Outside a nondescript building in Pokhran, BJP workers scurry past each other, making last moment preparations for Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s visit to the desert town on Monday. Nearly 2 km away, a similar scene is witnessed at the Congress office which is bustling with anticipation a day before the party president Rahul Gandhi arrives.
Both Rahul and Adityanath will be at Pokhran on the same day to garner support for their parties in a contest in which two influential Hindu and Muslim religious figures have been pitted against each other. Pratap Puri Maharaj, Mahant of Taratara Math in Barmer district, is the BJP’s candidate. He will take on former Congress MLA Saleh Mohammed, son of influential Muslim religious leader Ghazi Fakir.
“Vote in the name of your country, in the name of Modi ji. He will take the country forward,” Puri says during his campaign meetings as a member of his social media team records videos and another aide uploads them on his Facebook page, which has more than 80,000 likes.
A Rajput born in the neighbouring district of Barmer, Puri has been involved with Taratara Math from a young age.
“I am fighting this election on national issues which are on the agenda of BJP. Pokhran is close to the border and it should be ensured that the environment is peaceful and people prosper. There is no question of anti-incumbency as people will vote for the BJP keeping Modi ji in mind. This will be the semi-final before the 2019 Lok Sabha election,” Puri told The Indian Express.
On the opposite side is former legislator Mohammed, whose father Ghazi Fakir is the Khalifa of Sindhi Muslims — members of the community live in several districts of western Rajasthan such as Barmer, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Sirohi and Nagaur. Eighty-year-old Fakir is known to exercise a considerable influence among the community and is even revered at some places across the border.
“No work has been done in the past five years and they have denied ticket to sitting MLA Shaitan Singh. This is not a Hindu -Muslim contest; the focus is on development. Pratap Puri is from Barmer and not from Jaisalmer where Pokhran is located. I am confident of a win. I have the support of all communities. BJP is spreading a rumour that only Muslims will vote for me,” said Mohammed. Pokhran has nearly 2 lakh voters, including around 55,000 Muslims and 45,000 Rajputs.
Fakir’s critics have accused him of being engaged in illegal activities. In 2013, some outfits of Jaisalmer had protested after an IPS officer was transferred, allegedly because he was looking into cases lodged against Fakir. The then Congress government had refuted allegations that the officer was transferred because of this reason.
“The history sheet against my father is closed and all these allegations are false. The BJP plays the religion card instead of talking on development issues,” said Ameen Khan, Mohammed’s brother. He said Fakir has always supported the Congress and has thrown his weight behind several party candidates in the past. “I don’t see this as a Hindu versus Muslim contest. The BJP had announced my candidature much before the Congress announced their nominee. Since they fielded Saleh Mohammed after my name was announced, you should ask the Congress if the religion card being played,” said Puri.
Returning Officer, Pokhran, issued a notice on Saturday to Puri for allegedly “asking for votes in the name of religion”. “We came to know that Pratap Puri had taken part in a religious programme without prior permission and asked for votes in the name of religion. A CD of the incident was made by our officers who are monitoring the campaigning. We have sent a notice to the candidate for violating the model code of conduct,” said Anil Kumar, SDO and Returning Officer, Pokhran.