RIDING THE DESERT STORM
This candid portrait of an election campaign is a rich social narrative as well
Filtered through the lens of journalistic copy or political analysis how much do we really know of the gruelling, down- in- the- dust grind of an election campaign? Candidates tend to be either cagey or self- congratulatory once the vote- counting is over. If they win they adopt attitudes of false humility; if they lose there is mournful recrimination as the drummers depart from party offices.
Former journalist and defence analyst Manvendra Singh was the BJP’s parliamentary candidate from Barmer in western Rajasthan in three elections from 1999; he was elected MP in 2004 but again lost the last election. His Campaign Diary, diligently kept from March to May 2009 in the blazing heat of the Thar desert, offers a corrective, candid view of what it takes. Despite its many insights, it is an intriguing, imperfect record with the kind of dense detail that can overtake daily jottings.
Manvendra Singh is also the son of BJP stalwart and former minister Jaswant Singh, one among the growing tribe of hereditary MPs of democratically perpetuated dynasties. His father, he says, advised him to get a life outside politics but it was a personal motivation to re- establish bonds with his ancestral home that propelled him to take the plunge in a traditional Congress stronghold. When friends in Delhi asked if he was nurturing the seat, he replied, “No, actually I’m bottle- feeding it.”
At its peak before delimitation in 1975, Barmer constituency covered an area larger than Sri Lanka; the thinly- populated region, with a higher literacy rate than the national average, shares a long border with Sindh. It was from here that Jaswant Singh organised a pilgrimage to the Hinglaj Mata temple in Baluchistan that led to the reopening of the Munabao train link to Pakistan. About 20 per cent of the constituency is Muslim, with villages that still bear the brunt of resettlement by falling on the Radcliffe Line; there are divided families, cross- border smuggling and constituents who follow the pirdom of former Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi. Among Manvendra Singh’s duties as MP was to help obtain passports for migrants keen to resettle in India.
Barmer’s tapestry is divided into a complex array of castes and clans, like the famous Mangniyar singers who belong to both faiths, their beliefs, customs and clothing no different from Hindu communities but their names always ending in Khan. The candidate- chronicler deftly evokes a rich culture of inter- faith openness expressed in cattle fairs, dance competitions, religious rituals and wedding feasts. The fiery, oil- laden meals pressed upon him sent his bile rising but his observation doesn’t miss the quirks. “What really caught my eye,” he notes after a political meeting, “was a twenty- something chap at the back of hall wearing a T- shirt that said ‘ ruck fules’.” Barmer may present a portrait of relative social harmony, yes, but not contentment. Disparities are growing, corruption is commonplace and, in far- flung dhanis or hamlets, the demands are endless and vociferously aired. Whenever he sees a Scorpio parked in a small town, he knows the sarpanch is on the take; government funds are siphoned off to line the pockets of influential panchayat members; his MP’s development funds can build only so many community halls, waterworks and bridges across rail tracks for safe passage of cattle.
Why did he lose the election? Through a combination of infighting in his party and further delimitation that reduced his support, though Manvendra Singh doesn’t give excuses. In his honest account he asks: “Could I have done it differently? What was I doing wrong?”
Or to put it differently: “Is bottle- feeding ever enough?”