Over the past few weeks, the emotional Malani populace has taken on itself the task of avenging the “humiliation” of “Daata”, as Jaswant Singh is fondly called in Barmer.
The Manganiyars sing to him folk songs that once eulogised Maharana Pratap, calling him “Malani ro sapoot” (son of the soil), and dedicate to him couplets that once praised local deity Maa Bhatiyani.
At 76 and on his 10th and final campaign, he hops onto a camel, makes a bumpy ride from one meeting to another in the desert, and braves the blistering summer sun without a grimace on his face.
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In a constituency that he notes “is larger than a country like Israel”, his family has once again fanned out to seek votes, as it has done for decades, the women in their veils and the men with their route maps. Earlier they had hailed the BJP but this election they tell listeners that Daata has been wronged and with him the people of Barmer too have been cheated. Daata (father or eldest male member in Rajput families) and his honour must be protected after “Vasundhara has wronged him like a bandit”.
Wife Sheetal Kanwar holds fort in Jaisalmer, daughter-in-law Chitra Singh travels to the farthest villages on the peripheries, and younger son Bhupendra Singh chauffeurs Jaswant around protectively. “Ticket kati hai, haath nahi,” Chitra tells a gathering in Beri village. “It is a matter of honour. Daata laid the foundation of the party and now this is what they do to him.” The gathering nods in agreement.
Elder son Manvendra, held back by his duties to the BJP even after being suspended, stays off canvassing for his father but as a sitting legislator he cannot avoid social functions. Here they look expectantly at him, hoping he would come out in open support, but Manvendra leaves it at, “May the best candidate win.”
Hundreds of kilometres away, Jaswant himself narrates his story, village after village, meeting after meeting, how he had proposed Raje’s name for chief minister in 2003, how he had guided her, and how she has now denied him his last wish.
Jaswant has a plan in place, a core team comprising investment bankers, public relations experts and professionals who have taken a sabbatical to offer support to Jaswant, whose 15 Teen Murti Lane residence they had once unabashedly partied in. “It is time to pay him back,” says one of them. But it is no mean task to impress this perfectionist. “He makes you dot your i’s and cross your t’s. Not a word can be out of place. And with an elephant’s memory, he pulls us up if we miss out anything,” says Abinash Choudhary, a member of his support team.
Jaswant calls press conferences to preempt media speculation. He hands out carefully worded statements, invites questions, stays until the last one is asked.
He starts out with a presentation on him, his days as defence, external affairs and finance minister, his contribution in opening up the rail link with Pakistan. The visuals whip up emotions not only among the audience, but for Jaswant too; his eyes brim up.
The biggest challenge is communicating his election symbol, a battery-operated torch. The campaigners hand out pamphlets that highlight it at number 7. For Jaswant it had begun with a star and is ending with another source of light, the lotus he had flaunted now withered.