On a road trip from Jodhpur, the heart of Rajasthan, towards India’s largest constituency – Barmer – one witnesses the land getting parched by the mile, marking the drought-like conditions in the area.
Despite elections hitting a crescendo across the country, the enthusiasm also seems to get drier as you travel here. The closer one moves towards the border constituency from Jodhpur, you see fewer party posters, flags, and billboards. The loss of hope among the residents of the area could be one of the major reasons. This place fails to provide basic facilities like water and electricity to its denizens. Several panchayats do not have access to basic health and education facilities due to the lack of primary health centres and primary schools.
When one moves further towards the Indian-Pakistan border, even fewer numbers of animals like goats, sheep, camels, and cows can be seen. With a consistent drought-like situation in the area, residents have been forced to do away with their cattle due to lack of fodder.
“Water and cattle fodder are some of the issues of utmost priority for us,” said Manvendra Singh, Lok Sabha candidate from Congress (Read interview) in Barmer. He further explained that due to lack of resources, fodder and cattle camps are organised on a regular basis in the area from where farmers can buy fodder at subsidized rates.
“The leaders don’t visit most of the villages for campaigning in this area. The veto power lies with the Sarpanch as most residents of a village vote for the candidate decided by the Sarpanch of the village. These Sarpanches get in touch with the party workers and campaign accordingly,” said Khannu Khan, resident of Gagriya village near Barmer.
He further stated that although no one sought votes from the villagers this election, leaders and candidates from both parties had visited the area during the recent state assembly polls.
Congress candidate vs Modi
While Congress is predicted to have an upper hand in the area due to caste equations, Narendra Modi remains a popular figure here. Laduram, resident of Trimohi village, some 1.5 kilometre away from the Indo-Pak border, is not aware of the party to which Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs to, nor is he aware of the symbol of the party. However, when asked who he is willing to support this election he replied: Modi. Trimohi village looks like a ghost village as most of the 200 residents do not come out during the day to avoid the scorching heat. This village does not have access to water and electricity but has a strong mobile network and built-in toilets as a part of the Swacch Bharat.“How can we use the toilets when there is no water? It is there but is hardly ever used,” Laduram said.
Trimohi hogged the headlines in 2016 when 17 year-old Delta Meghwal of the village who was found dead in Bikaner. After the incident, Congress president Rahul Gandhi along with along with Rajasthan PCC chief Sachin Pilot had paid a visit to the family in the village.
Among first time voters in the constituency, there is a clear preference towards Narendra Modi. “I will give my first vote to Narendra Modi. Modi seems to be the most powerful to solve any issue in the country,” said Lakshman Vishnoi, a resident of Bhachbhar village.
However, the same is not the case with experienced voters of the area. Most people identify with the caste and religion of the MLAs before casting their vote.
The caste matrix in Barmer comprises 4 lakh SC/STs, 3.5 lakh Jats, 2.5 lakh Muslims, 2.5 lakh Rajputs, and others out of the total 19.5 lakh voters. Barmer is mostly dominated by Rajputs and Jats. However, the SC/STs, who have traditionally been Congress supporters, are being wooed by both parties this election. According to analysts, the SC/ST support will be a major factor in the constituency. In addition to this, Muslims have been traditional Congress supporters as well.
“Ameen Khan has won the assembly elections for Congress this time. We will vote for Congress only. Modi is a good man but his team is not as good. BJP promotes sectarianism,” said Bhikha Khan, former Sarpanch, Kantalkapar. Keeping the caste equations in mind, BJP has fielded prominent Jat leader Kailash Chaudhary to take on Congress’ Manvendra Singh.
Manvendra Singh is the son of BJP stalwart and Rajput leader Jaswant Singh. Manvendra, who belongs to an erstwhile royal family, left the saffron party and joined Congress just weeks before the state assembly elections of Rajasthan in 2018. This had led to a shift in the Rajput vote resulting in a big win for Congress in the Marwar region bagging six out of eight seats.
Manvendra Singh was pitted against chief minister Vansundhara Raje in her home turf of Jhalawar in the assembly elections and had lost. Being a parachuted candidate, he lost the polls but still managed to make a dent in Raje’s numbers. Read Interview here:
Meanwhile, his opponent, Kailash Choudhary, a prominent Jat leader, is a history-sheeter with many cases against him. Despite listing them in his affidavit, Choudhary claimed them to be politically motivated. Choudhary has received the backing of Hanuman Beniwal, a prominent Jat leader, contesting on a BJP ticket from Nagaur. Moreover, the Barmer BJP candidate is riding on the Modi factor in a bid to reverse the state assembly results. Singh and Choudhary go back a long way as the latter had worked under Manvendra when both leaders were part of the BJP.
Apart from the local issues of water and education, Barmer is also facing severe restrictions in cross-border movement. Following the Pulwama terror attack and the Balakot strikes, residents on the Barmer border want peace and easy accessibility across the border. Most villagers have relatives living on either side of the border who they hope to meet someday. In addition to this, families across the border are known to engage in matrimonial ties.
“Reshma, a 65 year-old woman from Agasari, Munabao, went to Pakistan to meet her daughter after 30 years and passed away there. Her family in India received her body after 25 days,” said Ali, a resident of Gagria.
The only cross-border train, Thar Express, plies once a week on Saturdays and does not have a stop in Barmer. Thar Express is a weekly train between India and Pakistan. After leaving from Jodhpur every Friday, it reaches Munabao (Barmer) on Saturday morning. Due to various restrictions, this train has no stop in Barmer before Munabao, where an international platform has been built for this train.
“We only want peace and harmony. We do not seek any Hindu-Muslim conflict. I want Hindustan and Pakistan to be in good terms. And our relatives in Pakistan should be allowed access to our areas. NH-68, where most of the border relatives live, is restricted for foreigners. They need to get special Barmer visa for access to that area which is tough to get,” Bhikha Khan said.
He further accused party workers from the BJP of creating issues over Hindu-Muslim conflict to gather votes. Meanwhile, Congress candidate Manvendra Singh is known to help residents get visa and aid cross-border accessibility. That goodwill is likely to boost his chances in this Lok Sabha election.