The asthi visarjan (ash immersion) programme for Gujjar leader Kirori Singh Bainsla in Pushkar on Monday was expected to be a show of strength of the five Most Backward Classes (MBC) communities led by Gujjars. However, the event made headlines for other reasons entirely.
When Sports and Youth Affairs minister Ashok Chandna started his address, people started waving shoes and slippers at him. As Chandna continued, shoes and empty water bottles were hurled in the air and also toward the stage. He was to read a message from Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot but amid intense opposition and chants of “Sachin Pilot zindabad”, the minister had to stop his address midway. Before Chandna, Minister of State for Industries Shakuntala Rawat, too, faced protests but managed to complete her address. Both Chandna and Rawat are Gujjars. Also in attendance from the Congress were Gehlot’s son and Rajasthan Cricket Association president Vaibhav Gehlot and Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation Chairman Dharmendra Rathore, who is a close aide of the CM.
By sending Chandna, Rawat, his son Vaibhav, and Rathore, Gehlot had hoped to send a message that the government and the Congress are with Gujjars. Chandna is seemingly being projected as a Gujjar leader to counter former Deputy CM Pilot who also belongs to the community.
But the move massively backfired for the Congress and Gehlot. Chandna is known to be mercurial and once shoes were hurled at him, he said, “Arey tumhare jaisey bahut dekhe hain maine (I have seen many like you).” This riled up the crowd further. Seeing the protests, Vaibhav and Rathore left the venue without addressing the gathering.
Although Rawat is the senior minister, Chandna has come to symbolise Gujjars in the Gehlot camp. In a tweet later in the day, the minister said, “If Sachin Pilot becomes the chief minister after getting shoes thrown at me, then he should do so quickly because I am not in the mood to fight today. The day I come to fight, only one will be left, and I don’t want this.”
Later in the day, Chandna also engaged in a Twitter spat with Deputy Leader of Opposition Rajendra Rathore. In a tweet, Chandna said he witnessed something unbelievable when people clapped for Rajendra Rathore “who was part of the Cabinet that gave the orders for killing 72 martyrs” while “shoes were hurled on those whose family members went to jail” during the Gujjar agitation for reservation whose architect was Bainsla.
How Cong won Gujjars
The Gujjar quota demonstrations took place in 2007-’08. At the time, the BJP was in power and Vasundhara Raje was the CM. More than 70 people were killed in police firings in May 2007 and May 2008. Ever since then, the community has largely been with the Congress.
In the 2018 Rajasthan Assembly elections, eight Gujjar MLAs were elected, none of whom were from the BJP. Apart from Pilot, Rawat, and Chandna, the others were Gajraj Khatana, Indraj Gurjar, Jitendra Singh, Bidhuri Rajendra Singh, and Joginder Singh Awana. Except for Awana, who contested for the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the rest were elected on a Congress ticket. Awana later jumped ship and joined the Congress with five other MLAs elected on a BSP ticket.
Another factor that worked for the Congress in 2018 with regard to Gujjars was Pilot who was also the state Congress president at the time. But ever since Pilot was sidelined following a rebellion in 2020, the Congress has been losing the goodwill of the community.
This has provided the BJP with an opening. On Monday, Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, state BJP president Satish Poonia, Rajendra Rathore, Karauli-Dholpur MP Manoj Rajoria, Ajmer MP Bhagirath Choudhary, BJP national secretary Alka Gurjar, former BJP state president Arun Chaturvedi, and MLA Vasudev Devnani were among those in attendance.
Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, both Bainsla and his son Vijay joined the BJP. Although Vijay has sometimes attacked the BJP, especially its MPs from Rajasthan, for not taking up the cause of MBC reservation with the Centre, he is closer to the Opposition party than the Congress.
Over the last few years, as Bainsla’s health deteriorated because of old age, factionalism grew as there was no tall leader like him in the community. Bainsla was unsuccessful in his attempt to launch his son. In November 2020, hoping to pass on his mantle to Vijay, he organised what was perhaps his last major protest. Speaking briefly to journalists at the time, he said, “Ab toh Vijay hi jaane (It is all up to Vijay now).”
Which way will Vijay Bainsla go?
The community seems to be coming together once again since Bainsla’s death in March. The development has repercussions for the electoral prospects of both the Congress and the BJP in the Assembly elections, scheduled for later next year, and the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
For the BJP, Vijay is an ideal candidate who can help the party consolidate its position among Gujjars while the Opposition party is a natural option for Bainsla’s son since the Congress already has several leaders from the community. In the past, Gujjar leaders have opposed both Bainsla and Vijay’s proximity to the BJP but that seems to be a thing of the past now.
Underlining his political ambitions, Vijay undertook an asthi kalash yatra in a bid to mobilise the community and MBCs. The yatra began from Kotputli on August 17 and covered about 75 Assembly seats in 23 districts before reaching Pushkar over the weekend.
Along with Jats, Rajputs, Meenas and Brahmins, Gujjars are among the five most-dominant castes in Rajasthan. While other castes have asserted themselves regularly, Gujjars have not found a strong rallying point since the reservation agitation of 2007-’08. Now, with Bainsla’s memories in their mind, they will want to regain the heft that had brought eastern Rajasthan to a standstill over a decade ago. And in Sachin Pilot, they have a leader who has the potential to become the state’s first-ever Gujjar CM.