A FIRST-TIME MP seen to be struggling in his first MLA election, Mahant Balaknath has generated unexpected buzz in the Rajasthan elections. Across constituencies, people talk about the BJP candidate from Tijara, drawing parallels with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath – a comparison that Balaknath pointedly distances himself from.
Outside the urban limits of Jaipur, in Devan village in the Shahpura Assembly seat, 21-year-old Gautam speaks for many on why he likes Balaknath: “Yogi ka chehra dikhta hai (We see Yogi Adityanath’s face in him).”
There are others who call for a “Rajasthan ka Yogi”, in conversations from near Jaipur’s urban suburbs to Udaipur in rugged Mewar. This demand is coloured as much by Hindutva as a yearning for “strict” law and order – the BJP has constructed its Rajasthan campaign around the claim of “rising crimes” in the state.
One of the songs in Balaknath’s campaign goes: “UP mein Yogi ne kiya kamaal; UP ki tarah Rajasthan ko bhi chamkayenge (Yogi has transformed UP, we will make Rajasthan shine like it)”. Balaknath says he has told his supporters to avoid such songs.
Ask him about the comparisons drawn between him and Adityanath, and he adds: “It’s because we are both from the Nath (religious) sect. He is my big brother, and people talk about us in the same breath because both of us maintain transparency in our lives. Also, our lives are committed to the people and development. Jis prakar ke hamare Pradhan Mantriji ke bhav hein, wahi hamare bhav hein (The way our PM is, the same are our ways).”
Adityanath came early in the campaign to give his blessings to Balaknath, while Union Home Minister Amit Shah campaigned for him on Thursday. Balaknath denies there was anything special about this. “They campaigned for me just like they campaigned for other candidates of the party.”
Even voters who admit they are happy with the Ashok Gehlot government say they are watching Balaknath. Like Gauri Shankar, 28, the owner of a tea stall in Dausa, the turf of Gehlot’s rival Sachin Pilot, who describes the CM as “the best”. “We have received treatment under the Chiranjeevi Health Insurance scheme and got lentils, sugar, salt, oil…,” Shankar says.
Inside Mitrpura village, Surendra Singh, who is a Gujjar like Pilot, says: “Balaknath is a sanyasi and so he will work selflessly. And the saffron robe does not have a caste, it belongs to every caste.”
Balaknath is a Yadav, who are similar to Gujjars in the sense that both are OBCs and traditionally into cattle-rearing. Otherwise, the two castes are quite distinct.
Surendra says he worked with the late Gujjar agitation architect Kirori Singh Bainsla, whose stir faced a crackdown under the Vasundhara Raje-led BJP government in 2013-2018. Unlike that “tanaashah (tyrannical)” rule, Surendra says, Gehlot “listens to everyone”. At the same time, he is all for a law to immediately hang the guilty in heinous crimes, and hence “someone like Balaknath”.
A policeman headed for duty to a Gehlot rally in Lalsot says Balaknath as leader can control crime “coming from Mewat and Bharatpur region (the Meo Muslim-dominated areas bordering Haryana)”.
At Bambor Gate in Tonk, from where Pilot is a contestant, a group of youths in their 20s who profess “love” for the “young” Congress leader, believe the party is on its way out after having sidelined him, and are also keeping an eye on Balaknath.
Near Udaipur, where the Hindutva issue is about the killing of Kanhaiya Lal, allegedly over support to remarks on Prophet Mohammed, Mohit Soni, an OBC from Dabok village, says the Congress “always does Hindu -Muslim”. “We need someone like Balaknath to set things right.”
Suryadev Sisodia, a BJP supporter, though, points to Balaknath’s inexperience. “Adityanath was a multiple-term MP. Balaknath is more popular among those who are more Hindutva-minded,” he says.
There is also the question of Balaknath’s own seat. The BJP has won Tijara from where he is contesting only once, during a wave for the party in 2013. The seat – once the constituency of Rajasthan’s only Muslim CM, Barkatullah Khan – is dominated by Muslims, followed by Yadavs, SCs and Gujjars.
In 2018, the seat was won by the BSP’s Sandeep Kumar, who later joined the Congress. Surprising everyone, the Congress did not field Kumar this time but opted for Imran Khan.
Khan, incidentally, was the BSP’s candidate for the Alwar Lok Sabha seat in 2019, when he was defeated by Balaknath by over 7 lakh votes.
Balaknath says he doesn’t want to speculate about his future role. “I am a loyal worker of the BJP and will always do as the party says… A sant serves others, and in politics also, with or without a position, we are supposed to serve others.”
About him being the BJP’s Hindutva face in a region that often sees cow vigilante violence, Balaknath says: “This area falls in the Mewat region and there are lot of Meo Muslims. Generally, people are nice, but there are some criminal elements… It’s a big issue. And in order to maintain peace and harmony, we have to address this issue.”