While big netas zero in on vote banks, Manvendra Singh wants to set a social example and focus on local issues, says Shobhita Naithani
WHETHER IT’S inside a muggy village panchayat room minus a fan, or outside on an airy cementchabootara (platform) under a tree, Manvendra Singh seems unperturbed by the searing heat. Chin resting on cupped palm, this BJP MP from the desert district of Barmer in Rajasthan listens keenly to the measured, almost longwinded words of his constituents. His speech, however, is brief. “I’m appearing for an examination on May 7 [the day Rajasthan votes] and I can only do well with your support and blessings,” he says. The crowd presses in to touch him, but Manvendra must rush to meet his next deadline.
Ten years ago, deadlines were as crucial for him as they are now. But life, says the 44-year-old, was less taxing. As a journalist with The Indian Express in New Delhi, Manvendra found time to read, write, watch football, and spend time with friends and family. Now, clad in dhoti-kurta and turban, this history post-graduate from London spends most of his day with his constituents. This election season, his aim has been to cover 15 villages every day.
He joined politics on an impulse. “In April 1999, Sonia Gandhi claimed the support of 272 MPs. It bothered me that a person of foreign origin was going to occupy a high constitutional position,” recalls Manvendra. “I wanted to do whatever I could to prevent that.” Getting a BJP ticket was easy, for Manvendra is from Barmer and is the son of senior BJP leader and former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh.
A few months later, an enthusiastic but barely prepared Manvendra contested Barmer against two-time winner Sona Ram of the Congress. Manvendra lost by 32,140 votes in 1999 – but stayed on, to “plot and prepare”. By 2004, he had already travelled 1,75,000 kilometres across Barmer, India’s second largest constituency. When votes were tallied in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress had lost Barmer, a seat it had held since Independence, with Manvendra Singh defeating three-time incumbent Sona Ram by a massive 2,71,888 votes.
‘All the social ills, ranging from corruption to crimes against women, are reflected in our driving manners,’ says Manvendra
Since then, as MP, Manvendra Singh has fulfilled a number of his poll promises. The Thar Express, a train between Pakistan’s Sindh province and Rajasthan, started running in February 2006. (Barmer borders Pakistan and most people — both Hindus and Muslims — have relatives across the border.) He spent 65 percent of his MP Local Area Development funds on water harvesting and constructed over 2,200 reservoirs in parched villages. He also recruited over 650 nurses to attend to women living in remote villages.
This election, Manvendra is up against first-timer Harish Choudhary of the Congress. The contest could be a tough one as delimitation has altered the caste equation of the constituency and Rajputs are split across neighbouring constituencies (Manvendra is a Rajput). The BJP considered shifting Manvendra to Jodhpur, now a Rajput stronghold, but he refused point blank. “My politics never discriminates between communities,” he says.
THE MANY Muslims who turn up for his rallies seem to vindicate this claim. Interestingly, these Muslims, 12 percent of Barmer’s population, are critical of the BJP but are not opposed to the BJP candidate. “Why shouldn’t we vote for him? He doesn’t show favouritism. We don’t care which party he belongs to,” says Mohammed Salim, 63, of Barmer’s Swaroop Ka Tala village.
Manvendra’s speeches are a refreshing change because they steer clear of any heavy religious invocations. “If even Muslims who live on the Pakistan border can be convinced of an individual’s credibility, I’m sure this situation can be replicated,” he concludes.
For Manvendra Singh, politics is not just about leadership, but also about setting a social example. “All social ills, from corruption to crimes against women are reflected in our driving manners. We need to get rid of the might-is-right, rule-breaking and bribing pattern,” he says. He is hopeful that politics will benefit from the entry of more professionals.
His vision for India is a society that does not discriminate on caste or religion. If he wins, his focus will be to improve water distribution, curb infant and maternal mortality rates and obtain a backward status for the constituency.
And just as you begin to approve of this young MP and his dream for India, he tells you that this is not how he would like to lead the rest of his life. “In 10 years of politics, not once have I been asked about the health and happiness of my family,” he says, just before he is swallowed up by another group of enthusiastic supporters. Is there a deadline for this departure? “I will quit like I joined,” he says. “On an impulse.”