| Vajpayee in Jodhpur on Sunday. (AFP)
Bikaner, Nov. 25: The fiery Rajput is out to seek revenge.
As this desert town in western Rajasthan inches closer to the day of reckoning, Devi Singh Bhati has only one thought — how to make the BJP bleed.
Expelled from the party four months ago, Bhati’s single-point agenda for the December 1 elections is to make the BJP pay heavily for its four-year-old decision to grant OBC (Other Backward Classes) status to the state’s influential Jat community.
The spearhead of the movement for economic reservation, who had threatened to heckle the Prime Minister at a rally if he did not announce a quota for the upper-caste poor, has won several converts from the BJP to his Rajasthan Samajik Nyay Manch (social justice front).
The front is seen as the “X-factor” in the Assembly elections. Nobody is sure if it would make any difference to the fortunes of either the ruling Congress or the BJP. Its candidates are in the fray in 65 constituencies across the state and, in another 18, it is supporting the Dev Sena, an outfit floated by some Gujjar leaders.
Bhati, who is contesting from his Kolayat constituency in Bikaner district, believes the front’s cause will damage the BJP’s prospects. “If an already empowered community (read Jats) can have the benefit of OBC reservation, why not the needy among the Brahmins, Rajputs, Vaishyas and other upper-caste communities'” he asks.
By granting OBC status to Jats just for the sake of winning a few parliamentary seats in Rajasthan, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, he says, had wrecked the hopes and expectations of the needy upper-caste people who have always stood by the BJP.
Apart from the plank of reservation for the upper-caste poor, Bhati has sought to project the front as a champion of the “original” OBC groups like Gujjars and Malis. He claims that the Jats have virtually denied the benefits of OBC reservation to the original OBC groups by cornering most of the reserved posts in government jobs in the last three years. Hence the slogan: “Upekshit ko aarakshan, aarakshit ko samrakshan (Reservation for the needy and protection for the reserved).”
By openly challenging the BJP’s claim that it advocates the cause of the upper castes, Bhati also hopes to scuttle Vasundhara Raje’s bid to emerge as Bhairon Singh Shekhawat’s successor in the state. The BJP veteran is now the country’s Vice-President and the party is projecting Raje as its chief ministerial candidate.
Umashankar Vyas, a Bhati loyalist, claims that a number of senior upper-caste BJP leaders, too, is working to undermine the BJP’s poll prospects with the sole aim of keeping Raje out.
Apparently, there is also a broad understanding between Bhati and the Congress. The Congress leadership, including chief minister Ashok Gehlot, reckons that if the front can even marginally weaken the BJP’s upper-caste support base on the emotive reservation issue, it would increase the Congress’ chances in many seats.
Sunil Bhantia, a front spokesman, virtually confirms the front’s soft corner for the Congress. “Our main enemy is the BJP. We won’t mind supporting the Congress to form the next government,” he says.
Sunil, who filed nomination papers in the Bikaner town seat as a front nominee, has since withdrawn his papers in favour of Congress candidate and state health minister B.D. Kalla.
The Congress, in turn, is widely seen to be making things easy for Bhati in his Kolayat seat. Many observers are also convinced that in Karauli, an eastern Rajasthan Assembly seat, Satyanarayan Singh Saini has filed his papers at Gehlot’s behest.
Saini, a close confidant of the chief minister, is fighting against state minister Janardhan Gehlot. The two Gehlots, it is well known, are at loggerheads with each other.
The Congress, however, is wary of openly supporting Bhati for fear of angering the Jats. As for Bhati, he is banking mainly on the appeal of his cause. In private, his supporters say, the front is putting its limited resources in about a dozen constituencies where the prospects of the front candidates are perceived to be bright.
In the five seats of Bikaner district, however, the Bhati effect is visible in the BJP camp. Local BJP leaders are a worried lot.