The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sleepless in Surajgarh

Jhunjhunu (Rajasthan), Nov. 24: The night was still dark when Hanuman Prasad checked into a hotel. But sleep was far from his mind.

The retired IAS officer was on an SOS mission.

Prasad, the sitting Congress MLA from the Surajgarh SC reserved constituency — one of the seven Assembly segments in the district — travelled over 60 km late in the night to reach Jhunjhunu town, the Jhunjhunu district headquarters.

He is a worried man — with just a week to go before campaigning ends for the December 1 polls, he is not sure whether his Jat voters will stay with the Congress. Every fourth voter in Surajgarh is a Jat.

Prasad’s mission is to urge the Congress’ most important Jat leader and Jhunjhunu Lok Sabha MP, Sisram Ola, to campaign among Jats in Surajgarh.

His worries symbolise a new anxiety in the Congress this time in Jhunjhunu, Sikar and Churu districts, which make up the Shekhawati belt of Rajasthan. The region is the nerve-centre of Jat politics in the desert state. The conventional wisdom is that the predominantly peasant community, which accounts for about 25 per cent of the electorate in each of the 22 Assembly constituencies, decides the outcome of the polls in the region.

The caste factor, likely to play a key role, should have given the Congress a clear edge but for the concerted BJP effort to woo the Jats. Moreover, the party does not appear confident enough to seek another term on the strength of its performance. “The balance sheet of its five years in office is unlikely to help the ruling Congress in the region,” says an observer in Jhunjhunu.

For the first time in the state, the BJP is fighting an Assembly poll with a conscious strategy to win the Jats over. The party has been emboldened by the perceived significant gains it made in the 1999 parliamentary elections after Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced the Other Backward Classes status for the Jats.

The party is laying stress on its chief ministerial candidate Vasundhara Raje’s “Jat bahu” status. Its campaign has also subtly sought to exploit chief minister Ashok Gehlot’s “anti-Jat” image, created ironically by his party’s Jat leaders. Prasad and other Congress nominees are naturally worried.

Prasad, however, believes that the BJP strategy will not be all that successful. “Jats may be unhappy with Gehlot and the Congress. But they are too clannish in their voting behaviour. They tend to stay loyal to their leaders. Most of the established local Jat leaders like Ola are in the Congress. The BJP does not have this advantage,” he says.

Poll observers and even BJP leaders in the region agree. Union minister and Sikar BJP MP Subhash Maharia, whom the BJP leadership is promoting as a Jat leader, is yet to emerge as a big factor even in his district.

Local Congress leaders are also banking on two other factors to help the party retain its supremacy in the region. First, they reckon, the BJP’s social engineering in the region has left another traditional Congress support base — the scheduled castes — untouched. Scheduled castes account for about 16 per cent of the voters in the 22 seats. Muslims make up 10 per cent of the electorate.

The decline and collapse of the Janata Dal and the fringe presence of the Bahujan Samaj Party in the Shekhawati belt mean that the Congress will be virtually the unchallenged favourite among the two sections.

Second, Congress leaders hope that the BJP’s overzealous attempts to cultivate the Jats will invite the wrath of its traditional upper-caste supporters who, with 30 per cent presence in the region, are an important factor.

In nine of the 22 seats, the BJP has fielded Jat candidates. The Congress, too, has fielded the same number of Jat candidates and in six seats, the rival parties’ Jat nominees have locked horns.

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