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Will Phalodi call it right this time?

Holy visit: The dargah of the Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti in Rajasthan.   | Photo Credit: V.V. Krishnan

On the fringes of the great Thar desert lies a remote sandy town, Phalodi. Trains from Jodhpur, and even one between Bandra and Howrah, pass through the junction at Phalodi, as they travel to the golden city of Jaisalmer.

Phalodi has many claims to fame: once a tiny oasis on the caravan route, it has recently recorded the highest temperatures in the country. The nearby saline depression once made it one of the important sources of salt; and it lies close to Pokhran, the country’s only nuclear testing site.

It is unlikely, however, that Feluda, Satyajit Ray’s legendary private investigator, would have stopped at Phalodi, in search of the elusive treasures in Sonar Kela, the fort of Jaisalmer. With a population of less than 50,000 and a few heritage buildings, the town does not immediately excite attention.

But today, especially during elections, it is Phalodi’s satta bazaar, or betting market, which is the cynosure of attention among political analysts throughout Rajasthan. An illegal speculative market flourishes with the benign cover of the law enforcement agencies. If the police were to act, they would have to close down the town — so overwhelming and all-pervasive is the political economy of the satta trade. The locals claim that the Election Commission can go wrong, but not Phalodi’s betting market.

One veteran claimed that they had accurately predicted Donald Trump’s victory to the American Presidency, while advancing arguments for legalising the satta market in the town. Globalisation creates its own transnational moral hazards!

While the election results are still several weeks away and a month is a lifetime in politics (in Phalodi’s paraphrased view of Harold Wilson’s dictum), the bookies are (with only an occasional murmur of dissent) betting on the NDA coming back to power, though with a reduced majority. The odds, they say, are heavily in favour of the BJP winning 18 of the 25 Lok Sabha seats in Rajasthan. In the 2014 election, the BJP won all 25, getting more than 52% of the popular vote.

In the 2018 Assembly election, the Congress was able to form the government, but the difference in the voting percentage between it and the BJP was less than 1%. And if the polling percentage in the Assembly election was extrapolated today to the Lok Sabha poll figure, the Congress would have won 13 and the BJP 12 seats. Clearly, Phalodi’s predictions seem to justify the slogan: “Vasundhara Taireen Khair Nahin, Modi Tujh Say Varir Naheen” (Vasundhara Raje Scindia [the previous BJP Chief Minister], we will not spare you; but Narendra Modi, we have no quarrel with you).

The Phalodi Assembly constituency falls within the Jodhpur Lok Sabha constituency. The BJP’s Gajendrasingh Shekawat (currently serving as Union Minister of State for Agriculture and Farmers Welfare) won the seat in 2014 by a margin of more than four lakh. In a political gamble, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s son, Vaibhav, is making his political debut from the constituency.

The issues that confront much of Rajasthan are rural distress and the pan-national “concerns” about national security and skilled employment. As general secretary of the BJP Kisan Morcha and activist of the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, Mr. Shekawat gives top priority to agriculture. On national security, he is believed to have developed a unique civil defence initiative on the border through the Seema Jan Kalyan Samiti. But the voters — at least anecdotally — are sceptical of his track record.

Nonetheless, the younger Gehlot is facing a formidable opponent in Mr. Shekawat and will require all the support and political magic of his father if he has to make a real dent. Recall that the Chief Minister had represented Jodhpur five times in the Lok Sabha, between 1980 and 1999.

Further west, in Barmer-Jaisalmer, former BJP leader and former Union Minister Jaswant Singh’s son Manvendra Singh, who joined the Congress before the Assembly election, has an upper hand, but only marginally at the moment. Infighting within the Congress could cause him damage, with former MP Harish Choudary having staked a strong claim for the constituency.

However, Mr. Manvendra had represented Barmer in Parliament earlier, and even as an Independent in the 2014 election, his father was able to secure more than four lakh votes.

Urbane and once part of Lutyens’ set (Mayo College, Amherst and SOAS), Mr. Manvendra has reinvented himself as a true grassroots Rajput leader, proud of his heritage but with a wider social base.

Jaipur vibes

But it is only when you are in Jaipur that you get a sense of the pulse of the whole State, beyond the forecasts of Phalodi. Early morning, even before the first sign of dawn, Central Park comes alive. An outsider would be forgiven for imagining that the entire civil lines of Jaipur has descended on this blessed green oasis, exercising in the multiple open gyms and then fortifying itself with aloe vera or Khas juice, ready to take on the world.

Mixing the sacred with the profane, political wisdom is quickly gathered as you join the huge crowds that arrive at Govind Devji’s famous temple, before the appointed hours for darshan. An evening dinner at Niro’s and you are truly equipped to hold forth on the political trends of the State.

The sitting MP for Jaipur is the formidable Ram Charon Bohra, who beat the Congress candidate by over five lakh votes in 2014. In a traditionally Brahmin-dominated constituency and viewed as a BJP fortress, the Congress has sprung a surprise by nominating the former Jaipur Mayor Jyoti Kandelwal. Ms. Khandelwal has appeal, with her clean and efficient track record as Mayor and especially among women voters, but it will require a major shift in Jaipur’s traditional fault lines for her to win.

In rural Jaipur, there is a colourful contest between an Olympian and an Olympian. Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, an Olympic medallist, is facing the Congress MLA for Sadulpur, Krishna Poonia, a Commonwealth Games gold medallist.

Rajasthan has made remarkable strides; its roads, its infrastructure and its heritage tourism are enviable examples of good governance. But rural disempowerment is a stark reality that faces you in all parts of the State. The possibilities of change were once evident as you diverted from the Jaipur-Ajmer highway at Tilonia to Bunker Roy’s extraordinary Barefoot College. Today, you see the remarkable Tilonia Bazaar on the highway, with its handicrafts displaying the skills of the village.

This bazaar is a symbol of Tilionia success, but also a reminder that its inability to scale up and replicate itself with the same robustness makes it just one drop of water. In a desert setting, that means success and failure.

Any trip to Rajasthan is rarely complete without paying Hazari at the dargah of Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti, revered by Hindus and Muslims alike. It’s the only place sequestered from the political noise of the world outside. For unlike Phalodi, the concerns of the dargah are of a different and more lasting order.

(The author is a Professor of International Relations at Jawaharal Nehru University and at the University of Melbourne)

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 8:11:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/elections/lok-sabha-2019/will-phalodi-call-it-right-this-time/article26737517.ece

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