2014 elections

To beat Azharuddin and a billionaire, one Rajasthan candidate decides to fund 2,100 weddings

Makhan Lal Meena has catapulted himself to third place in the keenly fought race for Tonk-Sawai Madhopur, giving the BJP and Congress the jitters in the seat that saw the smallest winning margin in 2009.

When you’re up against a former Indian cricket team captain and a multi-billionaire, it might take a little more than just spirited campaigning to get noticed. So Makhan Lal Meena, fighting as an independent from Rajasthan’s Tonk-Sawai Madhopur seat, decided he would bring people together — literally.


Meena has pledged to fund 2,100 weddings of people from across the constituency in two mass ceremonies slated for later in the year, after elections have taken place (which allows him to avoid violating the model code of conduct).

This effort has catapulted him to third place in the keenly fought contest in this dusty seat just to the south of Jaipur behind the frontrunners: the Congress’ Azharuddin, who once captained India’s cricket team, and the Bharatiya Janata Party's wealthy businessman candidate, Sukhbir Singh Jaunpuria, whose fame also derives from a wedding: his daughter’s Rs 250-crore extravaganza.

“Both of them are outsiders,” said Devnarayan, a paan shop tender in Tonk. "The Congress is just hoping Azharuddin can be a khiladi and the BJP’s man…well, he has a lot of money.”

That is not to say Meena is the only local candidate in the fray — there’s even another candidate from the Meena community up against him — but he is the only one offering to pay for thousands of weddings. Which means he’s getting talked about.



“They say he’s going to give each of the families a motor bike at least as a gift,” said Lalit Singh, an auto driver. “Now do the math. Each family out of 2,100 must mean at least 20 votes? Marriages can be very expensive things here, they will be grateful, and will support him.”

No one is willing to say this means he can beat the big two — the Congress and BJP candidates took 93.7% of the votes in 2009 — but generating buzz alone is an important asset. And in tightly fought races, a popular third candidate can tip the balance for one of the frontrunners. In 2009, in fact, Tonk-Sawai Madhopur recorded the smallest winning margin of all Lok Sabha seats: just 317 votes, with the edge going to the Congress’ Namo Narain Meena.

“A big Meena belt starts from here, and they have traditionally been Congress supporters,” said Arshad Ali, an LIC agent in Tonk. “That means he could take votes away from Azharuddin, who was going to face trouble from his own party because he’s not from here. When the BJP also picked an outsider, he became a little less concerned — but now there’s a local who can leech votes.”

Meena has stopped talking, at least to the press, about his specific plans for the weddings and the gifts, presumably to avoid any heat from the Election Commission. He refused to speak to this reporter. He did, however, tell the Times of India that, “both BJP and Congress candidates have fielded outsiders, who, after losing the battle will never turn up in the city and have no right to accuse my social event.”

But Meena’s popularity is clearly built on the wedding buzz. Even Ali, who said he was a Congress supporter, worried that Meena would make it harder for Azharuddin. But he added that what Meena was doing wasn’t bad.

“For a poor person, how can you argue that this is somehow wrong? Meena knows he won’t win, but he’s still spending all this money to throw the weddings. And when they happen, it doesn’t matter if it’s a rich or poor person coming. Everyone will be treated the same,” Ali said. “Just take it as one of the many gifts Indian democracy gives us — once in five years.”

 
Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Tracing the formation of Al Qaeda and its path to 9/11

A new show looks at some of the crucial moments leading up to the attack.

“The end of the world war had bought America victory but not security” - this quote from Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, ‘The Looming Tower’, gives a sense of the growing threat to America from Al Qaeda and the series of events that led to 9/11. Based on extensive interviews, including with Bin Laden’s best friend in college and the former White House counterterrorism chief, ‘The Looming Tower’ provides an intimate perspective of the 9/11 attack.

Lawrence Wright chronicles the formative years of Al Qaeda, giving an insight in to Bin Laden’s war against America. The book covers in detail, the radicalisation of Osama Bin Laden and his association with Ayman Al Zawahri, an Egyptian doctor who preached that only violence could change history. In an interview with Amazon, Wright shared, “I talked to 600-something people, but many of those people I talked to again and again for a period of five years, some of them dozens of times.” Wright’s book was selected by TIME as one of the all-time 100 best nonfiction books for its “thoroughly researched and incisively written” account of the road to 9/11 and is considered an essential read for understanding Islam’s war on the West as it developed in the Middle East.

‘The Looming Tower’ also dwells on the response of key US officials to the rising Al Qaeda threat, particularly exploring the turf wars between the FBI and the CIA. This has now been dramatized in a 10-part mini-series of the same name. Adapted by Dan Futterman (of Foxcatcher fame), the series mainly focuses on the hostilities between the FBI and the CIA. Some major characters are based on real people - such as John O’ Neill (FBI’s foul-mouthed counterterrorism chief played by Jeff Daniels) and Ali Soufan (O’ Neill’s Arabic-speaking mentee who successfully interrogated captured Islamic terrorists after 9/11, played by Tahar Rahim). Some are composite characters, such as Martin Schmidt (O’Neill’s CIA counterpart, played by Peter Sarsgaard).

The series, most crucially, captures just how close US intelligence agencies had come to foiling Al Qaeda’s plans, just to come up short due to internal turf wars. It follows the FBI and the CIA as they independently follow intelligence leads in the crises leading up to 9/11 – the US Embassy bombings in East Africa and the attack on US warship USS Cole in Yemen – but fail to update each other. The most glaring example is of how the CIA withheld critical information – Al Qaeda operatives being hunted by the FBI had entered the United States - under the misguided notion that the CIA was the only government agency authorised to deal with terrorism threats.

The depth of information in the book has translated into a realistic recreation of the pre-9/11 years on screen. The drama is even interspersed with actual footage from the 9/11 conspiracy, attack and the 2004 Commission Hearing, linking together the myriad developments leading up to 9/11 with chilling hindsight. Watch the trailer of this gripping show below.

Play

The Looming Tower is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video, along with a host of Amazon originals and popular movies and TV shows. To enjoy unlimited ad free streaming anytime, anywhere, subscribe to Amazon Prime Video.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Amazon Prime Video and not by the Scroll editorial team.