With 10 months to go for the crucial Rajasthan Assembly elections, two main contenders in the state -- Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress -- can be seen ramping up outreach to the electorally significant Gujjar community in the state. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Malaseri in Rajasthan's Bhilwara today on the 1111th birth anniversary of Bhagwan Dev Narayan, a folk deity revered by the Gujjar community, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot declared a state holiday on Saturday, just ahead of the PM's visit, to honour the deity.
Though the PM's visit was organised by the Ministry of Culture, and both Centre and BJP deny any political motivation behind it, the PM's speech at the event today made repeated references to his party symbol and the deity.
While praising the Gujjar community, the PM said they are deeply connected to the lotus, which is also the BJP's party symbol.
"Bhagwan Dev Narayan appeared as a baby on a lotus, and we (BJP) are connected to the lotus from birth," PM Modi said. He then also linked India's G20 presidency to the deity.
"It's a sanjog (an auspicious coincidence) that we are taking lead in G20 and its logo is also lotus, on which Bhagwan Dev Narayan also appeared. We are with kamal (lotus) from the start, that's why we have a deep connection," he said.
Gujjars, who constitute around 9 to twelve percent of the population and are significant in 40 to 50 assembly seats in eastern Rajasthan, are a critical vote bank for both the Congress and the BJP.
"The Prime Minister has undertaken a number of projects for religious and cultural restoration, like the Kashi Vishwanath temple and the Ujjain temple. Hopefully, something will be done for the Dev Narayan temple as well. We should not look at everything through a political lens," Satish Poonia, BJP state president, told NDTV.
The Gujjars have in the past launched violent protests for reservation and had recently threatened to block Congress leader Rahul Gandhi s entry into the state.
"What happened last time will not happen again. Last time, the Gujjars lost, and now they have learnt their lesson. Of course, we want Gujjar MLAs. Gujjars influence about 40 seats. Let's see what the impact will be," Vijay Bainsla, who has taken on the mantle of the Gujjar reservation movement after the death of his father, Colonel Kirori Singh, told NDTV at the Dev Narayan temple.
Sachin Pilot is an individual factor, and it cannot repeat in every election, Mr Bainsla said.
Meanwhile, Congress has a rebel crisis at hand ahead of the elections. Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot have been on loggerheads for long, and though there's an effort to project unity, both have been quick to provocation with subtle jibes at each other.
Mr Gehlot has set the target of winning 156 seats in the assembly elections due later this year, the same number it achieved in 1998 when the grand old party came to power in the state under his leadership, he is quick to remind.