In a tough fight, Om Birla faces off with ex-BJP member in Kota

Despite 83% of the region’s land being irrigated by river waters, farmers are suffering because of constant increase in input costs, and the Chambal canal network that has not been expanded

April 25, 2024 03:18 am | Updated 03:18 am IST - KOTA

Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla during an election meeting in Kota on April 20, 2024. Photo: X/@AmitShah via ANI

Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla during an election meeting in Kota on April 20, 2024. Photo: X/@AmitShah via ANI

Facing a tough challenge from his former party colleague Prahlad Gunjal, Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla has concentrated on mobilising the grassroots Bharatiya Janata Party workers (BJP) for the April 26 election in Rajasthan’s Kota Lok Sabha constituency, which also comprises two Assembly segments of the neighbouring Bundi district. Mr. Birla is vying for a third consecutive victory for the House he has been presiding over since 2019.

The entry of Mr. Gunjal — a Gujjar strongman who was twice elected an MLA from the BJP — as the Congress candidate has turned the electoral battle in Kota into a “clash of ego” between the two rivals. Mr. Gunjal, 63, joined the Congress in March while alleging that the BJP’s politics in Kota was dominated by “just one person”, and affirming that he wanted to maintain his self-respect.

Mr. Gunjal was also a staunch supporter of former Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje. As Ms. Raje was sidelined by the BJP’s top leadership in its strategy to promote next generation leaders, the relations between her close confidant Mr. Gunjal and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-backed Mr. Birla turned increasingly bitter over the past few years.

The Opposition Congress’ strategic move to field Mr. Gunjal as its candidate opposite Mr. Birla has turned the contest in Kota into a high-profile affair, in which both the sides are putting in the efforts to reach out to the voters with convincing arguments. The Congress is also banking on the Other Backward Class (OBC) status of Mr. Gunjal, which could make a favourable combination with Dalits and Muslims among the 20.88 lakh-strong electorate.

On the other hand, Mr. Birla — a two-time MLA and a sitting MP since 2014 — has maintained strong relations in the Lok Sabha constituency and focused on urban voters, while laying emphasis on the BJP’s guarantees during his public meetings. In one of his campaign rallies recently, Mr. Birla said his election in Kota would only be a means to ensure a third term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

A section of voters are unhappy with Mr. Birla’s unwillingness to address the issues confronting the local trading community. Though the clearance for the construction of an airport, for which a detailed project report is being prepared, would help promote business in the region, Goods and Services Tax (GST) anomalies were adversely affecting several sectors, J.P. Sharma, former president of the Kota Transport Companies’ Association, said.

The high profile clash between the two politically significant leaders has also shifted attention from the key issues of the Hadoti region, including the agrarian crisis caused by crop loss and debt burden among farmers, and the increasing number of suicides by students of coaching classes. A record number of 26 students tragically died by suicide in the coaching hub of Kota in 2023, but it has found no mention in the election campaign.

Hadoti Kisan Union general secretary Dashrath Kumar told The Hindu that despite 83% of the region’s land being irrigated by river waters, farmers were suffering because of constant increase in input costs, and the Chambal canal network that has not been expanded. “The closure of institutions such as Tilam Sangh and Keshoraipatan’s sugar mill have reduced employment opportunities for the local youths,” Mr. Kumar said.

The Kota Grains and Seeds Merchants’ Association president Avinash Rathi said the farmers’ welfare cess imposed on the traders during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 was yet to be withdrawn. These and similar other issues have not found any mention in the final phase of the contest, as both the sides are busy dealing with internal wrangling. While Ms. Raje’s faction is seen as reluctant to join the BJP’s campaign, veteran Congress leader Shanti Dhariwal and his supporters have kept a distance from Mr. Gunjal.

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