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Swordplay between boyish charm & Mumbai polish

The sun blazes away. It’s just the opportunity for the young man to show off his stamina. And of course his babalog upbringing.

Sachin Pilot, 31, drives his campaign jeep himself for at least 100km every day through the tiny, barren hamlets of Ajmer, his new constituency. He has been doing so for the past one month.

The power of the “young and restless” is on full show, and the crowds seem to be lapping it up.

At every meeting, the Congress MLAs and officials who speak before the Lok Sabha candidate remind the voters that Sachin is part of the party’s powerful youth brigade. That he is close to Rahul and Sonia Gandhi.

The obvious message: Sachin’s voice will carry weight in Delhi and bring funds to Ajmer.

Sachin himself does not say it. His traditional safa (turban) is clearly a signal to the villagers that he is one of their own. His rustic “Ram Ram saa” greeting breaks the ice as he melts into the crowds.

People jostle to shake his hand, to garland and hug him. They stop his jeep several times on the highways.

Against this “boyish charm”, the BJP is banking on seasoned sophistication. Mumbai-bred Kiran Maheshwari, 48, the president of the party’s mahila morcha, has the stylish, educated look all right and may appeal to the constituency’s women voters, at least the older ones.

She is a seasoned campaigner and has the ear of the central leadership in Delhi. Her knack for taking everyone along in a caste-ridden polity — especially the women — won her the Udaipur Lok Sabha seat in 2004 and the Rajsamand Assembly constituency last year despite a Congress wave.

Maheshwari is giving Sachin competition in the stamina stakes: she addresses 26 to 27 meetings a day, crediting her energy to “the people’s support”.

Sachin’s trump cards, however, are his personal equation with the crowds, and the constituency’s 2.5 lakh first-time voters — nearly 18 per cent of the 14.5 lakh-strong electorate — who have no leanings towards any party.

“We have direct access to Pilotji, which makes all the difference,” Gopal Bhateshwar, a farmer in Bhamalao, said. “If we have to meet BJP leaders, we have to go through secretaries, PAs, babus….”

Chetan Biringdia, 18, said: “Sachin Pilot has direct access to Delhi; that’s his power. He may even become a minister. That will certainly help change the face of Ajmer.”

Beyond the “charm”, not everybody is convinced about what Sachin claims.

“What 100 days’ work is he talking about?” said Norti Bai, a day labourer under the rural job scheme. “We don’t get paid the minimum wage of Rs 73 allotted for us. We get only Rs 30, the rest is taken away by the officials.”

She added: “And look at the rising prices — sugar is Rs 30 a kg. I haven’t decided whom to vote for; they are all the same.”

The price rise is the only “issue” in Ajmer where caste usually decides results. Although Sachin says he is glad to be contesting from this seat steeped in history, the man who became the country’s youngest MP from Dausa in 2004, aged 26, is a little anxious.

Dausa, basically a rural constituency, had been nurtured by Sachin’s late father, Rajesh Pilot, and the family is revered in the Gujjar-dominated area. But after delimitation, Dausa became a Scheduled Caste constituency and Sachin was forced to scout for another.

He began making his forays into Ajmer, to try and build a rapport with party workers and voters, before the 2008 Assembly elections.

“Ajmer offers a wider canvas than Dausa, comprising both rural and urban areas. I have tried to stay in personal touch with my voters,” Sachin said. “I have been coming to Ajmer for long.”

Sachin, who is likely to benefit from the 1.5 lakh Gujjar votes, added: “One cannot completely disregard the caste combinations here but I am trying to take all castes along.”

Observers say the 2.35 lakh Jat voters, who are yet to make up their mind, will decide the election. The 80,000 Rawats cannot be ignored either, though delimitation has taken away huge Rawat-dominated chunks from Ajmer.

That’s one reason the BJP replaced veteran Rasa Singh Rawat who won the seat the last five times — the other being that it needed a more high-profile and glamorous candidate to take on Sachin.

Maheshwari, dressed in the traditional lehenga and chunri, complete with the tilak, poses with the sword as she woos the Rawat samaj at Bandanwada. The BJP candidate, a Vaishya, does not deny the role of caste.

“I’m quite comfortable on my new turf. The Jats and Rawats are with me. Caste equations will always matter in Rajasthan but the challenge is to contain the price rise,” Maheshwari said.

“Also look at Ajmer’s performance under the rural job scheme. It was the best during the BJP’s time (before the 2008 Assembly elections); now it has become the worst.”

The Wharton-educated Sachin’s sudden increase in declared assets, from Rs 25 lakh (in 2004) to Rs 4.64 crore, too has raised eyebrows. Sachin explained: “It’s only because of the valuation of our ancestral land near Noida. Otherwise I toil as hard as the others.”

The boiling temperatures may not be a deterrent for the candidates but it can be for the electorate. Many, anyway, would be away at the hundreds of marriages lined up on May 7.

The relatively low turnouts this election, especially the numbers at friend Rahul’s constituency, Amethi, is giving Sachin the jitters.

At every rally, he stresses: “Haath pe button dabaiy, button ni awaaz tee-tee subah se shaam tak sunai dena chahiye (press on the ‘hand’ button; the button’s sound should be audible from morning till evening).”

Ajmer votes on May 7

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