Barmer: Will Modi’s Vikas Chemistry Break Congress’ Caste Arithmetic?
Have Modi’s schemes, primarily targeted at the poorest of poor, who were traditional Congress voters, made enough of a dent to create a vikas chemistry that can trump the caste arithmetic which favours Congress?
The BJP under Vasundhara Raje had won the 2013 assembly election by a landslide. Five years later, the party lost badly.
Some political pundits say Raje’s downfall started because of her one mistake in Barmer.
That sounds farcical because Rajasthan has a long history of voting out the incumbent government, and 2018 was no different. But what happened in 2014 in Barmer can certainly be called an inflection point from where the relationship between Raje and the Rajputs - the BJP’s most loyal and rock solid base in the state - started to go south.
In 2014, the party denied the Lok Sabha ticket, reportedly on Raje’s insistence, to its veteran leader and former Union minister Jaswant Singh, who wanted to fight his last election from his native constituency. Instead BJP fielded the Jat leader, Colonel Sonaram Chaudhary, within days of him jumping the sinking Congress ship.
Congress also gave a ticket to a Jat, its then sitting MP, Harish Chaudhary. Just as Rajputs are traditional BJP voters, so are Jats of Congress.
Jaswant Singh decided to fight as an independent and was soon expelled from the party. Rajputs, numbering 2.5 lakh in Barmer LS, felt slighted and consolidated behind Singh.
Later, during Raje’s tenure, encounters of gangsters Anand Pal Singh and Chatur Singh and not agreeing to a CBI inquiry in both cases, sealing the gates of the Raj Mahal Palace hotel, owned by Diya Kumari of the erstwhile Jaipur royal family and not allowing Gajendra Singh Shekhawat to become the state BJP president increased the animosity between the chief minister and the community to the point of no return. And when a party loses its base voters, it’s dead meat. Even giving tickets to 28 Rajputs (vs Congress’ 13) in the assembly elections couldn’t salvage the situation. Only thing that mattered? “Vasundhra teri khair nahi”.
Coming to Barmer Lok Sabha seat. In 2014, Jaswant Singh got 4 lakh votes and lost by a margin of 87,000 votes, meaning he received a substantial chunk of non-Rajput votes as well. This achievement amidst a Modi wave was no mean feat.
One major reason that the BJP won was due to Jats shifting loyalty from the Congress. They voted en masse for veteran leader Chaudhary Sona Ram instead of young Harish Chaudhary.
This time too, BJP has given ticket to a Jat, Kailash Chaudhary, while Jaswant Singh’s son Manvendra Singh has been fielded by the Congress. Manvendra fought on a BJP ticket from Barmer in 1999, 2004 and 2009. He lost to Congress’ Sona Ram in 1999, won against him in 2004, and lost to Congress’ Harish Chaudhary in 2009.
By fielding a Jat again, the BJP left no choice for the Congress but to field a Rajput, something that the party has not done in four decades.
In such a scenario, Barmer poses many tough questions:
- Rajputs don’t usually vote for the Congress. Will Manvendra be able to bring them into his new party’s fold?
- For the past 20 years, Barmer has always voted for the party whose government is in the power in the state. Can the second Modi wave change this?
With 20 per cent Jats, 6.5 per cent Brahmins, 4.4 per cent Vaishya, and 4 per cent Prajapats behind the BJP, and 11.4 per cent Rajputs, 14 per cent Muslims, 15.6 per cent SC, 6 per cent STs behind the Congress, the latter has an edge. However, have Modi’s schemes, primarily targeted at the poorest of poor, who were traditional Congress voters, made enough of a dent to create a vikas chemistry that can trump the caste arithmetic?
Swabhiman, Dharmasankat and ‘Modi tujhse bair nahi’
Madan Singh, a farmer who owns 75 bighas, is sipping tea with his five friends near Gadisar police chowki. They are upset at plummeting prices of jeera in the market meaning they would barely be able to make even by selling their harvest. But this isn’t the reason they will not be voting for the BJP. “We want Modi in Delhi but Manvendra should win from Barmer. We have to preserve the honour and prestige of Jaswant Singh’s household. The vote is not for Congress but an individual. Otherwise, our party is BJP,” says Madan Singh. His friend Khojraj Singh butts in. “That’s why we are telling our relatives in other parts of Rajasthan to vote for the BJP but here we want only Manvendra.”
Kanwal Singh, an ex-serviceman, lauds PM Modi for construction and widening of the Jaisalmer-Jodhpur, Jaisalmer-Barmer, and the Jaisalmer-Bikaner roads, under the Bharatmala project but he will still vote for Manvendra Singh. “We have always voted for the BJP. Only in 2014, this changed.”
At Indira Colony, we meet four Rajputs in front of a grocery shop. Unlike the group we met earlier, this one is divided in half. Narendra Singh, a BJP worker, explains that seventy percent of the voters in the community are with Manvendra and rest with the BJP, similar to 2014. “Jaswant Singh lost by just 87,000 votes and Congress got over 2 lakh votes last time. Now, combine the two. They clearly have an edge,” he says. Vikram Singh who is leaning towards the Congress in the group explains his dilemma. “We have never voted for Congress in our lifetime. Vasundhra ne saara kaam kharaab kar diya. She tried to marginalise the very community which built the party in the state.” Jaalam Singh, another BJP worker tells me that BJP’s choice of candidate is puzzling. “No one knows Kailash Chaudhary here in Jaisalmer. Sonaram was a known and popular face. He also had cultivated many personal voters over his decades long career in the Congress and even got a few thousand Muslim votes in 2014.”
Ajay Vyas, a trader and a BJP worker in Jaisalmer explained the dharmasankat Rajputs are facing in the assembly constituency. “Rajput organisations are exhorting the community to stand behind Manvendra but problem is most of the BJP and Sangh members or former MLAs here are from the community. If they go with Manvendra, toh Jaisalmer Rajputs ka ahit hoga (then it will not be favourable for the Jaisalmer Rajputs).”
Vijay Goswami, a tour guide at the majestic Jaisalmer fort, can't thank Modi enough for giving a boost to tourism in the city. ‘The city's economy is driven by tourism. Modi government started flight services, added new train routes and connected Jaisalmer to all neighbouring cities with national highways. Due to improved connectivity, we are witnessing a spurt in tourist arrivals. As a result, my earning has also increased.' Goswami tells me that he tries to convince all his customers to vote for Modi even though he understands that it may not be the best thing to do for his business.
In Badoda, one of the biggest Rajput villages in Jaisalmer, Prem Singh, who is resting with five others outside of the village wine shops, shared the same sentiment about BJP’s candidate. “Colonel Sonaram was a local from Jaisalmer. Kailash isn’t. That is going to make some difference.”
“Ninety-five per cent of the village is with Manvendra,” Samundar Singh assures me. “Ye hamare swabhiman ki ladai hai (It is a fight for our self-respect). They are allying with people like Hanuman Beniwal who played a key role in defeating the party in the assembly polls while humiliating those like Jaswant Singh who built the party in this region. When the party has no respect for that family, why would Manvendra stay? He waited for four years but had no option but to move to Congress finally,” he adds.
Gulab Singh differs; he says,“Dil to Modi ke saath hai (Our heart is with Modi). Even if the BJP had fielded any other Rajput we would not have voted for Manvendra.”
A few metres ahead, in the same village, we meet a group of five people at another shop. In this group, four out of five are supporting the BJP. And interestingly, Prem Singh, whom we had met at the wine shop and who had claimed to be a Manvendra supporter, catches up with us here and admits that he will also vote for the BJP but he didn’t want to admit that in front of his other friends as they were all in Manvendra’s camp!
On asking about swabhiman (self-respect), Kamal Singh said that instead of Rajputs, it was swabhiman of Hindus that mattered more. “Where is swabhiman left when even Jaswant Singh lost? If swabhiman was so important, why Manvendra couldn’t extract more tickets for Rajputs from Congress in the assembly elections?” Kamal Singh had voted for Jaswant Singh in 2014.
Mohar Singh said that for him, the candidate doesn’t matter and he is voting for Modi. On asking about the development work, villagers praised Modi for connecting Jaisalmer to major cities with highways and even constructing big ponds in villages to store water during monsoons.
Inside the village we meet a group of four engrossed in reading newspapers. Umed Singh Bhati agrees that Modi has done good work, especially for the poor. “We also want Modi but BJP didn’t field a Rajput here. Jats also vote for a candidate from their community. We have a village meeting on 25 April to decide whom to side with,” he says.
“Jaati se kya lena dena (What has the community got to do with this?). If one wants Modi as PM, how can they vote for Congress? You have to elect a BJP MP only. That’s how it works,” Swarup Singh Bhati counters Umed Singh.
Moolana is 12 km from Badoda. Here, the mood of the Rajputs seems decidedly in BJP’s favour. At a welding shop, Devi Singh Rajput and Dileep Prajapat say they will vote for Modi. They live in dhanis (a cluster of few houses) like most people in this part of Rajasthan. Many dhanis – separated by large distances – are clubbed under one village panchayat. “We got cylinder connection. We have a paani ka taanka (water tank for water collection) built for us. For 60 years, our dhanis weren’t provided with electricity. Now we get 24x7 supply,” they tell me.
Six people are resting under the shade outside a shop on the village main road. All voted for Jaswant Singh in 2014. Now, they are supporting Modi. “Swabhiman ka badla le liya Vasundhra ko harakar (We avenged our self-respect by defeating Vasundhara). We voted for Congress in assembly polls. Now, we are with Modi,” Gyan Singh, a farmer tells me.
Ram Singh Sodha says that the biggest reason for supporting Modi is that thanks to him, now no one can steal money meant for the poor as it directly goes into their bank accounts. He explains why he isn’t voting for Manvendra. “His stature is not as tall as Jaswant Singh’s so he won’t get the kind of support his father got among Rajputs last time. Plus, he is fighting on the Congress symbol. If he was fighting as an independent, we would’ve thought about voting for him again.”
A few metres ahead, at a fertilizer and pesticide shop, is a group of eight people with one Jat and seven Rajputs. They are all big Modi fans. “Manvendra is ours but vote is for Modi. We don’t vote for Congress,” Swarup Singh says.
“Jaat paat se koi matlab nahi (Community-shammunity has no meaning in this case). Candidate ko nahi dekh rahe (We are not looking at the candidate at all). Upar dekh rahe hain (We are looking beyond),” another farmer, Arjun Singh, reiterates as he lists vikas (development) work by Modi such as Awas Yojana, cylinders, electricity and toilets, which have brought a change in the lives of the poorest of poor.
We move to Devikot, which falls on National Highway 68, connecting Jaisalmer and Barmer. Here we meet Vikram Singh and Hukum Singh at the bus stop. Both voted for Jaswant Singh in 2014. “He was fighting as an independent and there was hope that once he wins, he will be back in the BJP. That’s why we voted for him.” Both now pray for Modi’s second term. “Forget swabhiman, we have to bring back Modi,” they tell me.
“Modi has built ponds in our dhani. After the monsoon rains, we will be able to store enough water in it to survive for six months,” Vikram says. “My age is 57. I have seen governments come and go but only when Modi came, my dhani got power connection,” Hukum Singh tells me. Both can’t thank the Prime Minister enough for sending the NREGA amount directly to their bank accounts. Earlier, middlemen used to siphon off part of their money, they tell me.
In Shiv town, we meet an elder, Bheek Singh who is with Manvendra because “he is our own”. “If we don’t vote for him, who will?”.
Pokhra Singh, a Mali by caste and Gumaan Singh, a Rajput, say they are with Modi for he has done good work. “Support for Manvendra is less than what it was for Jaswant Singh, even among Rajputs,” is the common refrain one hears here. We visit a tractor agency where eight farmers from neighbouring villages are sitting and chatting with their two friends who own the agency. Six of them say they will vote for Manvendra, including one who is a local district BJP leader. “Caste arithmetic in Shiv (combination of Malis, Rajputs and Muslims) favours Manvendra. Plus, he was the MLA from here for five years and did good work, so he has personal connect with people in this constituency,” explains Abhay Singh Rathore. Jeevan Singh says he never voted for Congress but will do so this time as Manvendra is family. Thakur Nath seconds. “Majboori hai (We are helpless),”
In Chauhtan, four cabbies and one shopkeeper, all Rajputs are firmly behind Manvendra. “Barmer mein hamare liye Jaswant Singh he Modi hai (In Barmer, for us Jaswant Singh is Modi),” they tell me. “The person who built the party in the state was denied ticket from Barmer in 2014 in favour of someone who joined it only a few days back,” Jaswant Singh and Swarup Singh rue. Narayan Singh, the shopkeeper, is confident that Rajput voters who backed Jaswant Singh will stay with Manvendra too but other jaatis may move away.
In Barmer city, at the government college road, an unemployed Rajput youth, Hukum Singh, is sitting idly at a shop. He voted for Jaswant Singh but is with Modi this time because a lot of change has happened. He tells me that “swabhiman narrative is more prevalent in villages but even there at least 30 per cent Rajputs will vote for BJP.” He admits that unemployment is a very big problem and youth from nearby villages can be found loitering around in the town at various addas (joints). “Modi has got only five years and he was able to get many things done. He should get another chance,” says Singh.
At a food stall near the railway station, Ashu Singh Rajput, a farmer is happy with Modi and will vote for him. Earlier he used to get Rs 2,500-Rs 3,000 from the government for fertilizer and pesticide. Now, he receives Rs 8,500 directly in his bank account. “Earlier, middlemen used to steal the money meant for poor people,” he says. He too had voted for Jaswant Singh in 2014.
At the Tilak Bus stand, we meet a group of over 20 drivers – the most enthusiastic lot of Modi supporters. “We drivers are the biggest supporters of Modi. He has made life really comfortable for us,” says Shera Ram as others huddle around him, hailing Modi and shouting past each other while heaping praises on the prime minister. “Earlier, it used to take us four hours to Jodhpur, three hours to Jaisalmer and five hours to Jalore. Now we reach in two and a half hours, one and a half hours and two hours respectively. Even our maintenance costs have come down drastically due to good roads,” Ram adds.
In Pachpadra town, at an electrical appliances shop, we meet a group of six youth, all from the Rajput community. Except for the owner of the shop, who is extremely unhappy with the BJP over GST (and is also a local district Congress leader), the rest are all backing Modi.
Sumit Rathod says that in the Assembly elections, people look at the community to which the candidate belongs but the Parliamentary election is different. On the question of swabhiman of the community, Rathod doesn’t mince words while criticising Manvendra. “Where was his swabhiman in Pokhran where Congress Muslim candidate defeated our Pratappuri Maharaj. What about his swabhiman? What about swabhiman of Rajput BJP leaders who were defeated in the Assembly elections last year? Manvendra is campaigning against Gajendra Singh Shekhawat in Jodhpur. What about his swabhiman?,” Rathod fumes. His friend Dileep Singh seconds his views. “Local issues have taken a backseat. They don’t matter. And as far as Manvendra’s swabhiman is concerned, it’s pure opportunism.”
They too had all voted for Jaswant Singh last time.
The Other Communities
The Modi factor, nationalism, good governance and the catharsis of voting out Vasundhra is preventing Manvendra from consolidating Rajputs like his father did last time.
These factors are not just limited in their impact to only the Rajput community. In fact, there is hardly any community that the BJP hasn’t been able to penetrate into, including those which used to be considered as a solid vote bank of Congress.
Jats, who constitute the largest vote bank in the Barmer Lok Sabha constituency, are solidly behind the BJP. Unlike Rajputs, they don’t face any dilemma. Traditional BJP voters are firmly behind the party as well.
What is interesting is due to Modi, the BJP is set to get considerable votes from other communities who have been voting for Congress for decades.
Devender Mehran, a driver in Jaisalmer who hails from the Bheel community, told Swarajya that his over-five-thousand-strong community is leaning towards BJP this time, something that has never happened before. “The feeling among the people is that they have got something from the government for the first time in decades, be it cylinders, power connections, awas or good road connectivity to all major nearby cities of the state,” he says.
“There is a lot of casteism that Bheels face. Even today, Rajputs consider Bheels as inferior. When we visit homes of upper caste people, we have to sit on the floor, eat or drink in different utensils. Among Rajputs, there is a sense of that royalty that refuses to go away. Since a Congress candidate is a Rajput this time, it is also a factor in their voting consideration,” he adds.
In Balotra town, which falls in Pachpadra assembly constituency, Gautam Chand – a vegetable seller, who is from the Mali community, and who voted for Congress in the assembly polls – said he will vote for Modi because this election is to elect the prime minister. “In 2014, when Modi came to Balotra to campaign, he promised that he will give us potable water. Last year, he fulfilled that promise.”
Barabto, a woman vegetable seller – also from the Mali community – said that her vote is for Modi because he opened bank accounts for them. “Humne to kabhi bank he nahi dekha tha (We had never ever seen a bank). Modi ne account khulwaya (Modi got accounts opened for us),” she told me. Her sister-in-law got her operation done for free in a hospital recently, which would have otherwise cost her Rs 3 lakh. Her women colleagues at the vegetable market endorse her choice for Modi as PM with enthusiastic fervour. Everyone has got something from the government, it seems.
In the same town, five people from the Sunar community, who all voted for Congress in assembly elections, are now back with the BJP. “We are traditional BJP voters but chose Congress last year because its candidate was much better. This election is different. Candidate doesn’t matter now,” Ranjit and Pankaj Soni tell me.
Pachpadra and Chautan
In Pachpadra town, a group of six people who were playing cards and hailed from different communities – Ghasi, Rao, Suthar, Kharwal (Rajput) – said they will vote for a strong government because Modi’s administration has been good for the poor. Two Darjis we met in the town gave the same reason. “Modi wave is stronger than even 2014 here,” Ramlal told me.
In Chauhtan, three Bishnois say they are Modi bhakts. Satya Ram Bishnoi, who owns 12 bighas, told Swarajya that Modi gave cylinder, power connection, money directly in his bank account from the PM-Kisan Nidhi scheme and there was no reason to not vote for him again.
In the same town, at a shop near the bus stand, we meet a group of 10 youngsters from different communities, who want only Modi. “For the first time in 60 years, we have got something from the government,” says Gautam Bothara as he lists various schemes that have benefited them directly. Most of them voted for the Congress in assembly election. “We are only against Vasundhra, not Modi,” says Nem Singh.
Dharam Singh, who is from Kotda village, tells me that his dhani has only one home and even that is now provided with electricity, something he thought would never happen! Kishan Das Saharan says that this election has become like an India-Pakistan match and voting for Congress will be akin to voting for Pakistan.
In Baytu town, Chena Ram Jat, who owns 100 bighas, says Modi removed corruption in welfare delivery. “Earlier, I would get Rs 1,000 - 2,000 max for fertilizer and pesticides. Even that would be denied sometimes by officials saying they didn’t receive money from the government. Now, Modi sends Rs 13,500 directly into my account. It was Vasundhra’s government that waived our loans worth Rs 50,000. Rahul Gandhi promised to waive upto Rs 2,00,000 but no one has got any waiver. Log ullu ban gaye (People got fooled),” says Chena Ram.
Thana Ram, who works as a local reporter in Baytu for a major Hindi daily, told me that in Barmer, caste and regional issues always take precedence over other considerations but this is the first time that Modi is the biggest factor that is deciding people’s voting choices.
If one goes by the caste/community arithmetic alone, Congress has a clear edge, though it is not decisive. One thing is certain that Rajputs are not rallying behind Manvendra with the same fervour as they did last time with his father because he is fighting on a Congress ticket, for which the community has no love lost.
Nationalism and their loyalty to the saffron party is also proving to be a big factor with many deciding to go with the BJP, not to mention the Modi factor. Many intend to keep their promise of “Modi tujhse bair nahi (Modi we have nothing against you)”.
Conversations with more than a couple of dozen Jat voters in Jaisalmer, Barmer, Chauhtan, Baytu revealed that they don’t face any dilemma and are solidly behind the saffron party.
But if there is one thing that is preventing the BJP from a certain loss in Barmer, it is Modi’s pro-poor policies, his national security stand and his governance record. The Modi factor has blurred the caste lines perhaps like never before. If the BJP manages to win this difficult seat, it could singularly be attributed to Modi’s policies breaking the shibboleth of ‘voting your caste’ that has been the bane of the Indian republic.
Note: The correspondent visited the constituency before Modi delivered his speech in Barmer on 21 April. The impact of his speech on fence sitters has not been factored in.
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