RID­ING THE DESERT STORM

This can­did por­trait of an elec­tion cam­paign is a rich so­cial nar­ra­tive as well

India Today - - LEISURE - By Su­nil Sethi

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?”

SAU­RABH SINGH/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com

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