BJP's Rajyavardhan Rathore in a tough range

Outside a village temple in Aayi Daan ka Baas, about 25 km from Jaipur city, Rajyavardhan Rathore is handed a bandhni print long cloth. Almost instinctively, the former Olympian places a part on his head and within seconds deftly ties the saafa (traditional turban) on his head. The villagers are happy but not surprised. They have known their parliamentarian to be easy with the traditional ways of paying respect in the region.

“Saafa is very big in this region,” Rathore says, as he campaigns through his largely rural constituency. “When I got a ticket in 2014 (the first time he was fielded by the BJP from Jaipur Rural Lok Sabha constituency), I called a saafa wallah and learnt how to tie it.”

From a two-term MP to Rajasthan assembly’s largest constituency in Jhotwara, Rathore is fighting a tough battle and he is well aware of it. BJP’s strategy to paradrop MPs to fight assembly elections has thrown Rathore a new challenge. The constituency is represented by Congress minister Lal Chand Kataria, who had opted out of the contest. The challenge, however, is from within. BJP’s former MLA and Vasundhara Raje Scindia loyalist Rajpal Singh Shekhawat has openly revolted against the party’s decision. A phone call from Union home minister Amit Shah dissuaded him from contesting the election but Rathore has had to win over protesting cadres. “I love challenges. This is a great education for me. The intensity of the campaign is different and learning politics at the grassroots is a different experience,” he says.

As ET catches up with Rathore at his election office near Vaishali Nagar, he is starting his day by assuring party workers that he will look after their interests and work for them. “BJP is a very disciplined party. There might be a few protests but the cadres never work against the party candidate,” he says confidently.

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At a public meeting in Brij Raj Enclave he speaks about working for development – construction of roads and better water supply. He ends his address by saying, “Whoever is standing with me today is my brother and the doors of my home are always open for them.” Ask him whether Rajpal is campaigning for him, Rathore is upfront with a negative response. “But his people are with us,” he says. Rathore recounts an incident when he was shown black flags by Rajpal’s supporters. “I stopped my car and hugged them. We are one family. Everyone will come around,” he says.

Rathore is banking upon his work as an MP to woo first-time voters. He speaks about setting up 17 stadia, 17 Olympic gyms, three indoor stadia and 61 open gyms as an MP. He says, “No army recruitment camp was held in Jaipur for several years. But I persuaded the administration to hold this camp so the youth could get in. Now since 2014, there has been an army recruitment every year in Jaipur, including the Covid year.”

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William Murphy

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