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Agro, Agniveer, and an Alliance: Rajasthan’s Shekhawati to Spring a Surprise?

The Sikar seat, in particular, is a riveting clash between the Left and the Right, rarely seen in Rajasthan.

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As the mercury soars, the political heat is rapidly rising in the Shekhawati belt, the semi-arid region located in North-east Rajasthan. With poll fever peaking in the final days of campaigning for the first phase, electoral battles in the Lok Sabha seats of Sikar and Jhunjhunu are reaching a searing climax.

While Jhunjhunu is witnessing a typical BJP-Congress clash, the contest in Sikar is more complex where the Congress has allied with the CPI(M) and it’s an INDIA bloc candidate who is taking on the BJP. Agrarian distress and the Agniveer scheme of Army recruitment are the key issues dominating the electoral discourse in the Shekhawati region.

The Sikar seat, in particular, is a riveting electoral clash between diverse political ideologies and contrasting strategies of the top two contenders, rarely seen in Rajasthan.
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Swami Bats for the BJP Against CPM Comrade

The showdown between Swami Sumedhanand of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Amra Ram of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) has become a fierce contest between the Left and the Right that Rajasthan has rarely seen.

The saffron-clad Swami who's the sitting MP, is seeking a hat-trick of wins in Sikar. Known for his vocal support of right-wing policies and religious conservatism, Sumedhanand virtually embodies the BJP's nationalist and Hindutva ideology.

But the 73-year-old Swami from Haryana is still seen as an 'outsider’ since he has hardly been easily accessible to voters in Sikar over the past 10 years. With Sumedhanand battling a two-term anti-incumbency, the BJP has tried to brighten his prospects by bringing in several saffron stalwarts and Home Minister Amit Shah held a huge roadshow in Sikar.

Bereft of any spectacular success as an MP, Swami’s campaign focusses on issues of national security, cultural identity and the construction of the Ram Temple to enthuse voters. He chiefly banks on PM Modi’s appeal, stresses on 'Modi Guarantees’ and highlights Modi government feats as his mantra for votes!

Pitted against Sumedhanand is CPM Veteran Amra Ram who has a strong local connect and epitomises the spirit of left-wing politics in Rajasthan.

A four-time MLA from the Jat community, Ram has an earthy image and champions causes of ordinary folks. A leader with a long history of grassroots activism, Amra Ram is seen as a fighter for the rights of farmers, Dalits and marginalised sections.

In recent years, Amra Ram spearheaded the farmers’ agitation in the Shekhawati region and now repeatedly hammers on agrarian distress in his campaign. With the union government failing to resolve the Minimum Support Price (MSP) demand of farmers, Ram argues in his speeches that PM Modi is exploiting the Aam Aadmi or ordinary citizens to fill up the coffers of his capitalist friends.
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Can the Congress Alliance Stand Up to BJP in Shekhawati?

On Congress support, Amra Ram says the alliance between the two parties is working smoothly and has greatly enhanced his chances of victory. 

The BJP, however, ridicules the Congress-Left alliance and claims that putting up an INDIA bloc candidate in Sikar reflects that the Congress leaders were scared of defeat and that’s why Amra Ram was made the sacrificial goat.

State BJP Chief CP Joshi recently asserted that the alliance proves that the Congress, weakened by internal rifts, had "come on crutches”. But Amra Ram claims that the Congress leaders are boosting his efforts in pretty much the same way as the Left had bolstered the UPA coalition in 2004 to keep the BJP out and fight communal forces unitedly.
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Ram is also upbeat about his prospects as the Congress presently holds 5 of the 8 Assembly seats in Sikar.

The Congress-Left combine is also going ballistic on the Agniveer issue that connects with countless youngsters in the Shekhawati region. Traditionally, most families in Sikar have at least one youngster in the defence forces but the Agniveer scheme, which takes in youths for only four years, has been a cruel dampener for the Armed Forces aspirants. Many youngsters who openly supported the BJP in the last two elections are now seething with anger.

Besides crushing youthful dreams, the scheme has also jolted the local economy. Dozens of coaching centres that prepared the youth for Army recruitment for years have closed down after Agniveer was implemented – as youngsters have been left disillusioned.

Even in the few Defence academies and hostels that still operate in Sikar, owners say the number of trainees coming to them has dropped by over 75% and their incomes have shrunk dramatically in the last two years.

The Congress-CPM alliance hopes to tap into this discontent and Amra Ram attacks the scheme at every election meeting.

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Youth Outrage Over Agniveer Scheme

Public anger over Agniveer could also hurt BJP's prospects in Jhunjhunu. The Shekhawati districts of Sikar and Jhunjhunu have for decades sent the largest number of soldiers to the Armed Forces each year. Just as Kota has been the coaching hub for entrance to IITs and engineering/ medical colleges, the Shekhawati belt has been a coaching hub for Army candidates where aspirants from not just Rajasthan but also Haryana and UP used to train.

Inevitably, the region has seen huge protests against the Agniveer scheme in the last few years. Not surprisingly, BJP candidates and leaders who loudly talk of 'Modi Guarantees’ and list out various schemes of the Union government to boost their prospects, are totally silent on this scheme.
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In the Jat-dominated Jhunjhunu constituency, the BJP and Congress have both put up Jat candidates. The Congress has fielded ex-minister Brijendra Singh Ola, the son of former Union Minister Sis Ram Ola who represented Jhunjhunu in the Lok Sabha six times. Brijendra too has been an MLA from Jhunjhunu for 4 consecutive terms and is currently the sitting MLA from this seat.

Battling him from the BJP is Shubhkaran Choudhary, a former MLA who has replaced the incumbent MP from Jhunjhunu, Narendra Kumar.

Though it was traditionally a Congress bastion, riding the Modi wave, the BJP had won in Jhunjhunu in the last two Lok Sabha polls. But either as a political strategy or due to anti-incumbency, the BJP dropped its sitting MPs including in this election where Shubhkaran has been fielded despite losing the Assembly polls last December.

In contrast, Congress is now on firmer footing as it won 6 of 8 Assembly seats in Jhunjhunu though it lost power to BJP in last year’s Rajasthan elections.
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Will the 'Modi Factor' Work Its Charm?

Issues similar to those in Sikar are troubling the BJP in Jhunjhunu but acute water scarcity is an additional worry. Many say the Agniveer setback combined with water woes is damaging even the marital prospects of youngsters here.

The BJP hopes to garner support through the Yamuna Water Agreement which was recently signed with Haryana to tackle the water crisis here. But the Congress claims the ground situation won’t improve as the agreement favours Haryana and that’s why the BJP is fighting shy of disclosing details of the accord signed.

Amid these complexities, how will the ‘Modi Factor’ work is the most tantalising question in the Shekhawati contest. While earlier people were unwilling to listen to anything against PM Modi, the situation now seems changed. Political circles are buzzing that the Modi wave is not as pronounced as it was in the last two Lok Sabha polls.
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Seasoned observers say that given the youth outrage over the Agniveer scheme, the acute distress of farmers, and rising unemployment amid inflation, even the Ram Temple issue is hardly getting the traction here as was widely expected.

With the BJP working overtime for a hat-trick of wins and Congress determined to effect a revival, Sikar and Jhunjhunu are witnessing fierce fights. As voters weigh their options amid escalating public anger, electoral battles in Shekhawati could well spring a big surprise!

(The author is a veteran journalist and expert on Rajasthan politics. Besides serving as a Resident Editor at NDTV, he has been a Professor of Journalism at the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur. He tweets at @rajanmahan. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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