IT IS AROUND noon, and the commercial centre of Khejroli, a sub-tehsil in Shahpura constituency, around an hour’s drive from Jaipur city, is bathed in the balmy winter sunlight. It comprises a smattering of shops and food stalls that are getting ready for the day’s business. In the centre of the small marketplace is a platform with cement benches built around an old banyan tree, forming the chaupal or the local meeting place.
The place is abuzz, with the campaign offices of the BJP and the Congress situated not far away and with the candidates set to focus on Khejroli for the day. BJP workers, gathered in the courtyard of the party office, rush to welcome and garland their candidate―Upen Yadav. Upen, 33, is the BJP’s surprise candidate for Shahpura in the Jaipur Rural district. He has been a youth rights activist for the past 12 years and enjoys fame all over Rajasthan, especially for his protests on the issue of leaks of question papers of recruitment exams.
Upen has completed the morning leg of the day’s campaign, and has some time to relax before he proceeds on a road show along with Union Minister of Women and Child Development Smriti Irani. Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Union Law Minister Arjun Meghwal had also campaigned for him earlier. Upen says his goal is to visit every village in the predominantly rural constituency, and he is doing so barefoot. He shows his muddied feet, saying they hurt immensely, but this is his way of conveying to the voters that he can feel their pain.
“It is a humbling experience and I want the people to know that I am ready to suffer for them,” says Upen. “I have a three-year-old daughter. It is not easy for me to forget about my family’s wellbeing and take on the establishment. But this is who I am.”
He is very much a son of the soil, he says, coming from a farmer’s family in Manoharpur village in Shahpura. “My rivals are calling me an outsider, which is a blatant lie. I grew up in Shahpura. I have walked 3km every day to go to school,” he says.
Upen has a diploma in elementary education and he shifted to Jaipur to prepare for competitive exams. However, moved by the travails of the unemployed youth and guided by his own experience of looking for a job, he ended up as an activist. He says he has held 300 agitations, sat on hunger strikes and been to jail a dozen times and has been to the ICU on four occasions. He has a massive social media following, with more than 9.7 lakh followers on X, rivalling the following of established politicians in the state.
Shahpura is in the eastern Rajasthan region where the BJP had not done too well in the 2018 elections. Among the main issues that the BJP has raised in this election is that of paper leaks and has alleged the involvement of Congress leaders. It is an issue that the BJP hopes will click with the people, especially considering that Rajasthan has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country at 26.4 per cent. So it is only apt that the party has as its candidate the poster boy of the protests against paper leaks.
“I went to Ajmer to take the REET exam (teachers’ recruitment exam),” says Radha Mohan Yadav, 22, a resident of Khejroli. “I had attended coaching classes for six months for the exam and stayed in Jaipur in a rented accommodation. But all the effort and money put into the preparation was wasted since the paper was leaked. Upen Yadav has been that one person who has brought our problems to the forefront.”
Upen claims that the Congress, too, had offered him a ticket, but he declined. “I feel BJP leaders were not involved in paper leaks. The same cannot be said about Congress leaders,” he says, also stressing that he has been a member of the BJP’s student’s wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.
During his campaign, Upen tells voters that, as their representative, he can put to use his vast experience of having agitated for the rights of the youth. “In my 12-year struggle, I have met many IAS and IPS officers; I know how the system works,” he says. “I can take up the issues of the people of the constituency effectively. I am not afraid of approaching anyone for their welfare.”
But winning Shahpura will not be easy for Upen. The constituency is Jat-dominated, with around 40 per cent of the voters belonging to the caste. Yadavs are the next, with 30 per cent. The sitting MLA, Alok Beniwal, an independent who had supported the Ashok Gehlot government, is a Jat. He is contesting again as an independent. He had been defeated by BJP’s Rao Rajendra Singh, a Rajput, in the 2013 elections when he had contested on a Congress ticket. In 2018, Beniwal had won, with Manish Yadav of the Congress coming second and Singh ending up third. Manish Yadav has been again fielded by the Congress while Singh, a Vasundhara Raje loyalist and a fomer deputy speaker of the Vidhan Sabha, has had to make way for Upen.
There is palpable disenchantment against Beniwal this time over his alleged failure to get certain works done for the constituency, such as alleviate the problem of water scarcity, ensure that Shahpura was demarcated as a separate district or set up a women’s college. However, he is still expected to corner a chunk of the Jat votes, and there is a fight on between Upen and Congress’s Manish Yadav for the OBC votes. Also, Manish is widely recognised in the constituency as having worked hard to reach out to the people and take up their issues in the last five years since his defeat in the 2018 election.
“I am 100 per cent confident of winning,” says Manish. “I lost the last election by a very slim margin. Since then, I have not gone away from Shahpura. I have continued to work for the people. I know their issues. Be it Covid or the losses due to the lumpy disease, I have been with the people of Shahpura.”
Also, there is said to be disgruntlement among BJP workers and its dedicated voters with regard to denial of ticket to Singh, and this could work against Upen.
Upen though is convinced that this election, regardless of the result, is only the beginning of his journey as a politician. “No matter what the result is on December 3, come December 4, I will be someone the people of Shahpura can count on to take up their issues,” he declares. “I am not going anywhere.”