Mohammad Azharuddin is the Congress’ big gamble in rural Rajasthan. On the campaign trail with the veteran cricketer and a few other sporting heroes.

It is early days still but the heat is building in this desert township. Tonk-Sawai Madhopur may not be easy to locate on the map of Rajasthan unless you are a tiger lover. Then you will know that the nearest railway station to the famed Ranthambore National Park is Sawai Madhopur. Now, the town is in the news for its first big ticket entrant: former cricket captain Mohammad Azharuddin, who is the Congress’ big gamble in a seat with a sizeable Muslim population. According to local estimates, roughly every sixth voter is a Muslim, the segment that the Congress is seeking to tap at the time of a perceived BJP wave in Rajasthan. Now based out of Ranthambore, Azhar is accompanied by his wife Sangeeta Bijlani, as he taps the rural belt of the constituency. Meetings with members of gram sabhas and panchayats dot his diary for a given day. And village elders are given the pride of place. Remember, Azharuddin surprised the poll pundits by winning the Lok Sabha elections from Moradabad in 2009. Following a not-too-distinguished innings, he has now been shifted to Tonk-Sawai Madhopur to overcome the anti-incumbency factor there. Here, Azhar is slowly building his innings, aware there are many known devils along the way. Brought in by the party high command due to the demand of some local bigwigs, including a couple of influential businessmen said to be close to the Union Minister Farooq Abdullah, Azhar is fighting twin odds of being an outsider and the general lack of enthusiasm towards the Congress in the desert state. Also the Lok Sabha polls come close on the heels of the Assembly elections in which the party was badly routed. There is also the not-so-insignificant factor of the Meena voters — the widely-respected local leader Kirori Lal Meena’s brother, Jagmohun, is in the fray too, threatening to eat into the Congress’ vote share.

Aware of the challenges, Azhar is concentrating on building his own personal rapport through small jan sabhas. Gopalpur, Ghantaghar, Saadat Ganj, Bilal Masjid, Shastri Nagar have all been venues for nukkad meetings where the former batsman makes a pitch for the Congress, urging the youth to step forward and show the way to the country. Then there are panchayats whose supports he seeks. To many youngsters who have never stepped out of the villages of Tonk, he is a hero. They come out of curiosity to look at him, and stay to listen to his election talk. Many wait for a fleeting opportunity to seek tips on cricket but Azhar ducks all queries on the national cricket team, its failure to win the T-20 title etc.

Instead, he wants to focus on development, providing better rail connection, better roads and improved electricity network. The locals want uninterrupted power supply in a town where eight-hour power cuts are the norm. They want industries, hotels and malls in an area where industrial activity is conspicuous by its absence. 

He is certainly more confident in his second innings. Yet, the going is not smooth. There are 32 candidates in the fray, among them the BJP’s Sukhbir Singh Jaunpuriya and AAP’s Mukesh Sehariya. Some locals, though, argue that this time all the contestants are outsiders! “I have played for the country. I know about the challenges. I have been brought here by the party. In Moradabad too, similar voices were raised. But I am committed to giving quality time to the constituency to provide for a better life for the local residents,” says Azhar, before getting into his SUV for another street-corner meeting.

However, on the one occasion that ventured to address his constituency, there was a vishal jansamaroh, as men and women, boys and girls vied with one another to see the cricketing artiste on the political pitch. Never a great orator, Azhar promised to make the place better. “We need to improve roads and tackle unemployment. Then there is the water contamination that is making people sick. Obviously, issues like health will mean I have to work on a war footing. I have to address this problem at the earliest to make people healthy and happy. There is no industry due to environmental issues.” Another pressing issue that the cricketer-turned-politician promised to address is the slaughter houses.

Mohammad Kaif, Congress I

Mohammad Kaif, the hero of India’s NatWest Trophy triumph many summers ago, is the forgotten man of Indian cricket. More than 100 ODIs and a handful of Tests later, Kaif prepares to turn a new leaf in his career. Kaif is trying his luck in the General Elections on a Congress ticket from Phulpur, the UP town that once sent India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, to the Lok Sabha.

How onerous is the responsibility of stepping into Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s shoes?

I am aiming to give it my best. It is inspiring to know that Nehruji represented it in our Parliament. There is so much to be done. 

Yet the steepest challenge in Phulpur comes not from its history but current condition…

Yes, the biggest challenge is to tackle unemployment. There are so many qualified youths but they are jobless. It pains me to see the plight of the farmers. They struggle to get manure for their fields. Education is another factor that has impacted this constituency. It needs more schools and colleges. Most young people that I interact with insist on a good education.

The immediate task, obviously, is to improve the state of education and revive the industries that have been idle for more than two decades.

Law and order is also an issue and women’s security will be my priority.

What can sportspersons expect from you in case you become an MP?

I want to create a modern infrastructure for youngsters all over Uttar Pradesh.

Kirti Azad, BJP

Kirti Azad shot into the limelight as a big-hitter during an exhibition match against the Pakistani cricket team in New Delhi more than three decades ago. A little later, he was part of Kapil Dev’s World Cup winning squad. Identified as the booming gun of the BJP in the capital, he is seeking re-election from Darbhanga in Bihar.

Bihar is likely to witness triangular contests this time with the BJP-LJP taking on JD-U and Congress-RJD. How confident are you of victory?

This is the fourth straight time that I am contesting from Darbhanga. I have won twice earlier. It is a vote of trust in me by Narendra bhai. We should win 80 per cent of the seats in Bihar.

What are the pressing issues in this election?

A lot has to be done. The first that comes to my mind is that Bihar should become a prosperous State. It has potential to be tapped. It is a very under-developed state. We need to have a Special Status for Bihar. There should be a financial package to enable the State develop. It is much needed in small spheres. 

Bihar’s students get admission in universities in Delhi, Mumbai and go on to shine there. Yet education is neglected in the State.

Yes, one area that needs immediate attention is education. But there are other pressing matters too.

The problem of water shortage needs to be addressed. Then there is the issue of electricity.

Rajyavardhan Rathore, BJP

His silver medal at the Athens Olympics was balm for a bruised nation. Rajyavardhan Rathore has always attracted attention for his forthright ways and an ability to triumph against all odds. These are the attributes that will be tested when he makes his political debut as the BJP candidate from Jaipur Rural in the forthcoming elections. His move to join the BJP surprised many outsiders; the insiders, though, have a different view.

How difficult is it for a sportsman to strike a rapport with the man on the street?

I believe I have to work at the grassroots. Being from the armed forces and a sportsman, I am known to deliver quality. People will have a certain level of expectations from me. I have to be prepared for that.

A large part of the BJP campaign has been about the Gujarat Model of Development. What are the issues in Jaipur Rural?

Plenty. Water, electricity, road, food distribution system, education are my concerns. My main focus, apart from this, is educating the youth and getting them jobs in the constituency. It is a huge task.

Farmers too seem to be disgruntled in many parts…

My immediate task is to help the farmers. They need to be involved in the decision- making process.

I will find a way to make sure the citizens get their due from the government officers. I have to strengthen the governance system with the help of the citizens.

More In: Magazine | Features