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Cong rift shows but Sachin Pilot on course for win

In Rajasthan, the party has not projected a chief ministerial face and Ashok Gehlot and Pilot are seen as competitors

By J.P. Yadav in Tonk

  • Published 6.12.18, 4:00 AM
  • Updated 6.12.18, 9:13 AM
Sachin Pilot at a rally in Ajmer.
Sachin Pilot at a rally in Ajmer. PTI

Chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia was due to arrive soon for a road show for the lone Muslim candidate the BJP has fielded in Rajasthan. But Congress leader Ashok Gehlot had no plans yet to campaign in this constituency.

It was Tuesday and with just a day’s campaigning left for the December 7 state elections, Gehlot’s presence in Tonk looks unlikely, said Ramprasad Saini, a local businessman in his forties.

Tonk, a drive of just over a 100km on a six-lane expressway from Jaipur, has turned into a high-profile constituency in Rajasthan because Sachin Pilot, the state Congress chief and one of the top contenders for chief minister, is contesting from here.

So, the absence of Gehlot, another front-runner for the post should the Congress win, has naturally raised eyebrows in Tonk.

The two-time chief minister has campaigned in Tonk district, in other constituencies, but not in Pilot’s, highlighting the divisions within the Congress despite the party’s best efforts to project a united face.

The Congress has not projected a chief ministerial face and both Gehlot and Pilot are seen as competitors.

“Gehlot’s absence is being seen as a signal to members of his community not to vote for Sachin,” Ramprasad, a member of the “Mali” caste, said.

Gehlot too is from the backward “Mali” caste, a community that has a sizeable, if not overwhelming, presence in Tonk.

“Everybody knows that Pilot can’t stand Gehlot. If he wins by a big margin, he will not allow Gehlot to become chief minister,” said Kailash Saini, who runs a medicine shop in Tonk.

Gehlot, 67, is considered a shrewd politician and many say he doesn’t want the Congress to win by a big margin so that he becomes the chief minister on the strength of his experience and a known ability to manage political as well as caste contradictions.

The Congress is widely seen as the favourite because of the simmering anti-incumbency against Raje. But many also feel that the rivalry between Gehlot and Pilot, 41, might come in the way of a decisive victory.

“I will go to Tonk too, if I am called,” Gehlot said while campaigning in another part of the state.

Local Congress leaders said Pilot would never invite Gehlot to campaign for him. “Pilot has emerged as a big leader in Rajasthan. He doesn’t need the help of Gehlot to win,” one leader said.

Muslims and Gujjars, the caste Pilot belongs to, both have a strong presence in Tonk.

The BJP has been going all out to create divisions among Muslim voters by fielding a minority candidate — senior minister Yunus Khan who is considered to be close to chief minister Raje.

The BJP replaced sitting MLA Ajit Mehta to field Khan in a sudden change of strategy after Pilot decided to contest from Tonk, considered a safe seat for the Congress leader.

The Congress has mostly fielded Muslim candidates from this seat while the BJP played the Hindutva card. This time, though, Raje fielded her lone Muslim minister, hoping to make things difficult for Pilot.

Local leaders pointed towards Muslim youths campaigning for Khan. “A large number of Muslims will vote for Yunus sahab. He is a very good leader and helps Muslims whenever they approach him,” said Mohammad Imran, a young man campaigning for the BJP.

The BJP has also kept Yogi Adityanath, Uttar Pradesh’s saffron-clad chief minister, away from Tonk, in the hope of weaning away a section of Muslim voters.

Will the BJP succeed in dividing the community’s votes? Unlikely, given the larger communal narrative being pushed by the party across the country. Also, the state is known for throwing out incumbents since 1993.

BJP supporters in Vasundhara Raje masks at an election rally in Ajmer on Wednesday.
BJP supporters in Vasundhara Raje masks at an election rally in Ajmer on Wednesday. PTI

Many Muslim elders said that most of the community’s votes would go to Pilot. “Do you expect Muslims to vote for the BJP in this atmosphere,” asked Ismail Khan.

Some voters, however, said that if non-Gujjar Hindu voters and even a small section of Muslims back Khan, Pilot could be in trouble.

In such a situation Gehlot’s support would have removed all doubts over Pilot’s chances.

Khan’s biggest drawback is that he is an outsider in Tonk. He comes from another region of the state and has been parachuted into Tonk just to cut into the Congress’s Muslim votes.

Another challenge before Khan is to get the support of core BJP voters, many of whom are upset that a Muslim has been fielded.

The BJP has been trying to paint Pilot as a “Dilliwala neta”. A former MP from Ajmer and a Union minister, Pilot is contesting an Assembly election for the first time.

“He is a leader from Delhi and will go back to Delhi. Yunus Khan has a house in Jaipur and you can approach him any time with your problems,” a local BJP leader said, speaking at a street corner an hour before Raje arrived.

But the voters appeared unimpressed.

The Gujjars are firmly rooting for Pilot. “We want him to become chief minister. He has come up as a very good leader like his (late) father Rajesh Pilot,” said Hazarilal Gujjar.

Tonk also has a strong presence of Dalit voters. Most appeared inclined to vote for Pilot.

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