Alwar/Nagaur/Ajmer/Jaipur: Sherani Abad village, in Nagaur district of Rajasthan, is known as a mini Pakistan because Muslims make up most of its population. The nondescript village of 7,000 people also exemplifies political shifts and realignments in voting patterns of the state with 40 million voters.

This time, in a break from convention, many Sherani Abad residents say they will vote for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) instead of the Congress when they troop out to polling centres on Thursday.

“We want progress for our village and that includes water, roads, education, health and peace," says Shaukat Ali, 65, who owns a small shop selling clothes. “We think that the BJP will be able to deliver these." Ali says he hasn’t seen the sitting member of Parliament from the Nagaur constituency—the Congress party’s Jyoti Mirdha—in years.

Support from a community that has been leery of the BJP’s Hindutva agenda is a boost for a party that’s seen by opinion polls and analysts as the clear front runner.

An opinion poll by NDTV news channel this week said the BJP will win 226 seats on its own and cross the 272 majority mark in the 543-member Lok Sabha with the help of allies.

Thursday marks the fifth phase of the 16th general election. In Rajasthan, the poll battle—spread over two days with 20 constituencies voting on Thursday and the remaining five on 24 April—is a direct contest between the Congress and the BJP.

“If the party (BJP) wants to form a stable government on its own in Delhi or with the help of its allies, then winning all the 25 seats in Rajasthan are very, very important," says Renuka Pamecha, state coordinator for Rajasthan Election Watch, a Jaipur-based non-profit organization campaigning for electoral reforms. The BJP is expected to do well in Rajasthan given its performance in the November-December state polls when it bagged 163 seats out of 200 in the state assembly.

“The Parliament elections are happening close to (chief minister) Vasundhara Raje’s election as chief minister. There is no disenchantment against her, so the BJP will do well in the parliamentary polls," says Pamecha.

She ascribes the BJP’s success in the state polls to the combined support from Muslims, Jats, and scheduled castes and scheduled tribes (SCs/STs), besides the Rajputs, the party’s traditional vote base.

From conversations with Congress leaders, this phalanx in favour of the BJP seems to be intact. “We have to win back the SCs and STs," admits Mahender Singh, a Dalit Rajasthan Congress leader.

Have Muslims set aside their reservations about Narendra Modi, the three time chief minister of Gujarat who is the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate? Mohammed Salim says Modi was “maligned" for the 2002 riots. The reference is to the 2002 Gujarat riots in which some several hundred people—mostly Muslims—were killed. The riots followed the deaths of 59 Hindu pilgrims when a train coach was set on fire in Godhra, allegedly by a Muslim mob. Modi’s critics have accused him of doing little to control the riots. He denies any wrongdoing.

“Modi has since (2002) worked for the welfare of the people—Hindus and Muslims alike. He has done good for both communities," says Salim, a 40-year-old small businessman from Sherani Abad, who now lives in Ahmedabad.

Image crisis for Congress

A state Congress leader acknowledges that the party has taken a major blow in the assembly polls and is yet to recover. Its performance in the parliamentary polls may only be marginally better, he says, adding: “There is a lot of resentment against the central government; we are looking at winning four-five (parliamentary) seats." He declined to be named. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre is perceived in this region as non-performing and corrupt, says Shashi Sahay, who teaches political science at Jaipur University.

“Then there is the issue of runaway inflation, which is adding to the anti-incumbency factor. Against this backdrop, Modi’s message of good governance is getting across to critical sections of the electorate, who are choosing to abandon candidates they would have chosen to vote for on the basis of caste or religious allegiance," she said.

Sahay’s point is underlined by the views held by the Mev Muslims in Alwar district who draw their name from the Mewat region of Haryana.

The Mev Muslim community also has a presence in Bharatpur. Muslim voters also have a sizeable presence in Barmer and Tonk-Sawai Madhopur, besides Jhunjhunu, Sikar and Churu.

“Modi has a strong personality and development in Gujarat has helped both communities, we have heard," says 28-year-old Sajjid Khan, a Mev Muslim. “Modi definitely has an image," he says when asked who between Modi and the Congress party’s possible prime ministerial candidate, Rahul Gandhi, is more suited for the top job.

To be sure, it’s not as though all the minority votes are veering towards the BJP. At Ajmer’s world famous Sufi shrine dedicated to Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, senior cleric Haji Syed Wahid Hussain says he will vote for whoever will be “good for the country. Someone, who is secular in words and secular by heart".

In Alwar, 45-year-old Din Mohammed says his vote is going to the Congress party. “Our MP (Rao Jitendra Singh) has worked for our welfare. We want development without communalism," he adds.

Still, few have remained immune to the high-octane poll campaign rolled out by the BJP in the state. Rajasthan’s Jats— who according to the Jat Mahasabha leaders constitute about 22% of the state’s population— are among those readily receptive to Modi’s promises to eliminate corruption and cut inflation.

“We want jobs for our young people and industries, colleges and schools for children in our own villages and districts," says Ram Chander, a farmer from Nagaur district, situated in the heart of Rajasthan and considered a Jat heartland. “We need even basics like water and I think the BJP leadership is better at providing these than the Congress." Of the 25 parliamentary seats, Jats are believed to be able to influence voting in 15, including Nagaur, Barmer, Pali, Ajmer, Alwar and Jaipur.

“We need change and this change can only be ushered in by the BJP," says Nam Desh, another Jat farmer in Nagaur. His neighbour, Lachchi Ram, says the Jat community feels betrayed by the Congress despite the party trying to include the community in the Backward Classes list that would entitle them to special benefits like reservations in government jobs.

“They have removed a Jat as the state Congress chief and instead brought in a Gujjar," he says referring to newly named Rajasthan state Congress chief Sachin Pilot.

Raja Ram Meel, who heads the Jat Mahasabha, says that his group will not be issuing any diktats as to how Jats should vote in the April polls. “It’s up to each one to vote according to his opinion," he says.

In Ajmer, there is a public acknowledgement of the development ushered in by Pilot, minister of state for corporate affairs—including flyovers, a central university, an airport at Kishangarh (adjoining Ajmer city), a government recognized information technology training institute and numerous drinking water projects.

“He (Pilot) has crafted Ajmer’s profile change to a modern city with potential. Given all the development work he has done, he should come back," says city businessman Zulfikar Khan.

Youth at the vanguard

But the Congress’s strongest prospect in Rajasthan seems up against a determined electorate craving change. The youth—between the ages of 18 and 39 that constitutes almost 50% of Rajasthan’s electorate—is at the vanguard of this movement.

“My wish is to see Modi as prime minister," says Rama Udawat, a political science undergraduate studying at Ajmer’s Government College. “So it will not help if I vote for Pilot, who has done good work."

Modi’s appeal seems to lie in his “straight talk, determination to bring about a radical change and his no-nonsense approach", says Vishnu Punia, 19, Udawat’s classmate. “In contrast, Rahul Gandhi appears immature, without any clear ideas," she says.

The Aam Aadmi Party, born out of the anti-corruption protests of 2011-12, is not even mentioned. The party and its leader Arvind Kejriwal are dismissed as “item number" and “drama" by Sunita Jagra, 19, a mathematics honours student at the same college. “He was chief minister in Delhi, but quit and ran away," she says, referring to Kejriwal’s 49 days in office as Delhi chief minister.

J.P. Sharma, a former professor of economic administration at Jaipur University, sums it up thus: “Call it a wave or emotional attachment, there is a strong desire on the part of the people here to see Modi as the prime minister. His messages about good governance and cutting corruption have struck a chord in people. Most important, the youth seem to be with him."

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