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Desert loyalties waver like shifting sands

Jodhpur, Nov. 27: The political loyalties of the electorally crucial communities of Jats, Malis and Rajputs in western Rajasthan are like the shifting sands of its deserts and as baffling to political pundits and managers.

With a major shift likely to affect the poll outcome in this region, the flux was discernible during a 1,100-km road journey undertaken by this correspondent.

The Malis, chief minister Ashok Gehlotís community, were largely BJP supporters till his ascent to power in 1998. With his rise to prominence, the last Assembly polls saw a shift in the communityís loyalty.

This time round, however, the Malis are nobodyís monopoly. For instance, Gehlotís repeated efforts to persuade his fellow community members have failed, giving several Congress stalwarts in Jodhpur district sleepless nights. But the support of the 40,000-strong Mali electorate for Gehlot in Sardarpura appears intact.

There is a hitch, though. Mahesh Gehlot, the chief ministerís former campaigner, is contesting on a Nationalist Congress Party ticket.

The scene is similar in Bilara, where Gehlotís labour minister Rajendra Chaudhary, a Jat, is up against Congress rebel Onkar Singh Kachhawa, a Mali.

Mahipal Maderna, the son of Speaker Paras Ram Maderna, a Jat, is also facing a Mali, Pradeep Gehlot of the Bahujan Samaj Party, in Bhopalgarh. Both constituencies have over 20,000 Mali votes each.

Like the Malis, the farming community of Jats, which has for long been a solid support base of the Congress, appears vertically divided in western Rajasthan.

The single largest community in the state, the significance of the Jats can be gauged from their contribution to the Lok Sabha: 5 of the 25 MPs from Rajasthan.

The main Opposition BJP has made a determined bid to break the Congress monopoly of the Jats by fielding several of the communityís candidates in this region. Across the state, the BJP has fielded 35 of them compared with the Congressí 36.

For instance, the BJP has put up Jats, Ram Narain Dudi from Bilara and Narain Ram Beda from Bhopalgarh, their main rivals being the Congressí Jat candidates. Both are former Congress MLAs and considered formidable candidates.

In Nagaur district, the rival parties have again put up Jats in the same constituencies, such as Ladnu, Deedwana and Degana. Both parties have stuck to the ploy in the contiguous districts of Ganganagar and Hanumangarh, which form part of the 22-seat Bikaner division where the ruling party has fielded 6 Jats and its main rival 9.

The Rajputs, long considered a BJP votebank, too, have split following the emergence of the Samajik Nyay Manch, led by expelled party leader Devi Singh Bhati. He is contesting from Kolayat in Bikaner against the Congressí Raghunath Singh Bhati, a Rajput, and the BJPís Gopal Gehlot, a Mali.

PWD minister Harendra Mirdha, a Jat, is facing a Rajput candidate of the BJP in Nagaur constituency. But a section of the Jats, considered rivals of the Rajputs, is supporting the BJPís man.

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