Pokhran sees battle on religious lines

Pokhran sees battle on religious lines

Pradeep Puri

Pokhran, situated in western Rajasthan, is set for an interesting battle in the ongoing Assembly elections. No, it has nothing to do with the nuclear blasts that this small town close to the Pakistan border witnessed twice.

Religion is playing a direct and big factor in Pokhran unlike in most other constituencies of Rajasthan. On the one side, BJP has fielded Pratap Puri, head of the Taratara mutt based in Barmer.

On the other, the Congress has chosen Shale Mohammad, who is the son of Muslim religious leader Gazi Fakir. Fakir, a 'pir' (spiritual leader), is revered and has a huge following in both India and across the border in Pakistan.

It is a hotly contested seat and neither side is leaving any stone unturned to make it to the Assembly. BJP brought in Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to address the gathering and as is his wont, he delivered a vitriolic speech aimed at polarisation.

Congress got its president Rahul Gandhi to speak here and he promised loan waiver "on the lines of Karnataka".

"If you don't believe me, you call up your friends or relatives in Karnataka about the loan waiver," he told the people of Pokhran.

Shiv Prasad Bishnoi, a Congress supporter, talking to this writer at the Pokhran Congress office, said, "I am sure this was done in your state and we have no doubt this will be implemented here once the Congress comes to power".

In its bid to retain the seat, the BJP has denied ticket to its sitting MLA Shaitan Singh, who apparently is unpopular.

It is said that it was BJP president Amit Shah who chose Puri. Shah is said to have been a disciple of Puri's father, who was also a saint. BJP had chosen its candidate just about 15 hours before the nominations came to a close.

Both the Congress and BJP blame the other for communalising the campaign. While expressing confidence that BJP will make it for the second time in a row, Puri blamed the Congress for turning the contest "communal" by fielding a Muslim candidate against him.

According to him, protecting "Hindu culture and cows" is always important. The 51-year-old saint remarked that people are with the BJP no matter what the Congress says.

Mohammed, the Congress candidate, was an MLA in 2008 but lost by a margin of 34,444 votes in 2013. He, however, says the people want a change as the BJP MLA was a disaster. His main focus would be drinking water and other basic amenities for people in Pokhran.

Mohammed boasts of a strong support base among Sindh Muslims thanks to his father.

Muslim voters number about 55,000, Rajputs 45,000, Dalits and STs 35,000, and OBCs 30,000 in the constituency. The Congress leaders feel they have made a better caste calculation, which will see their candidate through.

Pokhran is better known for the nuclear tests of 1974 and 1998. The tests took place about 30 km from the town in the Thar desert.