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Elections 2019: What security means for voters near border

In the central chowk of Khetolai, the village closest to the Pohkran nuclear test site, Congress flags flutter high, as voters say they live with the effects of nuclear explosions and want peace. (Photo: Ajai Sreevatsan)Premium
In the central chowk of Khetolai, the village closest to the Pohkran nuclear test site, Congress flags flutter high, as voters say they live with the effects of nuclear explosions and want peace. (Photo: Ajai Sreevatsan)

  • What happens at the ration shop is a bigger concern than what happens at the border, which is a mere 15 km from Tanot village, where he lives now
  • Despite the lukewarm traction for a strident anti-Pakistan viewpoint in these parts, the BJP campaign in Jaisalmer-Barmer has relied heavily on it

One of Satram Ram’s earliest memories is running away from Pakistani bombs as a 12-year-old. One morning in November 1965, a few men came to Kishangarh, a border village on Rajasthan’s protruding western edge in Jaisalmer district, and asked everyone to run. Ram took off with his mother and sister to the nearest major town, Ramgarh, with “enough rations to last just two days". Yet, for 65-year-old Ram, nationalism hardly matters in the upcoming polls.

What happens at the ration shop is a bigger concern than what happens at the border, which is a mere 15 km from Tanot village, where he lives now. The “fingerprint machine" (Aadhaar-enabled PDS) won’t give his ration on some days. And, he has to physically go collect it himself, while he could give his ration card to a younger person earlier. “There is no use for the poor if Modi comes back to power," Ram says.

In a poll campaign that has witnessed some high-voltage exchanges on nationalism and national security, Rajasthan’s south-western border belt is curiously quiet on the topic. The southern half of Rajasthan (comprising 13 of the state’s 25 Lok Sabha seats) goes to polls on Monday.

Despite the lukewarm traction for a strident anti-Pakistan viewpoint in these parts, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) campaign in Jaisalmer-Barmer has relied heavily on it. In a rally in Jaisalmer on Thursday, BJP candidate Kailash Choudhary declared: “Pressing ‘kamal’ (lotus, the BJP’s symbol) is like shooting down one terrorist". Despite leading farmer agitations in the past and contesting in a state where farmer anger is rife, Choudhary’s only pitch is nationalism.

The BJP campaign in the Jaisalmer-Barmer region has been filled with errors. First, popular local scion Manvendra Singh (BJP veteran Jaswant Singh’s son) defected to the Congress in September 2018. Then, the BJP spent months trying to find a strong candidate and fell back on Choudhary, who is seen to be backed by the RSS. Finally, former chief minister Vasundhara Raje is widely perceived to be angry about being left out of candidate selection in southern Rajasthan. After weeks of “will she, won’t she", Raje arrived in Jaisalmer-Jodhpur for the last two days of campaigning. But her arrival was met with mockery. “Maybe it’s a plot to make Choudhary lose," said Padam Shankar Singh, who was at Raje’s rally. The anger against Raje, who was voted out in December, is palpable.

Despite the odds, both Congress and BJP insiders say a “tough contest" is on the cards and the result may come down to local caste dynamics. The reason: the Modi “leher" (wave). BJP would have perhaps found the going easier in Jaisalmer if the campaign had been “nationalism plus".

Most Modi backers in the arid western edge of the Thar Desert speak about vikas (development), not the Balakot airstrikes. “Vikas is my first priority. Everything else comes next," says Swarup Bhargav (21), a first-time voter in Ramgarh. “Nobody believes Rahul Gandhi’s (minimum income) promise of 72,000. I voted for the Congress in the assembly polls but now I’m voting for Modi. He (Rahul) has no ability to run the nation." Bhargav hardly mentions Pulwama, but adds, “Modi ek bhavana hai (Modi is an emotion)."

The Ujjwala gas connection, Awas Yojana houses and Gram Sadak scheme are big selling points. Even those who have not personally benefitted think their names will be on “the list" if Modi returns as PM.

Though several speak of “the nation", muscular nationalism and surgical strikes are not on the radar, even among Modi backers.

To find remnants of nationalism, one has to travel deep inland to the town of Pokhran in the neighbouring Jodhpur constituency. Though the seat is faced with the state’s most high-profile contest—between Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, a future BJP chief ministerial prospect, and Vaibhav Gehlot, the son of the sitting Congress chief minister, many young Hindu men and self-declared “Modi fans" will only talk about two people who are not in the fray: Modi, obviously, and Saleh Mohammed, the local assembly representative.

In the December assembly election, Mohammed defeated BJP’s Pratap Puri, a Hindu sant, by a thin margin of 900 votes. The assembly seat is 30% Muslim, but in a Hindu-dominated town surrounded by a cluster of Muslim-dominated villages, anxiety runs deep. Nationalism sells like Jio SIM cards, which have begun to flood border regions.

“Hindu-Muslim is my first issue. nationalism second," says Pradip Singh Rawlot (38), who runs a nutrition supplement business in Pohkran. In the minds of many, both are the same. Natwar Joshi, a 32-year old autorickshaw driver whose family lives in Narsingho, says: “I am a Modi fan. Modi rashtravaad hai (Modi is a nationalist)," which he immediately follows up with: “Hinduvon bikh gayi hai (Hindus have sold themselves out in the assembly polls). We need Modi to set things right."

Nationalism has become a convenient foil to legitimize all manner of parochial concerns. In some Bishnoi and OBC-dominated villages around Pokhran, many initially said they would vote against Modi because they disapproved of the nationalistic rhetoric. But they eventually admitted that their real concern is the Thakur or Brahmin sarpanch who has recently won on a BJP ticket. The biggest liability of the election, no matter who wins, may be that internal and external enemies have seamlessly melded together.

The outcome will ultimately depend on the contestation between a sizeable group of Modi fans, and the resulting counter-mobilization that is underway among groups who feel left out, particularly Muslims and Scheduled Castes (SCs).

Musuruddhin Khan (35), for example, voted for the BJP in 2014 from Jodhpur. “But this time, the Modi leher will collapse," he says. The perception that the government’s management of the economy has been weak is rampant among SCs. “It has been hard to make ends meet in the last five years," says Jai Ram Mehiwal (44), a Vajpayee-era BJP voter who belongs to Chandan village in Jodhpur. “My feeling after seeing this government is Pappu (Rahul) pass ho gaya. Gappu (Modi) fail ho gaya. The enemy’s enemy is our friend," he adds.

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