As Rajasthan votes on Friday, all eyes are on Mewar – the region that, in political parlance, is referred to as the gateway to power. This is the place that decides which party gets to rule the state for the next five years, its residents say. They are also quick to point out that since 1998, Mewar has never voted for the incumbent government – the consequence of which, they say, is that the challenger has always come to power in the state.

Spread across Udaipur, Rajsamand, Chittorgarh, Pratapgarh, Dungarpur and Banswada districts, Mewar accounts for 28 of the state’s 200 Assembly seats. In the 2013 elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party – riding a Modi wave that would soon go nationwide – had won 25 seats while the Congress had managed just two, with the remaining seat going to an independent candidate. Five years prior to that, the region had voted overwhelmingly for the Congress, which had gone on to rule the state for the next five years. If the general mood in Mewar is anything to go by this time, this pattern could be repeated on Friday with the vote going against the BJP government.

The electorate in Mewar seems disillusioned with Chief Minister Vasundhra Raje and her representatives in the region. Lack of development initiatives, rising unemployment, the lingering impact on traders of the Goods and Services Tax and the demonetisation of high-value currency, Rajput anger, Adivasi discontent and agrarian distress dominate the political discourse. If the voters are to be believed, the BJP is fighting a losing battle.

‘Farmers are suffering’

Many say the farm crisis could be the decisive factor in these elections. “Farmers in the region are suffering,” said 18-year-old Mann Singh of Chittorgarh. “My father puts so much effort in his fields but fails to recover the input cost. Rising prices of seeds, fertilisers, diesel, electricity have made farming unviable. Why should we continue with farming?”

Singh has no intention of following in his father’s footsteps and is pursuing a bachelors degree at a government college. “I am preparing for government jobs,” he said. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life working on a farm without even recovering what I am investing.”

The son of a farmer, 18-year-old Mann Singh is studying to get a government job.

Other farmers in the region said their children, too, saw no future in farming. Many of them, supporters of the BJP, expressed anger at the party’s priorities at a time their community is going through tough times.

“Farmers are committing suicide and BJP is talking about Hanuman’s caste,” said Babu Ram of Jangedi, a village in Begu Assembly constituency. “I voted for BJP in 2013 based on the promises they made. Look at them now, all they talk about is jaati, gotra, [Jawaharlal] Nehru, [Sardar] Patel. They want to build statues across the country. Will statues feed people?”

He added, “At least the Congress is talking about MSP [minimum support price], loan waiver, food processing units. Farmer anger will spell doom for BJP in these elections.”

One section of farmers, the state’s opium growers, is especially vocal about wanting a change in government. spoke with several opium farmers and they all complained of how they are compelled to pay bribes to officials of the narcotics department through the year.

The BJP-led Central government’s new policy on issuing opium farming licences, introduced in 2017, is also a bone of contention. Many farmers in Rajasthan have reportedly lost their licences as a result of a change in criteria brought about by the policy. Chittorgarh and Pratapgarh, both in Mewar, reportedly produce 60% of India’s opium.

Rajput rage

Compounding the BJP’s problems is strong opposition from Rajputs, widely considered a core vote bank of the party. In recent years, the community has raised the banner of revolt against the BJP over a host of subjects, including the insult to their pride allegedly caused by the Bollywood film Padmaavat and lack of representation in the Raje government. As Rajput organisations push for a complete boycott of the BJP, the community seems to be gravitating towards the Congress.

“Comprising nearly 12% of the vote share in the state, Rajputs can influence the outcome in at least eight seats of the [Mewar] region,” said political analyst KM Bhandari. “In seats like Udaipur, Vallabhnagar, Malvi, Nathdwara, Kumbalgarh, Rajsamand, Chittorgarh and Bhim, Rajputs will vote against the BJP unless the party has fielded members of their community.”

For instance, in Chittorgarh – which was the epicentre of the Padmaavat protests – Rajputs are backing incumbent BJP MLA Chandrabhan Singh because he is a Rajput. Community members in this constituency say had the BJP fielded anyone else, they would have voted for the Congress candidate.

“They might still be unhappy over the whole Padmaavat controversy but they are mobilising support for Singh,” said Suresh Chand Sahu, a tea seller. “They are telling others to vote for their candidate.”

However, Tanveer Singh Krishnawat, president of the Mewar Kshatriya Mahasabha Sansthan, disagreed. He insisted Rajputs in Mewar were united against the BJP. “When someone says anything against [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi’s mother, they make such an issue out of it while when they distort facts about our mother [Padmavati], we are expected to keep quiet,” he said. “The BJP has betrayed us and it is time to teach them a lesson.”

In 2017, Rajput groups had organised violent protests across the country, demanding a ban on the Deepika Padukone-Ranveer Singh-starrer that they claimed distorted history, though commentators argued that the film was based on a fictional heroine of an epic poem.

A BJP supporter in Chittorgarh. The district was the epicentre of the Padmaavat protests by Rajputs in 2017.

Krishnawat also touched on the community’s other grievance against the Raje government. “She didn’t find one deserving person among Rajputs to be included in her cabinet,” he said. “This has hurt Rajput pride.”

Rajputs are also hurt by the BJP’s treatment of veteran leader and former Union minister Jaswant Singh, he added. Jaswant Singh was denied a ticket in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections with the BJP instead fielding a former Congress leader from the Jat community. “If the BJP can do that to a leader of Singh’s stature, imagine what they will do with ordinary folks like us,” Krishnawat said. “There is an emotional connect with Manvendra Singh among Rajputs and they will not forgive BJP.”

Manvendra Singh is Jaswant Singh’s son who quit the BJP and joined the Congress in October. Congress leaders claim his entry gives the party a clear edge over the BJP in areas where the Rajputs are in big numbers.

Congress supporters wave at Rahul Gandhi's helicopter in Chittorgarh. Rajputs in Mewar seem to be gravitating towards the Congress in these elections.

Adivasis also angry

Another front the BJP is facing hostility from is Adivasis.

In Mewar, 16 Assembly constituencies are reserved for tribes, who make up 73% of the population in these seats. In 2013, the BJP had won 14 of these seats. Political observers say it is unlikely the party will be able to repeat this feat this year.

Moreover, the emergence of the Bharatiya Tribal Party has both the Congress and BJP worried. Founded by Chhotubhai Vasava in Gujarat in 2017 after he parted ways with the Janata Dal (United), the Bharatiya Tribal Party is contesting 11 of the 16 seats in Mewar and is popular among young and educated Adivasis. In the past three years, its youth wing, the Bhil Pradesh Vidhyarthi Morcha, has swept university elections in Dungarpur and its adjoining areas.

“We are confident of winning at least eight seats,” said Dr Vellaram Gogra, the party’s president in Rajasthan and its candidate from Dungarpur constituency. He added that Adivasi youth who had voted for the BJP in 2013 have since shifted loyalties to the Bharatiya Tribal Party.

Gogra listed the community’s demands: implementation of the Fifth Schedule, which has provisions for the administration of “Scheduled Areas” other than in the North East, the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, and the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.

“Both these parties have betrayed the Adivasis for decades with their false promises,” he said, referring to the BJP and Congress. “It is time the Adivasis rise and end their dominance in our region. We will remain equidistant from both the parties.”

Political observers say the new party will cause damage to both the Congress and BJP, but more so to the saffron party.

The BJP is facing an uphill task in 16 Assembly seats reserved for the tribes in Mewar.

Trouble within

Another factor that may give the Congress an edge over the BJP in Mewar is infighting. The BJP has denied tickets to several of its sitting MLAs in the region, prompting many of them to contest as independents. At least 17 rebels are posing serious problems for BJP candidates, including senior ministers Gulab Chand Kataria and Kiran Maheshwari.

In comparison, the Congress’ ticket distribution strategy led to less discontent. “By confining CP Joshi and Girija Vyas in their constituencies, Congress ensured that there is no power struggle within its ranks,” said a leader of the party, who did not want to be identified. “It was a smart decision which is paying dividends.”

The Congress talk of loan waivers and better prices has made an impact on farmers in Mewar.

All photographs by Akash Bisht