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Biggest day of voting in India: Caste, betrayal, PML-F, all to play their part in Barmer

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KARACHI:Barmer, the Indian district that borders Sindh, is one of the 20 constituencies of Rajasthan that will be contested today, but it might just be the most intriguing.
HunzaNews April 17th, 2014.

What looks like a straightforward three-way race between a Congress incumbent, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) challenger and an Independent, is anything but, and the results are anyone’s guess. Even the PML-F, a Pakistani political party, is involved in the race for Barmer.

The candidates

Jaswant Singh, a veteran BJP stalwart, is one of the contenders for the seat – but he’s running as an Independent. Singh, 76, who has previously served as India’s defence and finance minister, is contesting his last election.

He wanted to run from Barmer — his home constituency — but given the crucial role that caste plays in the district’s politics, the BJP gave the ticket to Sonaram Chaudhary, a Jat (Singh is a Rajput). Singh decided to contest anyway, leading to his expulsion from the party.

Singh had been expelled before in 2009, when he published a biography on Mohammad Ali Jinnah that the Hindu right-wing BJP thought was too sympathetic to the leader, but he had been reinstated after. After directly contesting against a BJP candidate, his reinstatement seems less likely, at least in the near future.

Chaudhary, the BJP candidate, is a turncoat himself – he used to be a member of Congress.

The Congress candidate Harish Choudhary, also a Jat, is the incumbent. Despite a wave of anti-incumbency that saw Congress lose six out of the seven assembly seats from Barmer in elections last year, Choudhary has done much for his district, and stands a good chance of getting re-elected.

The voters

The district is diverse and complex. Out of approximately 1.6 million people that are registered to vote, 350,000 are Jats, making them the biggest single community. While both Congress and BJP have fielded Jat candidates, Singh has courted their votes by supporting numerous independent Jat candidates in the state.

Muslims – 213,000 – also form a sizable voting bloc. Oddly enough, Pakistan’s very own Pir Pagara, leader of the PML-F, has been assisting Singh’s campaign by asking his followers across the border to vote for Singh.

Locals say that during his stint as foreign minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, Singh had helped many families to visit their birthplace in Pakistan by helping them get visas, the Hindustan Times reported.

The district also has a significant number of Dalits (255,000) and Rajputs (210,000). While Congress has traditionally enjoyed minority’s support, Singh’s candidacy may divide, if not steal, Congress’ vote banks.

The stakes

Accompanying the electoral narrative is the fact that large reserves of oil were discovered in Barmer in 2009. The discovery has led to fast-paced development that is transforming the district. Oil, and the investment that follows, is already bringing large amounts of capital to Barmer. But experiences in Nigeria and Venezuela show that it can also be a harbinger for rampant corruption. India’s recent history indicates that the latter is likely.

Whoever wins this election will probably oversee the greatest socio-economic transformation the district has ever experienced. They’re not calling these elections ‘historic’ for nothing.

Express Tribune

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