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Gujjar Votes and a Contentious Canal: Who Wins the Battle for East Rajasthan?

With Sachin sidelined and given no major role, Congress may suffer a serious jolt in Gujjar-dominated seats.

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As the electoral battle reaches its climax, politics in Rajasthan is as volatile as the swirling sands in a desert region. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress are locked in a titanic tussle across the state but there’s a special focus on the swing districts of the Eastern Zone which have often played the role of kingmakers in the revolving door history of the past three decades.

East Rajasthan is the region that shot to national fame 15 years ago over the Gujjar agitation for ST quotas, easily the most aggressive campaign the desert state has seen in decades. It's the area that helped the Congress return to power in 2018 and where a contentious canal, the Eastern Rajasthan Canal Project (ERCP), built to serve the water needs of 13 districts is now a central plank of the Congress campaign.

Of the 83 Assembly seats in this region, the Congress won 49, while the BJP got 25 seats in the 2018 polls when it could not win a single seat in four East Rajasthan districts.
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The Gurjar-Meena Vote Distribution Factor

In many ways, the BJP's defeat in the 2018 election was scripted in East Rajasthan where the Congress is now desperate to repeat its 2018 triumph. In terms of caste dynamics, this is often called the Gurjar-Meena belt of Rajasthan.

While the Meenas usually favour the Congress, the Gujjars were traditionally seen as BJP supporters. In 2018, however, with Sachin Pilot as state Congress Chief and tipped to be the Chief Minister, the Gujjar vote in East Rajasthan shifted decisively to the Grand Old Party. As a result, the Congress won a whopping 35 of the 39 seats in this Gurjar-Meena-dominated region while the BJP got just three seats.

Five years later, the bitter rivalry between Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and Pilot has left Gujjars deeply upset with the ruling Congress. Many Gujjars claim that Pilot has been humiliated and most accuse the Congress of ‘betrayal’ for taking their votes by saying that Pilot will be made CM but later forgetting that promise.

With Sachin sidelined and given no major role in this election and resentment brewing in the community, Congress may suffer a serious jolt in Gujjar-dominated seats.
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Why East Rajasthan Is Central to BJP’s Campaigning

Inevitably, for the Congress and BJP both, East Rajasthan has been a special focus of their campaigns this time. Sensing an opportunity in the Gujjar unrest, the BJP has made a special push to woo the community.

Besides holding rallies in the region from as early as February this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi especially visited the Devnarayan Temple, a sacred centre for Gujjars, during celebrations of Lord Devnarayan’s birth anniversary this year. Senior BJP leaders have held rallies in this area regularly and in September, Party Chief JP Nadda had flagged off the BJP’s key initiative, the Parivartan Yatra from this region.

Given the party’s dismal performance in the last election, the BJP has now spared no effort to make major gains in this region. BJP candidates for this region were among the earliest to be announced and 6 of the 7 MPs fielded by the party are candidates in East Rajasthan.
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A key Gujjar candidate is Vijay Bainsla, the son of Col KS Bainsla, who led the Gujjar agitation for reservations. By fielding his son from the Deoli-Uniara constituency, the BJP hopes to encash Col Bainsla’s legacy in the community.

To curtail Sachin Pilot’s influence on Gujjars, the BJP is especially relying on two key Gujjar leaders - Sukhbir Singh Jaunapuria and Ramesh Bidhuri – who are camping in East Rajasthan for several weeks. Jaunapuria, the Lok Sabha MP from Tonk-Sawai Madhopur is the BJP’s tallest Gujjar face in this region.

The BJP also made Ramesh Bidhuri its incharge for Tonk just days after he used abusive language against a Muslim MP Danish Ali in the Lok Sabha. Through Bidhuri, the BJP aims to import the communal rhetoric that worked for it among Gujjars in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. Clearly, the BJP is making a mighty effort to combat the Pilot factor and encash Gujjar anger with the Congress.

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Can ERCP Act As Congress Weaponeering?

Beyond the battle over the Gujjar vote is the larger bid by both parties to woo other castes/ tribes wherein the Meenas are a crucial group in this region. The Meenas had strongly resisted Gujjar claims for ST quotas and traditionally, it is believed that if the Gujjar vote goes one way, the Meenas will go the other way. To win them over, the BJP has fielded its strongman Kirori Lal Meena as a key face in this region.

The BJP is working on the strategy that this time the Congress may lose much of the Gujjar vote it garnered in 2018 while the BJP could also dent the Meena vote which traditionally goes to the Congress.

Keenly aware of Gujjar's resentment and ground realities in this area, the Congress has made the demand for a national status for ERCP or East Rajasthan Canal Project as one of its core campaign issues.

In October, the party held a Yatra in the 13 districts under this project. All through the campaign, ERCP has been a buzzword which the Congress projects as a means to end the region’s water woes. It also helps the Grand Old Party to slam the BJP and PM Modi for broken promises on this critical canal.

Congress also showcases the Gehlot government’s Rs 25,000 crore allocation to complete this canal even if the Centre ignores the project. In this region battling water scarcity for both household and irrigation purposes, the ERCP has gained political currency.
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Water Woes Spark Political Slugfest

For years, the ERCP has provoked a slanging match between CM Gehlot and Union Jal Shakti minister, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat who hails from Rajasthan. While the Congress accuses the Centre of deliberately denying national status to ERCP, the BJP claims the Congress is doing politics instead of taking steps to implement the scheme.

Beyond the blame game, the harsh reality of years of delay on a critical water project has put the BJP on the backfoot as it has done little to move this project forward.

As water shortage touches everyone, the Congress hopes the ERCP issue will put the Modi government in the dock and help to combat the threat of Gujjar resentment in the region. With the Congress piling on pressure, at a recent public rally in this region, PM Modi was forced to promise that the BJP will complete ERCP on priority after the elections, though details remain missing.

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Contention Over Dalit Vote Bank

Significantly, the Dalit vote in this region is also a crucial factor. In 2018, the Congress won 31 of the 59 SC/ST reserved seats but the BJP got just 21. In the 34 SC seats, the Congress won 19 while the BJP bagged 11. But the BJP fared so poorly that it failed to win a single SC/ST seat in seven districts of East Rajasthan.

Not surprisingly, the campaign this time has triggered a shrill BJP-Congress debate to prove each other anti-Dalit.

Besides highlighting Dalit atrocities in the state, at an election rally in East Rajasthan, PM Modi branded the Congress as an 'anti-Dalit party' for opposing the appointment of the country’s first Dalit Chief Information Commissioner, Heeralal Samaria, and for its resistance against Ramnath Kovind’s presidency.

Within hours, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge hit back and claimed the decision to field a Congress defector accused of thrashing a Dalit engineer betrays the 'anti-Dalit’ mindset of the BJP. Sitting MLA Girraj Singh Malinga was refused a Congress ticket over charges of assaulting a Dalit engineer Harshadhipati Valmiki in Dholpur district but was promptly given a BJP ticket. Later, Rahul Gandhi asserted that it's not enough for Dalits to occupy some ‘decorative high posts’; instead what Dalits need is greater participation and positions in the power structures of the country.

In a nutshell, it's a fierce but fascinating poll battle in East Rajasthan. Besides its welfare schemes and guarantees, the Congress is using ERCP as a buzzword in this region. With Gujjar vote a major imponderable, the BJP is banking on anti-incumbency and Modi magic to do the trick for the saffron brigade. Whichever way this vital region swings could well have a decisive impact on the electoral verdict in Rajasthan.

(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. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Gujjar Protests   Dalits   Water Crisis 

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