The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Denial over, Gehlot in action

Shahabad (Rajasthan), Oct. 30: First came the denial, now its action stations.

After denying the hunger deaths, Rajasthan’s Congress government has gone into overdrive to outflank its main opponent — the BJP — which is eyeing the killer drought as an issue it could use when the state goes to polls next year.

All of a sudden, ministers in the Ashok Gehlot government are braving the heat and the dust to visit Sahariya settlements tucked away in the interiors. On Monday, three ministers toured the two affected districts of Shahabad and Kishenganj, while the BJP’s Gopinath Munde made his rounds the day after. “People here have never seen politicians from such close quarters. Usually they come in helicopters,” said a villager.

The Congress is now worried, although initially it dismissed the starvation deaths as a manifestation of the lifestyle of the Sahariya tribals who “drank too much”. The BJP has made it clear it will rally people around the issue.

However, the middle class by and large does not seem too perturbed by the deaths. “Are these really starvation deaths' I do not think people can die of hunger now,” said a hotelier in Kota. “Are things really that bad' It depends on how you look at it,” said a teacher.

Away from the grime and misery of a parched existence, it is easy to be sceptical. The reality is different. In the coming days, the economy will increasingly feel the impact of the drought and it will not only be the plight of the Sahariyas but also that of middle and small farmers that might help the Congress’ adversary run it down.

The drought has not only affected daily wage farm workers like the Sahariyas but also small peasants who cultivate crops like peanuts and chillies.

“It is true, in the coming months, the effects of the drought and its impact will be felt in a more widespread manner,” said a local journalist.

There is a possibility that the Congress would like to advance the elections from September-October to January-February next year.

“The feeling is that if elections are held on schedule, by the time summer comes, the crisis will aggravate ,” said a political observer.

The government will then not be able to ignore the disaffection among any farmers’ lobby even if it manages to tide over the crisis among the Sahariyas, at least politically, because they do not constitute any votebank.

The Gehlot government, therefore, is trying to oil the rusted machinery into action. The Akal Rath project announced by the government aims at giving villagers work on construction sites on a rotation basis of 20 from each village.

The village heads, however, want the ceiling raised to 50. “There is disaffection among those who are not getting this work. Twenty is not enough. We would like the government to have a batch of 50 or 100,” says sarpanch Kanwar Lal.

For the BJP, the drought has come as a handy issue. The party may have a vested interest in keeping the polls according to schedule, as the general perception is that with time, people’s anger against the government will only grow.

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