Rajasthan polls: Can 'godmen' do the trick for the BJP?
Among the BJP's candidates for the 200-seat state assembly are Swami Bal Mukund in Hawa Mahal, Pratap Puri in Pokhran, and Mahant Balaknath in Tijara
Call them godmen, call them saints, but the BJP is banking on them to bring home the votes in Rajasthan, where campaigning for the 25 November assembly elections ended on Thursday.
Among the BJP's candidates for the 200-seat state assembly are Swami Bal Mukund in Hawa Mahal, a seat in Jaipur, Pratap Puri in Pokhran, and the sitting MP from Alwar Mahant Balaknath in Tijara, an assembly segment under Alwar Lok Sabha constituency.
Political observers believe these candidates have deliberately been fielded from Muslim-dominated constituencies, so that the candidates can polarise the votes and unite Hindu voters in the BJP's favour.
While the thinking may be open to question, the choice of candidates was obviously also dictated by the BJP's single-minded focus on Hindutva for almost the entire duration of the election campaign in Rajasthan. Even on the last day of campaigning, the BJP’s star campaigners were using the Hindutva card, not least among them Prime Minister Narendra Modi, urging people to vote in the name of God and shunt the Congress out of power.
PM Modi, for instance, who has been very vocal about religion in all his campaign speeches, urged the tribals of Banswara and Dungarpur in southern Rajasthan, which has 14 tribal seats, to take a pledge in the name of their saint Mavji Maharaj and vote for the BJP.
Bal Mukund, who runs an ashram near Jaipur, has been a religious activist. In 2018, the Hawa Mahal seat was won by Mahesh Joshi, the public health minister in the current Ashok Gehlot government, but he was denied the ticket this time in favour of RR Tiwari, the district Congress president. With polarisation of voters almost a certainty now, the Congress is banking on the 86,000 Muslim votes in this constituency.
Saleh Mohammed, another minister in Gehlot’s cabinet, comes from a political family and is up against Pratap Puri in Pokhran, which has a sizeable Muslim population. Once again, the possible consolidation of Hindu votes means that Mohammed could find the going tough against Puri, and the margin of victory could well be wafer-thin.
Mahant Balaknath is a native of Haryana, and is both the head of the Nath community as well as chancellor of Baba Mastnath University in Rohtak. He is pitted against Imran Khan, a Meo (or Mev) Muslim, an ethnic group from the Mewat region in northwestern India, and a community with a sizeable presence in the constituency.
For the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had fielded Balaknath from Alwar and Sumedhanand Saraswati from Sikar. Both are from Haryana, and both won. For the upcoming assembly elections, Balaknath is among the seven Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha members fielded by the BJP in the absence of strong enough candidates in eight seats.
Rajasthan has 5.25 crore voters, out whom roughly 62 lakh are Muslim, exerting some influence in 40 seats of Sikar, Jhunjhunu, Churu, Jaipur, Alwar, Bharatpur, Nagaur, Jaisalmer, and Barmer districts, and decisive influence in 24 seats where Muslim voters eventually decide the winners.
The BJP, which fielded three Muslim candidates in the 2018 elections, has not fielded a single Muslim this time. Yunus Khan, a two-time minister in the cabinet of former chief minister Vasundhara Raje who lost the last assembly election against Sachin Pilot from Tonk, was not given the party’s nomination from his preferred seat of Deedwana this time.
On the other hand, the Congress has fielded 15 Muslim candidates, and appears particularly strongly placed in the two seats of Jaipur Adarsh Nagar and Kishanpol. where sitting MLAs Rafiq Khan and Amin Kaghzi enjoy an edge over their BJP rivals.
The Kishanpol seat has 86,000 minority voters whereas Adarsh Nagar has 1.05 lakh. In the last election, Kaghzi defeated the BJP’s sitting MLA and former Jaipur mayor Mohan Lal Gupta, while Rafiq Khan defeated state BJP president Ashok Parnami. Both losing candidates have been denied tickets by the party this time.