To a lesser or greater degree as compared to other states, the caste factor in Rajasthan will be an important determinant in the forthcoming Assembly election. Every major leader, be it Vasundhara Raje or Sachin Pilot or Ashok Gehlot, is aware of the possibilities that a proper combination can result in, and is straining every nerve to get it right.
The caste issue has gained further dominance in recent months with the traditionally well-off castes upping the ante and demanding attention as well as benefits. The Gujjars, the Jat and the Meena communities — they all have grievances. And so have the Rajputs.
The Gujjars have been granted the Other Backward Classes (OBC) status in the state, but now its powerful leaders have been demanding a Scheduled Tribe categorisation because they feel short-changed in the OBC pie which is shared by many, including the Jats.
They are also cut up because they believe that their political representation is low as compared to their numbers. Besides, the Gujjars are politically hostile to the Meena community because the latter enjoys a Scheduled Tribe status and avails of the benefits that come as a result.
The Rajputs, on the other hand, are upset by all the attention that the Jats, the Meenas and the Gujjars have gained over the years. Historically, the Rajputs were landowners and the Jats their tenants, particularly in the then Rajputana region. In 1946, a charismatic Jat leader, Baldev Ram Mirdha, mobilised farmers and led a ‘revolt’ against the landed aristocracy which comprised the Rajputs.
His Marwar Kisan Sabha demanded land reforms and declaration of tenancy rights. Once his party merged with the Congress, the latter stridently undertook some of the changes that the Sabha had sought and brought in land reforms. The Rajputs believed that they were unfairly dealt with, painted as villains and wrongly projected. But the community — like the others — had few political options and continued to support the Congress.
After the Congress’s landslide win in the 1998 Assembly election, the Jats expected one of their prominent leaders to become the Chief Minister, but Ashok Gehlot considered an outsider, got the honour. That is when the Jats began to move away from the Congress, and in the next Assembly poll, they backed the Bharatiya Janata Party, which got nearly three times more seats than it had in 1998. The Congress was reduced to less than half the number it had.
The Rajputs, who had been sulking, also seized the opportunity and went over to the BJP fold. Others followed suit. The 2013 result, which was overwhelmingly in the BJP’s favour, indicated that the party had cracked the caste code.
Things are different now, though it’s still not clear if indeed the carefully crafted caste alignment of the BJP has fallen apart to the party’s detriment. But there are problems, The Karni Sena, a group that claims to represent the interests of the upper castes, had recently shot into the limelight with their street protests against the release of the film, Padmavat.
Given that the Raje Government is in power, it had to bear the brunt of the opposition, although it had taken the safe way out by supporting a conditional ban on the film’s release in Rajasthan and favouring dialogue with stakeholders. The Jats, Gujjars and Meenas are being assiduously wooed by the Congress, which hopes to repeat its 1998 performance in the State.
Mindful of the challenge, the BJP has roped in two of its prominent Rajput leaders from Rajasthan, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore and Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, to project a Rajput-friendly image. It does seem to have, for the moment, cut the Karni Sena to size — a recent rally organised in Jaipur by the outfit managed to draw just a few hundred people. The Congress, on the other hand, is playing other cards, perhaps uncertain of the Rajput community’s support.
It is tapping on the discontent among the Meena, Jat and Gujjar communities, combining their caste pride with rural distress. Sachin Pilot is a Gujjar, and he had lost out on a ministerial berth in a Union Cabinet reshuffle in the UPA rule, reportedly because of fear within the Congress that the powerful Meena community would be angered. On the other hand, Gehlot can claim association with both the Jat and the Rajput communities in a historical sense, though his gotra is seen to be part of the Jats. Given that multiple identifications can work, chief minister Vasundhara Raje is also not averse to flaunting it, even if she underplays it at times. She was born into a Rajput family and married a Jat; her daughter-in-law is a Gujjar.
It’s difficult for either the BJP or the Congress to annoy any of the castes in the state because they have all become dominant in recent decades. The question now is: Which caste will triumph in the chief ministerial race: The Meena, the Gujjar, the Jat, or the Rajput?
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)