Jaipur: On November 26, several Rajput organisations, led by the Shri Rajput Karni Sena, will meet in Jhalrapatan to decide their strategy for rallying support for Congress candidate Manvendra Singh.
Jhalrapatan is the constituency of chief minister Vasundhara Raje. Manvendra, who quit the BJP to join Congress over differences with Raje, is pitted against her, making it the most interesting electoral battle in these assembly polls.
Raje’s second term at the helm in Rajasthan has been fraught with a series of confrontations with the Rajputs, mostly in western Rajasthan where Rajputs continue to hold sway.
For the community, therefore, Rajput pride is at stake in the contest at Jhalrapatan.
In terms of pure numbers, Rajputs account for 8-10% of the state’s population. However, they hold reasonable sway over voting the behaviour of other communities in their region.
“There is a palpable anger and it originated in the 2014 polls, and since then there have been several incidents that have caused that anger to spread in magnitude as well as space. So, the sentiment that originated from western Rajasthan is now echoing across the state,” Manvendra told The Wire.
In fact, Rajput organisations have gone to the extent of calling it a Rajput versus non-Rajput contest.
“Of course it is; in 1998, Jaibhan Singh Pavaiya had challenged Madhavrao Scindia in Gwalior solely on this issue and Scindia barely won that contest. Since then, the Scindias have not contested from Gwalior. In Jhalrapatan too, the issue is real Rajput versus non-Rajput and Raje will face the music there,” says Lokendra Singh Kalvi, leader of the Karni Sena.
The seeds of Rajput discontent against Raje were sown in the 2014 parliamentary polls, when Manvendra’s father Jaswant Singh – former Union minister and veteran BJP leader – was denied a ticket from Barmer, his home district.
The ticket went to Jat leader Sonaram Chaudhary, who had switched over from the Congress; Singh went on to contest, and lose, the elections as an independent candidate.
Two years later, in June 2016, the alleged fake encounter of a history-sheeter Chatur Singh in Jaisalmer had the Rajputs come out on the street against the government – demanding a CBI probe in the matter. Those leading the protests included BJP MLA from Jaisalmer, Chhotu Singh.
However, the encounter that truly mobilised the community against Raje was to happen a year later.
Gangster Anand Pal Singh, who was killed in an encounter with the police in June 2017, was not a Rajput. The Ravana Rajputs, Singh’s community, are culturally similar to the Rajputs but have historically faced caste discrimination.
Violent protests that went on for days against Anand Pal’s death were led by Rajput organisations like the Karni Sena.
The issue, however, brought together almost everyone who had a grudge against Raje, including the opposition Congress and rebel BJP MLA Ghanshyam Tiwari.
The magnitude of Rajput mobilisation over the issue – on the streets as well as on social media – could be gauged from the fact that senior Congress leader from Madhya Pradesh Digvijay Singh cornered Raje over it, seeking Union home minister Rajnath Singh’s intervention.
By the time Raje relented, acceding to the community’s demand for a CBI probe, the bad optics had already cemented into a strong perception that she would face the community’s ire in the assembly polls.
A year before Anand Pal’s death, another incident had already brought Raje onto a collision course with the Rajputs.
In September 2016, the Jaipur Development Authority sealed the gates of the elite Raj Mahal Palace hotel, owned by the erstwhile royal family of Jaipur.
The incident led to raised eyebrows in Rajasthan’s political circles, more so because Diya Kumari, member of the family that owned the hotel, was a BJP MLA at the time.
The family threatened legal action against the JDA even as the incident snowballed into a controversy. In a rare occurrence, the erstwhile Rajmata of Jaipur, Padmini Devi, led a public protest march, along with members of several Rajput groups including the Karni Sena.
Now, the BJP’s denial of a ticket to Diya in the assembly elections is being seen as a culmination of that episode, although Diya herself has clarified she did not want to contest.
The community found another bone to pick with Raje in the election year, with BJP state president Ashok Parnami’s resignation following the party’s defeat in the assembly and parliamentary by-polls in February.
Among the names doing the rounds for Parnami’s successor, minister of state and Jodhpur MP Gajendra Singh’s case was the strongest, with party sources saying he had the vote of BJP president Amit Shah.
The post finally went to Madan Lal Saini, a relatively unknown face, purportedly at Raje’s behest. Reports said the chief minister had opposed Shekhawat’s candidature, which led to further alienation of the Rajput community from the BJP.
“Amit Shah had very clearly said that he wanted a young member of their government who had been working in border districts to be the state president. Only Shekhawat fit that description. But Raje opposed it. Everyone knows that,” says Kalvi.
However, there are members of the community who feel the Rajput sentiment is no longer against Raje or the BJP.
“Unfortunately, there were a series of individual incidents that happened in a row, building a perception that Raje is anti-Rajput. It started with Jaswant Singh ji’s episode in Barmer. The party had decided to field a Jat candidate only because delimitation had completely changed the demographics,” says Gajendra Singh Khimsar, Rajput leader and a core member of Raje’s cabinet.
According to him, that perception has changed completely.
“Why? Because come elections and the BJP has fielded 28 Rajput candidates, while the Congress has only given tickets to 13 Rajputs. The pendulum has swung back. There is a 360-degree turn in the community’s perception and they believe that BJP is indeed the party for Rajputs. Manvendra is being made a scapegoat by the Congress and he will lose badly,” Khimsar says.
The question that poll watchers in Rajasthan are asking, however, is whether the Rajputs will end up hurting BJP’s poll prospects because of Raje, the same way Jats had hurt the Congress because of their anger with Ashok Gehlot in 2013.