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15 February 1998

Sompal strives to break a Baghpat tradition

Angana Parekh  
Ajit Singh is banking on a dream in Baghpat:

Every election after his death, father Charan Singh miraculously appears in the dreams of Jat elders just before voting day and appeals to them to see that his son does not face the humiliation of defeat. And dissatisfied though they may be with Ajit Singh, Jats vote en bloc for ``Chaudhary ka chhora''.

This time, however, it's no cakewalk for the former Union minister. The BJP candidate, Sompal, is putting up a tough fight, helped by the fact that he too is a local Jat. For voters, Sompal is also the son of his father -- Raghubir Singh Shastri, who represented Baghpat in the fourth Lok Sabha.

It isn't just the Baghpat seat at stake. It is the mantle of Charan Singh and the leadership of Jats who are an effective voting bloc in as many as 16 seats in western Uttar Pradesh. In most of the other constituencies, Jats have tilted towards the BJP already but Baghpat remains the pocketborough of Charan Singh's family (in the last three elections, BJPcandidates have lost their deposits here). To defeat Ajit Singh would be to send a powerful signal to the other seats where Jats dominate.

Here the fight is not between the BJP and the Congress-supported Bharatiya Kisan Kamgar Party (BKKP) but between Sompal and Ajit Singh. ``This is a cult campaign. Jats are like tribals, you know,'' says one of Sompal's campaign managers. It is not so much issues but family ties that are being emphasised, though Sompal (formerly a Rajya Sabha MP) never fails to mention that he has spent his MP's development fund to construct roads in Baghpat.

Amid the peaceful green sugarcane fields and canals in this prosperous constituency, Sompal is conducting a feverish campaign -- pounding village lanes visiting the homes of local leaders and going in an impressive procession of tractors and trucks to address meetings.

In several villages he is weighed in coins. In others, he is often handed a roll of Rs 7,500 -- his weight in rupees. ``He should have been heavier, weighed morethan 75 kg,'' jokes an aide. What is enthusing Sompal is not the money as much as the fact that he is getting an enthusiastic reception.

In 1985, when he had contested (and lost) the assembly elections from here, the Charan Singh factor was so strong that outsiders could not even enter the villages.

Ajit Singh, on the other hand, does not seem overly concerned. He has visited Baghpat only once, devoting one day each to the five assembly segments. ``He will come only on voting day. This is a one-horse race,'' says Satyen Tomar, one of his aides. Ajit Singh has put up hardly any flags, banners or posters. ``We don't need to,'' boasts Tomar.

Crucial to the outcome is ``booth management'' -- often a euphemism for rigging. Both camps claim that they have made ``all arrangements''. So have the police, say officials.So far, the tradition there has been peaceful rigging. Jats stuff ballot boxes with votes, having already made it clear to Dalits that they needn't take the trouble to come to the pollingstations.

Jats constitute about 15 per cent of the voters and are dominant not by numbers alone but by virtue of the fact that they are aggressive and even more importantly, the landlords for whom the Dalits work. Sompal is banking on weaning away about 30 per cent Jat votes and is counting on the support of the sizeable Gujjar community besides others like Banias, Kashyaps, Thakurs, Rao Rajputs and Jains. Ajit Singh, is also eyeing the 30 per cent Muslim vote besides the Jats.

In 1996, Ajit Singh had won with a huge margin of nearly two lakh votes. No one seriously expects him to lose -- the ghost of Charan Singh is omnipresent and Jats are known for their loyalty. But it is now over 10 years since Charan Singh's death and younger Jats are impervious to emotional appeals. That is what Sompal is banking on.

Copyright © 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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