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What is the Modi wave and what does it mean for the Congress Party in Rajasthan?

On a placid, white, hot afternoon, a convoy of a 15 odd cars is cutting across narrow, dusty roads in the Ajmer District of Rajasthan. Sachin Pilot is on his way to a village called Piplaj, near Kekri, where his constituents have been waiting for him to show up for over an hour in the courtyard of an ancient Hanuman Temple. They don’t seem to mind one bit. The loudspeakers are blaring his excruciatingly jarring campaign song in Marwari, which is replaced by live drums when he takes the stage to deliver his speech.

But first he must tie a pagri, while the dhols are still beating. He is quick and efficient with the fabric, working it like a pro. As he is with his speech. He does not speak in the local dialect but his Hindi is earthy and he is fluent in the language, a natural and gifted speaker. His attacks on the BJP are sharp but graceful. He is most emphatic when enumerating the work he has done in the area, commanding votes instead of demanding them on that count.

But the factors on which votes are cast in this region are more complex than his appeal. This is where the challenge lies for the MP seeking his second re-election. Even more so, in his role as the newly appointed Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee chief. Pilot took over from Dr. Chandrabhan as the head of the Congress in the state after the party’s debilitating loss in the state assembly elections in December. “Poor thing. Brought in like this to fight the Modi wave. What can he do?” asks a concerned Mrs. Handa while rearranging the shelves of her boutique clothing store in Jaipur. If only Pilot’s predicament could be summed up so easily.

“Is there a Modi wave?” ask friends as I travel from one place to the other in the country. In Rajasthan, the answer would probably quite simply be, yes. The more difficult question is: What is the Modi wave? In the answer to this question lies the inventory of Pilot’s problems.

In the drawing room of a sociologist in Jaipur an unlikely group of people, who do not wish to be named, have assembled. Two RSS members are complaining to three avowed communists about the decline of attendance in the shakhas. “OBCs and Dalits used to come following the lead of upper caste Hindus. But now they see upper castes going to coaching so they also go to coaching and malls,” says one of the RSS men, gulping down his sherbet. “We are keeping our message going through telephone and SMS,” he adds. The youth they lost to the lures of a new economy are being brought back through technology.

The BJP is clearly the biggest beneficiary of technology in this election. Their campaign has made unprecedented use of it. Their agenda for India as well as their attacks on the opposition have been circulated extensively using SMS, Whatsapp and social media. “They were always very good at spreading things but they did not have such means before,” says the sociologist. The ‘Modi wave’ is the largest creation of this virtual reality.

19 year old Govind Singh Shekhawat from the village Paragpura near Jaipur comes from a family that has had “good relations” with C.P. Joshi, the Congress leader contesting from Jaipur Rural, for many years but they are all voting for Modi this time. “He spoke about the many ‘T’s. One of them was ‘Talent’. He will get all of us jobs according to our talents. And he will get them fast,” Govind tells me. “But you want to join the army,” I remind him. “Yes, Modi will make the army very strong. He knows how to deal with Pakistan and China,” he adds.

18 year old Lekhraj Regar, from the village Para, in Ajmer District, will also be voting for Modi. “Because he will bring vikas,” he tells me. The village has good roads running through it and well-planned, concrete houses. “Has there not been development in your village?” I ask him. “Yes and I would have voted for Congress. But 3 months ago there was a danga here. Some Muslims instigated it by shouting ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ after a cricket match. Modi can fix that. See how no Muslim has rioted in Gujarat after 2002?” he says. 19 year old Jaitu Singh, who I meet in the marketplace at Siwana, District Barmer, says he supports Modi because: “Jis prakaar Gujarat ko chamkaaya hai us prakaar Rajasthan ko Narendra Modi hi chamkaa saktaa hai.”

All of them talk about what he has done for Gujarat but none of them have been to Gujarat. Ask them what the Gujarat model is and they say things like “there are no uneducated people there”, “tourism is very good”, “everyone has a job”. This is what they have heard and this is what they believe, they tell me. 66 year old Jaipur businessman Trilok Joshi is more skeptical about Modi’s Gujarat “boasts”. “He comes here and says everyone in India lives on our milk. What if people from Uttarakhand started saying, ‘If we stop the Ganga none of you will get Moksha?’ What sort of logic is this?” But the pride of young Modi supporters I meet is not hurt by Modi’s assertion of Gujarat’s superiority. For them Gujarat is no longer a neighbouring state they can compete with on statistics. It is another word for a utopia they have never seen.

In Rajasthan people talk about their leaders, local and national, intimately. They like to believe they know them, their antecedents; analyze them closely like they would family members. Modi is an anomaly in this culture. No one seems to know much about him. But despite his enigma, or perhaps because of it, they want to vote for him. 88 year old Nahar Singh has worked in the BJP at the grassroots level for most of his life. He has never met Modi, nor seen him. I ask him why he thinks the Gujarat CM is likely to become PM and he answers simply: “Because the media has said he will become PM.”

Tushar Naik who teaches history at a local college explains it slightly differently— “When Pepsi came to the market they advertised so much everyone said we must try it once. If we don’t like it we will go back to drinking the old sodas. What is the harm?” Bad example, perhaps, because eventually most other options had either been shut down or bought over. “Yes, but who will tell them that? Congress?” he asks, mocking the grand old party’s abysmal failure to communicate.

The pro-Modi wave in Rajasthan is, oddly, not an out and out anti-Congress wave. “We are only seeing Rahul Gandhi in these last months and he speaks from his heart, dil se,” says Vikas Mittal, who is in his B.A. Final Year at Rajasthan University, Jaipur, summing up what most people have to say about the Congress Vice President in these parts. But Gandhi is unlikely to be able to reap any benefits of his ‘dil se’ image in these elections because, according to Mittal, he “started too late”, and because, as Nahar Singh puts it: “He is not forceful, madam. People want a forceful leader. That is all that matters.”

Naik concedes that Gandhi has made an effort to counter some of BJP’s propaganda. “But that is a machinery and he is alone,” he adds. “Congress workers are not amplifying his voice.” While both the Congress and the BJP are seen as riddled with in-fighting and corruption at lower levels, the general perception is that the BJP karyakarta is much more motivated than the Congress karyakarta. Schemes for free medicine and pensions introduced by the Ashok Gehlot led Congress government have gone a long way to improve the lives of people in the state. “But they don’t do prachaar of their schemes,” Naik tells me. “BJP workers will go around and make people sign the forms and take credit for getting them pension. It was the same with MNREGA. Vasundhara’s pictures were everywhere and they got political mileage out of it.”

It is not as if people are entirely unaware of the Congress’s role in initiating welfare schemes. Vishal Bishnoi, a 34 year old real estate developer from a land owning family “can’t take Congress anymore” primarily because of these schemes. “Everyone is paying the price for NREGA. The same labour we paid Rs 200 to now we have to pay Rs 350 and the government has a limit on price. Smaller industries and agriculture are hit by this. Bigger industries have the option of automatizing but smaller industries can’t as it’s not cost effective. That is why we stopped farming.”

In sharp contrast, in the 13 villages I visit in the Jaipur, Ajmer, Jodhpur and Barmer districts over 3 days, there is no household that does not have good things to say about MNREGA, as also about the Indira Awaas Yojana, wheat and farmer subsidies and the pension and free medicine schemes. Suryaveer Singh, a 15 year old boy from Jaisalmer, also lists all of these schemes as “Gehlot’s good work”. “But if I could vote I would vote for Modi,” he tells me. “Because Gehlot is not a zordaar leader.” The ousted CM is largely seen as “honest” and “humanitarian,” according to Naik. But also as a weak leader who could not control corruption at lower levels and did not wield enough authority over his own ministers.

Many households in the 13 villages I visit also seem disappointed with the work the new Vasundhara Raje government has done so far. Gangaram Regar, a senior farmer from Para, and his nephew, 22 year old Bharat Kumar Regar, tell me that the MNREGA work which was the lifeline of the village, between harvests, has stopped since the new government came to power. 32 year old Kishan Lal, from Gulgaon, tells me that in Raje’s last term liquor sales shot up many times over and, despite measures announced by Raje to curb liquor consumption, people are skeptical about how the BJP will deal with this issue. Why then is he voting for the BJP, I ask him. “For Modi,” he corrects me.

This ‘wave’ coupled with the strong anti-incumbency factor, despite the developmental work done by the Congress has dampened the spirits of some of the party’s workers. Four Youth Congress members, who do not wish to be named, let me in on a speculative conversation they are having about how “many good leaders who have delivered did not want to contest this time from Rajasthan” and how “many who are contesting will struggle because they have not delivered.” The latter jibe is on Chandresh Kumari, Congress candidate from Jodhpur who is facing a tough fight against Gajendra Singh Shekhawat from the BJP.

At Sonia Gandhi’s rally in Paota where she is campaigning for C. P. Joshi, G. P. Awasthi, a photojournalist with National Duniya tells me that the turnout is good but nothing compared to Modi’s rallies. The crowds are rushing forward to the barricade where Mrs. Gandhi has come out to greet her audience. Every one I speak with in the rally has only good things to say about her speech but few of them believe Congress will do well from Rajasthan in the upcoming polls.

Complicating this narrative further are caste equations. In Siwana, where Jaswant Singh is campaigning as an independent candidate for Barmer after the BJP refused him a ticket, 37 year old Shaitan Singh tells me that the current Congress MP Harish Choudhary and former CM Gehlot helped relieve the water shortage in his village but he will vote for Singh this time because: “We are people of the desert. We are used to hardships. This election is about our aan”. A large number of Rajputs in the area see BJP refusing a ticket to Singh as an affront to the community, particularly so because Singh is up against Jat candidates from both parties and the Jat-Rajput rivalry in these parts is legendary. 22 year old Dilip Singh, a car loan agent, tells me he was going to vote for Modi but now “has to vote for Singh”. “I hope he will win and support Modi,” he adds. The Siwana BJP office is toeing the party line. “We will win by a huge margin. Rajputs vote will go with us only,” Mool Singh Bhayal, the Siwana BJP head, himself a Rajput, tells me in a booming voice. “But did you feel bad when Singh was refused a ticket?” I ask. “Yes,” he says softly and then falls silent.

Ram Nivas Choudhary is a 39 year old Jat and a Congress worker. He tells me that one of the reasons the Congress party did badly in the Assembly polls is because “Gehlot alienated the Jats. He never let a strong Jat leader emerge. We want representation. Rajesh Pilot used to have consideration for us. He was a Jat leader for us, not a Gujjar Leader.” He is referring to Sachin Pilot’s father, a senior Congress leader who died in a car accident in 2000. Whether the young RPCC chief can live up to his father’s legacy and the challenges of motivating and uniting the party in Rajasthan remains to be seen. For now, he is zipping across his constituency, furiously campaigning. He is up against a Jat leader himself, BJP’s Sanwarlal Jat.

Caste lines will determine his reelection to a large extent but his constituents heap praises on him for the work he has done across caste lines. Mahants of temples, Brahmins, Gujjars, Dalits and Rajputs I meet volunteer details of the progress the area has made under him. Back in Jaipur I talk to people who wonder if he is “too young” or “too inaccessible” for the task at hand but in his constituency these are not real concerns. “He has not visited us often but everything he promised was done. For decades we wanted a pakka road to the bus stop. We asked him and he got it done,” says Gangaram Regar. His nephew Bharat Kumar adds, “There are many more schools and colleges here now and our schools have computers. We get good education.” Kumar’s only grouse is that there aren’t enough jobs for young people like him who do not wish to farm. A problem Pilot acknowledges. “Manufacturing of course, needs a big push, there’s no way we can bypass that. We have to take the workforce from the farm land to the shop floor,” he tells me. He says he has been actively working to create more jobs and is confident he will be able to do so in the near future.

I ask Pilot about the challenges of fighting the electoral battle along caste lines. “I think caste has become much less relevant in large cities than it is in rural areas. But even in rural areas people understand that performance is a better parameter than your gotras and your caste lines. But it’ll take time to change. At least in my constituency I think this will be an acid test because here, no matter what caste combination the BJP claims is in its favour, people understand that 2 million people live here and there is a need to take everyone along.” Abdul Gaffar is one of the 2 million. Muslims are believed to be traditional Congress voters in this district. “This time I will not vote as per community and all,” he tells me, at Piplaj. “I will vote for what I can see, for promises that have been delivered.” And who will that vote go to? “Congress, who else,” he shoots back.

First published, DNA Broadsheet, April 17th, 2014)

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