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Pickle princess & bored rajkumari

Sawai Madhopur/Bikaner, Nov. 26: One princess sticks to the royal gharana of chiffon saris with a red bandhani (stole) draped over her shoulders. Diya Kumari, 42, hugs village women and eats roti-and-pickle lunches at their homes.

The other rajkumari, dressed in a pastel-coloured salwar-kameez, looks bored as if canvassing is a chore. The dark glasses worn by Siddhi Kumari, 40, provoked a snide remark the other day at a hamlet.

“Our candidate doesn’t even wish to make eye contact,” scoffed property agent Nirmal Tanwar.

Both the royals are BJP candidates for the December 1 Rajasthan polls. Diya, hoping to make her debut in the Assembly, is contesting from Sawai Madhopur, home to the Ranthambore National Park.

Nearly 500km to the northwest, in the expanse of the Thar desert, Siddhi is battling to save her Bikaner (East) seat which she had wrested with the second-highest margin in the last polls.

Diya is enthusiastic and hardworking and tries hard to shed the aura that surrounds her. She was born into the Jaipur royalty, the crown of Rajasthan’s aristocratic pecking order, but became a half-commoner when she married Narendra Singh Rajawat, a Thakur chartered accountant from Sawai Madhopur.

Siddhi belongs to the Bikaner royal family, whose reputation for fairness is legend. People recall that when Pakistan was created, Siddhi’s great-grandfather, Maharaja Ganga Singh, had ensured that Bikaner’s Muslims stayed back and felt safe.

Even today, if the district court pronounces a verdict people dislike, they stand up and shout: “But this is not the Maharaja’s way of meting out justice.”

Siddhi’s entry into electoral politics was smooth because she is said to be a favourite of Vasundhara Raje, a fellow princess and the BJP’s candidate for chief minister.

But critics say she has done little for Bikaner as MLA and “woke up from deep slumber” just before the elections. They point to her long absences.

Siddhi divides her time between Rajasthan and Mumbai, where she shops for Cavalli jeans and parties with the south Mumbai elite, according to lifestyle writers. Her adversary is Ganesh Gehlot, a BJP rebel who got a Congress ticket.

She claims she would win again. “I have spent every paisa of my constituency funds. I touched every caste and every community. They voted for me last time; so it was payback time for me.”

‘Eating out’

Diya looks as though she’s savouring every moment of her forays into the alleys of her constituency, on foot or in an SUV.

Once she is out of her suite in The Lodge, an ancestral property taken over by the Taj Group of Hotels, she doesn’t return for lunch.

“My meals take place in the villagers’ homes. I don’t even carry bottled water — the bottles and the packed meals are for those who accompany me,” she says, recalling a lunch of bajra roti and red chilli pickle she particularly relished.

“If I had the time, I would have asked for a couple more rotis,” she grins.

She tells voters: “I want the safety of every woman here.”

At a meeting with local police personnel’s families on the Police Ground, she said: “Please, please ensure that women show up to vote. I’m told the voting percentage here is always low. This time I want a record-breaking 95 per cent.”

In the next mohalla, she hugged every woman who stepped out of her home and promised: “You will be safe; your sister and your daughter will be safe walking the streets even after 8pm.”

Diya and husband Narendra had met when he worked briefly for her family’s museum trust. He now manages her election war room and juggles the constituency’s complex caste equations.

Diya’s rival is the formidable Kirori Lal Meena, who left the BJP years ago to dally with the Congress before floating the National People’s Party.

Kirori Lal has the loyalty of the powerful Meena tribe, which dominates the Mewar region including Sawai Madhopur. Diya is banking on the votes of the other castes, notably the Gujjars and her own community of Rajputs.

She confesses she was initially reluctant to contest from Sawai Madhopur although her ancestors had built the town.

“There were caste issues. But now I’m not scared of anything because my only appeal to people is to vote fearlessly.”