BARMER-JAISALMER: The Rajasthan of the silver screen — sand dunes in blazing yellow, dotted with dark silhouettes of women carrying empty pitchers to fetch water — offers little more than a nuanced impression of the actual situation on the ground. The images, though vivid in their cinematic appeal, don’t tell us much about blistered feet or the miles one has to trek in the hot sand to bring home a pitcher-full of water. Yet, that is the image that is hard to miss as the poll bandwagon rolls into the Thar.
The backdrop to the battle for the Barmer-Jaisalmer Lok Sabha seat is not an ideal one, as the mercury, in this part of the world, could even touch 50 degrees Celsius, at this time of the year.
Just as the Kejhdi plant stands as a symbol of life in the middle of nowhere, so do elections raise visions of change in the dreary deserts of Barmer-Jaisalmer.
It is in these sands that the second-most important political battle in Rajasthan will be fought. The run-up to the 2014 general elections saw the BJP pushing one of its stalwarts, former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh, to the electoral sidelines. Denied a ticket to contest the seat, Singh, a prominent Rajput leader, entered the fray as an Independent, albeit losing to the BJP’s Col. Sona Ram by 87,000 votes.
This time, Jaswant’s son Manavendra, who ditched saffron to join the Congress, is on ‘Mission Vengeance’. With a Congress ticket safely tucked into his pocket, he says he is fighting ‘for pride’ after parting ways with the BJP.
Surprisingly, the poll discourse, this time centres on the recent discovery of crude oil in the sandy expanse. It has emerged as a critical handle for political one-upmanship, with both the Congress and the BJP crediting the discovery to themselves.
Pachpadra, which has been earmarked as a site for the petroleum refinery, is still dotted by shanties. The question hogging the poll debate this time is which party is more likely to set up the refinery and open the town to ancillary business.
Kanhaiya Lal Dalora, a local cable businessman, is amused. “They endlessly debate and fight while people talk of real life problems. None of them, neither candidates nor the people, can change the voting pattern here. Here, it’s caste that decides the outcome of political battles. After Pachpada, they are also looking for crude oil in Tilwara, Mehwa Nagar, Jasol and elsewhere. However, walls alone don’t make refineries,” he said.
Samdari and Siwana, nearby, are influential hamlets where the issue that concerns residents is where to find plain drinking water, not oil.
At the somewhat quaintly named bustee — R B Ka Gafan — some 80 kms away from Barmer in Meghwal village, women walk the desert stretch braving soaring temperatures at noon to fetch water. People here have been waiting for canal waters, as was promised, to arrive for decades. Yet, there is nothing about water in either campaign speeches or poll banners.
One part of the village has been taken over by Hindu migrants from Pakistan, with another 35,000 still awaiting Indian citizenship. PM Modi recently spread some cheer among them, as he raised the migration issue and even promised a law that would help them settle here.
But not everyone is hopeful. “They did nothing in the last five years and are now saying they will bring a law. We have been settled here since 1974 but are still not considered citizens. They make big promises for votes and disappear,” said Shankar Meghwal, a government teacher in Pakistan who migrated from Sakhar district of Sindh in 2001.
Shankar got Indian citizenship after a long wait, but his larger family continues to live across the border. However, he can draw solace from the fact that this year, he will be voting for the first time in his adopted country.
Locals say Manvendra has a chance if supporters of his father and the Congress unite. If that happens, they would far outstrip any support that the BJP can muster, they said.