganagar, Bikaner, and Hanumangarh. One of its tallest leaders, Sheopat Singh Makassar was elected to the Lok Sabha from Bikaner and four times to the Assembly.

Sheopat Singh was credited with leading many militant struggles opposing the auction of land for the Bhakra Canal and later the Indira Gandhi Canal. Respect for him cut across party lines. Politically, the Left has been equidistant from both the Congress and the BJP. But this is the first time that an alliance with the Congress in the State has taken off.

Rajasthan’s Deputy Chief Minister Diya Kumari welcoming former Congress leader Sitaram Aggarwal into the BJP in the party headquarters in Jaipur. Aggarwal had contested against Diya Kumari in the Assembly election in December 2023.

Rajasthan’s Deputy Chief Minister Diya Kumari welcoming former Congress leader Sitaram Aggarwal into the BJP in the party headquarters in Jaipur. Aggarwal had contested against Diya Kumari in the Assembly election in December 2023. | Photo Credit: T.K. Rajalakshmi 

On the day Amra Ram filed his nomination, the former Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee Govind Dotasara, accompanied him. Interestingly, Dotasara is the sitting MLA from Lacchmangarh in Sikar. He was a probable Lok Sabha candidate from Sikar. But he declined to contest and has been seen actively campaigning for the INDIA bloc candidate. “It is important to get the Congress voter and cadre out. The Congress leaders are doing their bit. The Left doesn’t have the resources to move around,” said a senior member of the State Congress campaign committee.

The INDIA bloc, though nascent, appears to have taken off in the State. At the jan sabha in Chomu, a local leader of the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party also pledges his support to the INDIA bloc and Amra Ram. On the Nagaur seat, also a Jat belt, the INDIA bloc candidate is Hanuman Beniwal, founder and president of the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party. Even there, the Congress district unit has been actively campaigning for him. “Rumours that Congress workers are unhappy campaigning for a non-Congress person are untrue,” says Raghavendra Mirdha, a key member of the campaigning committee for Beniwal.

Sikar, Churu and Jhunjhunu comprise the Shekhawati region where the Congress performed well in the Assembly election. Of the eight Assembly segments each in Sikar and Churu, five are held by the Congress and three by the BJP. In Jhunjhunu, the Congress wrested six out of the eight seats. In that sense, the Congress has an edge. Sumedhanand, locals say, won because of the Modi factor. But that may not work this time, people feel. Mohan Barala, a BJP worker, is unhappy that his party has ignored his interests. His wife is a former sarpanch. “For five years we fought the Congress. But nothing was done for this area. We have known Amra Ram for the last 30 to 40 years. He has a clean reputation. Sumedhanand came here as well a few days ago. There was thin attendance,” he says. Others point out that Sumedhanand is not native to Rajasthan but Haryana, whereas Amra Ram is a local. Then there is the jateeya sammeekaran or social engineering, which people say is in favor of Amra Ram. People tell Frontline that social groups such as Jats, Yadavs, Maalis, Gujjars and minorities were backing him.

It was no coincidence that the BJP launched its Rajasthan campaign from Sikar on March 31 with Amit Shah holding a road show. Shah spoke about Modi’s guarantees, abrogation of Article 370 and the Ram temple. Rajasthan Chief Minister Bhajan Lal Sharma and sitting MP Sumedhanand accompanied him. On April 7, less than a week after Shah’s road show, a second rally was held by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Senior BJP leaders were focusing on seats that were considered “tough”. Among them were Sikar, Dausa, Dholpur-Karauli, Churu, Nagaur, Barmer and Jaipur-Rural.

Water, water

In a region completely dependent on agriculture and rainfall, earning a livelihood solely on agriculture is a tough proposition in the Shekhawati belt. Recruitment into the army is an option young men fall back upon. The short-term impermanent Agnipath Scheme therefore has not gone down well among the peasantry who look for stable sources of income. In 2019, Pulwama and Balakot happened, rousing nationalist sentiments among the fauji’ (army) families here. That fervour is missing this time and more concrete issues bother the electorate with the Jats, as the numerically dominant community here, calling the shots. Water is a big issue here. Despite new tubewell connections, there is no ground water and no canal water either.

Pratap Singh Khachariyawas, Congress candidate for Jaipur invited to speak at the CPI(M) office in Jaipur.

Pratap Singh Khachariyawas, Congress candidate for Jaipur invited to speak at the CPI(M) office in Jaipur. | Photo Credit: T.K. Rajalakshmi 

“If Amra Ram gets water in these parts, our vote goes to him. He is the one who protected us from paying exorbitant electricity charges. He got Vasundhara Raje to agree to the demands. What use is the Rs. 6,000 that the Centre gives to farmers? It doesn’t even meet the cost of medicines. A 250-gram tea packet used to cost Rs. 45 in 2020. Now it costs Rs.85. The price of all essential things has risen. There is no employment either. The AgnipathScheme is a scam,” says Madan Lal, one of the organisers of the public meeting in Chomu. Almost everyone mentions the severe mehengai (price rise) and berozgaari (unemployment) levels apart from expressing outrage at the arrest of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. The Aam Aadmi Party is not a factor here and neither do INDIA bloc leaders highlight it in their campaigns but Kejriwal’s arrest seemed to have unnerved many. “Samajh sab rahein hain. Bas bol nahi rahey” (People understand everything, but are afraid to speak up),” says a government dairy employee.

If farmers are unhappy, so are traders. Govind, who is the owner of Laxmi Cloth Store, the biggest textile retail store in Chomu town, says that supplies are erratic as is demand. “Our customers are rural folk. If the farmer has money to spend, then we also make some money. Festivals come and go before our eyes. Shops are literally empty,” he says. Suresh Kumawat, another trader says that he was a BJP voter but would now vote for the INDIA bloc candidate. The BJP MP, he says did nothing to address the water situation in the region or revive the textile mills in the area.

Of the eight Assembly segments in Nagaur, four were won by the Congress, two by the BJP, one each by the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party and an independent Yunus Khan who was basically a BJP rebel. The INDIA bloc candidate here is Beniwal, sitting MLA of Khinwsar. Nagaur is considered a Congress stronghold. The Mirdha family holds sway here with leaders such as Nathu Ram Mirdha and Ram Niwas Mirdha having held positions in the Union government. In 2009, the seat was won by Jyoti Mirdha of the Congress who ironically is the BJP’s nominee in 2024 against Beniwal. In 2018, Beniwal formed his own party apparently disgruntled with Vasundhara Raje. The Rashtriya Loktantrik Party contested the Assembly election that year and won a few seats as well. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Beniwal fought on the seat as an NDA ally and was elected to Parliament. He’s had a falling out with the BJP again and is now with the INDIA bloc. On voting day, clashes were reported between Mirdha’s and Beniwal’s supporters.

A pucca local vs an outsider

BJP insiders concede that the battle was “tough” in at least 10 seats. There is some resentment too for “importing” Congress workers and leaders into the party. The resentment is shared within the Congress too. But anti-incumbency against sitting MPs is a bigger issue. The sitting MP from Alwar, Mahant Balaknath, now an MLA, was not re-nominated as there was a perceived undercurrent against him. “He’s unhappy because he was not made Chief Minister. If he had contested from here, he would have lost,” says Kailash Bairwa in Rajgarh town, Alwar district. The BJP candidate, Union Labour Minister Bhupendra Yadav, has been pitted against 35-year-old Lalit Yadav, Congress MLA from Mundawar. In Alwar, there are murmurs of Bhupendra Yadav being an outsider, as opposed to Lalit Yadav who they say is a pucca local. Bhupendra Yadav is one of four Central Ministers who have been fielded from Rajasthan.

Along the national highway falls Bhandana village in Dausa district. This is the place where Congress leader Rajesh Pilot died in a road accident. In his memory, a tall statue, in a fenced enclosure, stands on the Dausa-Delhi stretch. Pilot’s legacy is remembered here. His political legatee Sachin Pilot’s name carries weight among the Gujjars here. The Congress won three of the eight Assembly segments here in December 2023.

Pratap Bainsla, a local from Bhandana says that the Gujjars were united behind the Congress. “We took out our anger against the party in the Assembly election as they didn’t make Sachin Pilot the Chief Minister. We have now forgiven the Congress,” he says.

In Dausa, the sitting BJP MP Jaskaur Meena was denied a ticket. BJP supporters in Dausa indicate that it is tough for the official candidate Kanhaiyalal Meena as he has re-emerged into active political life after a long break whereas the Congress candidate Murari Lal Meena was from Dausa. He was considered accessible and was close to both Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot. Congress leaders in Dausa say that because of the earlier infighting in the party, the Congress fared badly in the Assembly election. Things are different now, as all factions are united. “The fault was with the leaders, not the people”, they say.

Also Read | How BJP’s aggressive campaign exploited Congress’ weaknesses to secure decisive victory in Rajasthan

In Bandikui, Dausa, locals say that while a section of the Brahmin, Gujjar and Maali vote might go with the BJP, the Congress had the support of the other social groups such as the minorites, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Among Scheduled Tribes, the Meenas are in significant numbers and in a position to determine the results.

For now, no party is leaving anything to chance. For the BJP, equipped with vast resources, star campaigners and the Modi factor, retaining all the 25 or more than 50 per cent of the seats is proving to be a challenge. The Congress and the INDIA bloc meanwhile are hopeful of improving their performance from zero to five to seven seats at the moment.

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