In Jaipur, a political clash of Olympian scale

The cremation ground just beyond the wheat fields of the village of Rayli in rural Rajasthan is packed with mourners on the evening of April 12. Five members of a family from this close-knit community have died in a highway accident and the hundreds of mourners - from nearby hamlets - wait for the ambulance carrying the bodies.

Talk shifts to the other big news in these parts - the Lok Sabha elections. Voting is almost a month away but the politicking has begun. The two principal candidates, of the BJP and the Congress, have already traded charges on who was responsible for the highway accident. It's also why one of them has travelled here.

As a woman, she has to stand away from the men, at some distance from the cremation area. The rest of the men size her up and her chances against the sitting MP.

They already know plenty about the competition. They know that the stocky woman with the dupatta (stole) over her head, standing in the distance alongside a gaggle of Congress party workers, is Krishna Poonia, a first-time MLA who is competing in her first Lok Sabha elections. And they also know that she is looking to unseat Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, sitting MP from Jaipur Rural in the current Lok Sabha, cabinet member and union sports minister.

"She's played Olympics, you know," says Jagat Ram, a local PT teacher, of the 36-year-old Poonia.

"So has he," replies his friend Rishipal Singh.

"But just look at her. That's what a sports person should look like. Lohe ka game hai uska, takat wala. Tumhe bhi patak degi (Her sport involved iron. She could probably throw you too)."

"Rathore Arjun se kam nahi hai na? Uska bhi nishana nahi chukega (Rathore's also no less than Arjun. He won't miss his target)", replies Rishipal.

It's the kind of conversation - comparing candidates - being held across the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies across the country but there is one difference: This one's unique. Never before have two Olympians been the primary contestants in an Indian election.

Poonia, currently the MLA from Sadulpur, about 260km north of Jaipur, is a Commonwealth Games discus gold medallist. Rathore - elected from Jaipur Rural in 2014 - won silver in shooting at the 2004 Olympics, which makes him the most athletically accomplished sports minister India has ever had.

Of the two, Rathore's campaign talks more about sport. His election brochure says he has constructed 19 mini stadiums and an equivalent number of playgrounds in gram panchayats (village councils) around Jaipur Rural. The Rajasthan Khel Mahakumbh, a youth sports tournament in the model of Rathore's pet project the 'Khelo India' school games, is in its second year. Rathore makes frequent references to both the facilities as well as his own background as a sportsperson. It pops up in Rathore's first campaign stop of the day, two days after the accident.


The late morning sun is harsh and Rathore is already an hour late, having visited a hilltop shrine. A campaign jeep is belting out his campaign song, but the faithful are listless by the time his cavalcade finally rolls up. The Toyota Fortuner is festooned with images of himself along with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On the rear windshield is a small sticker of Perrazzi, the Italian gun company with whose shotgun Rathore won India's first individual Olympic silver in Athens 2004 in the double trap.

Rathore gets a sense of the pulse of his audience and is quick to ensure the mood doesn't flag further. "Awaz nahi aa rahi. Maine pata nahi kitni hazaar golia chaliyi hain, shayad sunayi kam de raha hai. (I can't hear you. May my hearing has gone down due to the thousands of bullets I've fired.)," he jokes. Almost instantly, a cheer rises. 'Desh ka chandan, Rajyavardhan, Rajyavardhan' (Rajyavardhan, the jewel of India).

At her rally in Bansur town, Krishna Poonia is not buying any of that. "My opponent says he can wrestle a 20-year-old. He should leave the wrestling to Sushil pehlwan and focus on doing the work he was appointed to do. We have both left sports. Now we are asking questions about your five years," she says. "Sports is good. Everyone should play. But how can you play if your stomach is empty?" With that, she launches into explaining her party's flagship basic minimum income scheme.

The election, she believes, won't be decided by boasting to voters how good a sportsperson you were. There is something to this theory. People in Jaipur Rural know both Poonia and Rathore have represented India in sport, the finer details are a little hazy. At the village of Kolahedda, Poonia is introduced as the winner of the Delhi Olympics. In another village, Rathore draws blank looks when he mentions that India is the world's sixth largest economy and how big a deal that is considering India has never even finished sixth at the Olympics. For all their sporting achievements, both are hugely overshadowed by two-time Olympic medallist wrestler Sushil Kumar, who features prominently on the region's walls in Patanjali advertisements.

Poonia's campaign pitches her in the role of the farmer's daughter, Rathore cast as an out of touch elite, pointing out the difference in their sports. "I competed under the sun while he competed in AC halls," she told a newspaper on the day of her nomination. To those at her rallies, she folds her hands "Aap ki beti hu. Aap hi ka ashirwad mangne ayi hu. (I'm your daughter. I've come to take your blessings.)."

She makes the most of a photograph on Rathore's campaign material in which the Union minister is seen cutting a sheaf of unripe mustard. Poonia uses the image to portray him as someone out of his environment when surrounded by farmers who make up the bulk of the 19 lakh (1.9 million) voters in Jaipur Rural. "If you don't know that you aren't supposed to cut green mustard, then what would you know about what farmers need. We don't need photographs. We need to talk about issues that matter." Some references to sport do manage to find a way in the conversation. "Imagine Ramgarh lake once had so much water, they hosted the 1982 Asian Games there, now look at it," she says, pointing out that the ruling party had done little to get the reservoir functioning again.

While Poonia talks about her rural childhood milking cows and harvesting wheat, Rathore emphasizes his years of service in the Army, where he retired as a colonel. National security plays well and especially so in Jaipur rural, which is one of the main recruitment centres for the Indian army.

Like Poonia, Rathore too is never photographed with his medals, even the Olympic silver. "It would feel embarrassing to do that," he says. "My career as a sportsperson is only a small part of my life," he tells ESPN between one of his campaign stops. The Perazzi sticker, he will tell you with a laugh, isn't even his but one possibly put up by his son Manvendra who also shoots for the Indian junior shotgun team. Among Rathore's more popular work as an MP is that he's restarted recruitment drives that had stopped in this region for the better part of a decade.

The army connection cuts across barriers. Sachin Chowhari, a Jat like Poonia and an army recruit, just back from a deployment in Assam, says, "Caste doesn't matter. Of course I will support him. He is an armyman like myself after all. There are many like me in this constituency. Nearly every here knows someone who has served in the army."

Such voices are good news for Rathore. If the election is determined solely by caste, he isn't on the strongest footing. Jats amount for some 6.5 lakh of the 19 lakh (about a third of 1.9 million) electorate while Rajputs like Rathore amount for a far smaller fraction. In the state elections held just a couple of months ago, voting went along caste lines, with the Congress winning six of the eight state constituencies that comprise the Jaipur rural Lok Sabha seat.

Rathore's pitch through nationalism and sport helps - at least amongst the young. Pradeep Kumar, 20, another Jat from Amarpura says, "Colonel Rathore is the greatest sportsperson to compete for India. He's motivated a lot of us to take part in sports too," he says. Pradeep says he's part of his college kabaddi team that competed in the Khel Mahakumbh. Although his college didn't win, he is hopeful they will eventually earn the right to compete in the college nationals and earn him a crucial participation certificate. "If I get a certificate for competing in the nationals, it will help me with my recruitment to the army," he says.

The value of sports to cut across caste lines is something Rathore says he was made aware of during his time as a soldier. "The Army isn't mad," Rathore says. "There's a reason you have to take part in sports every day. The lessons you might take a lifetime to learn outside, you learn within minutes. These lessons repeat themselves. Mingling on a sports field breaks social barriers constantly. Within minutes you know the first name of the other person. So you break caste barriers within minutes" he says.


Both Poonia and Rathore made the shift to politics around the same time, albeit in different circumstances.

Poonia earned her fame after a gold medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games where she became the first Indian woman athlete to win a gold in the discus throw. She was named ambassador for the state government's women's welfare department. Following an appearance in the final of the 2012 London Olympics - only the second ever by an Indian woman athlete in a field event - she made the career switch on the suggestion of her husband, who belongs to a political family.

She made her start in the 2013 state elections for Rajasthan, where the Congress was routed and Poonia herself finished third in Sadulpur. "We had only 15 days to prepare for the 2013 elections. We were doing everything - going to every village and every panchayat for the first time. Because we were so new, a lot of people took advantage of us. Despite that, I still consider I had a reasonable result for a newcomer," she says.

Poonia could have well walked away right then but she says she never considered it. "It was not only about votes. I met the people after the elections to say thank you and saw the emotions there, the connect, the tears in their eyes. I thought after sports, I could give time to my family and my son who I had hardly met in his childhood. But once again, I have had to focus on something else. It isn't something I can give up. I think you can enter politics by your own choice, but you cannot leave it. At least that's how I understand it," she says.

Being an athlete helped her handle the defeat, "I know what a win or loss is. I've dealt with setbacks in sports too but I was never perturbed because of that. I give my 100 percent and if I still fail, I don't feel bad. If I don't give my best that is different. But ups and downs are part of life. This comes from sports only. If you lose you don't feel bad about it. You plan how to win next time," she says.

Rathore's initiation was as abrupt, although in far more favourable circumstances. "I never thought I would get into politics. It was a murky business according to me," he says. A fourth-generation armyman, he says that is all he ever wanted and sports wasn't particularly on the horizon. "My goal was to be the best army officer when I joined the army. I was 21 when I became an officer." He threw away all his jeans because he thought jeans were unbecoming for an army officer. Only later his mother was to tell him that he didn't need to stop wearing jeans because he'd become an officer. "But that's the sort of mindset I had as a young man," he says.

Rathore served as an officer in Kashmir during the worst years of the militancy and following that moved to Mhow, to serve as an instructor in small arms and tactics. It was the start of his career on sport shooting but despite winning an Olympic silver, politics did step into his world. "The army wanted me to sign an adverse career certificate when I was competing. That was so that I wouldn't blame them if I didn't get a promotion." Before his Olympic silver, he had already signed two adverse career certificates. Towards the second half of his career, allegations arose against Rathore, including a particularly damaging if ultimately proven false one, that he had failed a dope test.

"The thing I miss about sports is that until we are competing on the field, we are competitors and after that we are friendly. In politics, that feeling is not there. That is still strange for me." Krishna Poonia

"At a point of time when I started questioning the system, the system came down very hard on me. The selection policies were manipulated to keep me out of the team and that made me more determined. I came so close to politics in sports itself and that was the time PM Modi was looking for a team," he says.

What has surprised both Rathore and Poonia is the par-for-the-course mudslinging now common in Indian electioneering. "It was something that was new to me," says Poonia. "The thing I miss about sports is that until we are competing on the field, we are competitors and after that we are friendly. In politics, that feeling is not there. That is still strange for me."

The other lesson that Rathore mentions from sports, seems at odds with the divisive nature of political campaigning in India. He says, "You learn to respect one another. You learn to play hard but within the rules and, hopefully, even if the referee isn't watching," he says. Poonia respects Rathore for his achievements but adds, "Here, we are in politics. Our fight is one between ideologies and what we think is needed for Jaipur Rural."

Rathore was an absolute rookie when he came into politics, pitted against CP Joshi, the second biggest name in the Rajasthan Congress after former chief minister Ashok Gehlot. "I knew just about zero of politics or how to run a campaign then. And he probably didn't know much more than me. He knew absolutely nothing about politics back them. He simply asked me if I would do it and I said yes," Nidish Bhatnagar, Rathore's NDA batchmate and campaign manager said in 2014.

Rathore's inexperience was apparent to voters too. "Don't think anyone had an idea who he was back then. There must have been four or five people who even followed him," says shopkeeper Vijay Agrawal in the village of Bansur. He says Rathore won entirely on the Modi wave that swept the 2014 election. "You could have put anyone up in that election and they would have won," he says.

In 2014, Rathore beat Joshi by a margin of 3 lakh (300,000) votes and he's expected to win this time too. He is no longer the underdog. In resources and publicity, he's far ahead of his rival, Poonia. His campaign, run from his home in Jaipur city, counts engineers and MBA graduates among its strategists. While his opponent plans her schedule on paper, a custom app built by Rathore's team determines where he has campaigned and the regions that need focus.

At times, no matter how smoothly they speak, as athletes Rathore and Poonia can seem out of place. In an average rally for instance Rathore is glad-handing dozens, talking to many more and keeping track of his message and timing. It is a world away from the solitude of a shooting competition, where great internal communication skills are a must. "Champions can talk to themselves and get results the average guy can't. But in politics it is external communication that is important. I have come from something that is absolutely contrary to what I have to do here," Rathore says.

In shooting, he says he was "cut off" from everything, whether it was "about my kids falling ill or whether they had their exams." In politics he says, "you have to focus on multiple things at the same time. In politics, things could change from second to second. You have to be aware of several things and be able to focus on each one of them. In a very short interval you go from one to second, second to third, and then come back."

He believes his army background has helped him "read a crowd". From his experience in Kashmir, he was able to look for clues in the environment, seeing people's faces. To answer internal questions in place he may have visited several times and ask himself, "Why is today different? The birds are not flying the right way. The children are not reacting the right way. The old people are staring a bit too much. The women are little more aggressive towards me. You can immediately sniff that something's not right. It's the same now," he says.

Poonia often finds she too has to overcome the habits picked up from a career as an athlete. Drinking tea, for example. "As an athlete you are taught to avoid drinking tea, coffee and sweet things. But as a politician you are almost always going to be offered tea. That too, the sweet kind. The start was really difficult for me because I got offered so many cups of tea I couldn't even refuse." Poonia drinks plenty of cups of home-brewed tea as she goes around Jaipur Rural building goodwill, looking to pull off the biggest upset in Rajasthan. She's undoubtedly the underdog here.

She is however, battle-hardened. After losing her election debut in 2014, she made it a point to stay in Sadulpur, eventually earning the trust of the electorate to win the same seat at the 2018 campaign. In Jaipur rural, she is a newcomer. She discovered she would be contesting only after the decision was made public by Congress high command. While Poonia drew large swathes of support among women voters in Sadulpur, there are relatively few in her rallies in Jaipur Rural, something that has to do with the fact that the bulk of them are in the fields during the harvest season. It is rumoured that Poonia was put up as candidate after the refusal of other senior leaders to take a chance against Rathore.

But this is an athlete who refuses to back down. Poonia draws inspiration once again from her sporting career. She goes back to a now-forgotten rivalry with Australia's 2009 World Champion Dani Samuels. The Australian had opted out of the 2010 Commonwealth Games citing safety concerns in India. Poonia had in turn said that Samuels' real reason for pulling out was that she was out of form and afraid of losing in India. The exchange went on for several months before the two eventually faced off in the final of the 2012 Olympics. "I wasn't expected to beat her but she did finish behind me," Poonia says.

The election rivalry though has one big difference that even she admits she cannot change, no matter what she does. "In sports there was measurement. I would be throwing daily and I knew where I was. But here this there is no measurement! There's very little to tell how you are doing. You have to trust that people will make the right decision instead." Poonia hopes the Jaipur Rural public will respond to her message in support of farmer issues while Rathore banks on his obvious appeal amongst the youth with the emphasis on national security.

On May 6, Jaipur Rural goes to pick between its two Olympians.

In the fields next to the cremation ground at Rayali, the debate is still inconclusive. Jagat Ram says, "Dam to hai dono mein. Par yeh alag khel hai, na." (They're both strong candidates, but this is a different game.)"