In the present day politics that is marked with cacophony of hate and polarisation, Bikaner in the north-west area of poll bound Rajasthan stands out in many ways. The locals go about their business at a lazy pace, putting politics aside and giving the present day politicians what they have deserved for a long time – indifference and sneer.

At the same time there are issues that people want to be addressed but they are sceptical on many things. The region reflects what small town India is going through – pangs of desire in the face of harsh socio-economic realities.

The place is known as the ‘Bhujia Kingdom’ of India given the immense popularity of traditional savoury snacks prepared here on a large scale, both at smaller establishments and also in big factories. The local brands have made it so big that even multinationals have been compelled to make an entry in the bhujia market. However, the famed ‘Bikaneri Bhujia’ continues to dominate.

Apart from the bhujia, there is a large-scale production of papad, vadi and rasgullas. Everything made here is exported to various parts of the country, and even abroad.

The locals are rightfully proud of this achievement and claim that no less than 3.5 lakh people find employment in the bhujia industry. The industry itself is said to date back to more than 200 years and is linked to royalty, like many other things in Rajasthan.

So did events like demonetisation, and the alleged shoddy implementation of goods and services tax (GST) and Covid 19 lockdown have any impact on the industry?

“There was no impact. How can there be any impact when three to four people easily savour two kgs of bhujia daily? In fact, the sales grew as the majority was sitting idle during lockdown,” joked Bhanwar Singh, an employee at a traditional joint in the famous Bhujia Bazar that he claimed to be the fountainhead of big names in bhujia market.

But apart from the bhujia industry, employment is a major issue for the masses. Ask any youth and the pain of economic insecurity and the exploitative survival in the private sector pours out.

“I did a diploma in electrical engineering and went to Mumbai in search of a job. I got small jobs but the high cost of living there drove me back to Bikaner.

“Today I am surviving by working in the installation of internet fibre service as an outsourced employee of a major telecom firm. The payment is very little in comparison to the work being taken from me. I do not know till when I will continue in this job,” 22-year-old Raza said, as he travelled with this reporter from Sikar to Bikaner.

His views were echoed by one Ganesh Bhati on the streets of Bikaner town. “I am into lamination of objects. The money I get is hardly enough for my survival. I do not know how things will be in the future. There are hardly any government jobs and on top of that there is no stability in private jobs,” Bhati said.

The scenario explains the cynicism and scepticism that has led to indifference among the people who talk about politics in sarcastic tones, and tend to joke about the promises being made by the politicians. “The story is simple. They come with folded hands for six months and then forget everything for the next four-and-a-half years. It would do a lot of good even if they implement ten percent of the policies announced, with sincerity. The schemes are good but they need to be taken forward,” said Tulan Singh Shekhawat, a disabled newspaper hawker.

But the place retains its culture of tolerance and accepting different points of view. This was evident at many places as this reporter wandered through Kem Road, Rampuriya Haveli, Bada Bazaar, Bhujia Bazaar, Supari Bazaar and Chai ki Patti. There were groups having a laugh at the political affiliations of each other and hitting out at the political forces in rustic humour.

A distinct tradition and culture that still prevails in Bikaner is the ‘Paata’ gatherings wherein people spend late evenings into late nights having discussion on anything under the sun while sitting on ‘Paatas’ that are a sort of wooden thakhats placed outside old houses and havelis. These gatherings continue even today, in the age of social media.

The place has a culture of philanthropy and harmonious coexistence. The people have resisted attempts to polarise them on caste and communal lines. While there are hardly any posters and banners of candidates and parties to be seen across the town, the people are vocal about their issues when spoken to personally.

In India an issue that may appear to be small has the potential to turn into a big political issue at the time of the polls. This is on display in Bikaner where the biggest issue for the city is a railway track going through it.

“This track divides the city politically in terms of constituencies and even otherwise. With multiple railway crossings there are traffic disruptions throughout the day. Whenever there is an attempt to build over-bridges, those with business interests get stays through courts or create other hurdles.

“Though some over bridges have been made, the most crowded crossings remain as they have been over several decades. All we have seen is a blame game between various parties on this issue,” Munawwar Ali, a local resident, pointed out.

Bikaner with seven Assembly constituencies is a border district and like the other border districts in the country, the rural areas, particularly the villages along the international border have their own set of problems. The border areas are calling for more development. There is a line of thought that adequate supply of electricity to mofussil areas can help in growth of industry and employment.

Observers point out that things have changed considerably once water was brought to border villages through the Indira Gandhi and Ganga canal systems in the late 1980s. They say that initiatives on the lines of tapping solar energy to address power requirements are also expected to be fruitful.

In terms of the political mapping, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) remain the two main contestants across the seven constituencies. But the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party (RLP) founded by Hanuman Beniwal who is the sitting Lok Sabha member from Nagaur is also making a buzz in some of the constituencies in the border districts.

Beniwal is seen as a farmers’ leader having organised Kisan Hunkaar Rallies in the past and also having aired his opposition vehemently against the three controversial farm laws that the central government was compelled to withdraw. The smaller parties and independents are also making their presence felt.

Among the seven Assembly constituencies in Bikaner, Koliayat is witnessing a fight between Bhanwar Singh Bhati of the Congress, Anshuman Singh Bhati of the BJP and Rewant Ram Panwar of RLP. In Naukha the fight is between Kanhaiya Lal Jhanwar of Vikas Manch, Biharilal Bishnoi of the BJP and Sushila Devi Dudi of the Congress.

In Sri Dungargarh, the fight is between Tara Chand Saraswat of the BJP, Mangal Ram Kodara of the Congress and Girdhari Lal Mahiya of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Bikaner (West) is witnessing a battle between BD Kalla of the Congress and Jethanand Vyas of the BJP. This reporter came across Vyas campaigning as a pillion rider on a motorcycle in the old city areas falling in his constituencies., greeting his constituents with a ‘Jai Sri Ram’.Kalla’s supporters on the other hand were seen explaining the seven guarantees being offered by the Congress under Ashok Gehlot to the people.

In Bikaner (East) the fight is between the royalty scion Siddhi Kumari of the BJP, Yashpal Gehlot of the Congress and Manoj Bishnoi of the RLP.

Khajuwala constituency is witnessing an electoral battle between Govindram Meghwal of the Congress, Dr Vishwanath Meghwal of the BJP and Sitaram of the Jannayak Janata Party (JJP).

In Lunkarnasar it is a fight between Dr Rajendra Moond of the Congress, Sumit Godara of the BJP and Virendra Beniwal who is an independent.

Bikaner is also the home turf of Union Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal. Observers feel that his party’s performance here will also have a bearing on his stature in context of the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls scheduled for early next year.