Muzaffarnagar: “We are BJP voters, as we are Hindus and it is a Hindu party, but this time we have to think,” says 32-year-old Surender Kumar. Why so, I ask? “Ab kaam hi kharab raha unka is baar” (their work has been bad this time), he replies, as other youngsters sitting with him nod in agreement. We are at the Mimlana road area near Chungi number 2, in Muzaffarnagar’s Laddawala locality. My respondents are Khatik youth and the “kharaab kaam” they are referring to is demonetisation, which has left them jobless.
Demonitisation hits BJP’s support among Dalit voters
Laddawala is a Muslim-dominated locality, while Khatiks and Valmikis, two non-Jatav Dalit groups mainly engaged in menial jobs and daily wagers, live on its borders. Whenever there is any incident of communal tension or violence, it’s the Muslims and Khatiks-Valmikis who face each other. As a result, the latter identify with the BJP more than with Mayawati’s BSP, and are seen as the saffron party’s vote bank.
What has been the impact of demonetisation, I ask the group.
“Kaam hi band ho gaya milna, nahin to is vaqt aapko yahan baithe thode hi milte, khali” (We stopped getting work, otherwise you would not have found us here at this time of day, sitting idly), they reply.
So whom will they vote for this time?
“Is baar hathi ko dene ka man bana rahe hain” (This time we are thinking of voting for the elephant [BSP]). A majority of the respondents from the Valmiki community in Chungi number 2 area say they will not vote for the BJP this time, some even talk about the good work done by UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav.
While the Jatavs have always been the backbone of the BSP, the majority of Valmikis and other Dalit castes (Khatiks, Dhobis) have traditionally flocked to the BJP. A history of communal clashes between these castes and Muslims in western UP has exacerbated this trend. The communal riots of 1980 in Moradabad district were primarily between the Valmikis and Muslims.
In the aftermath of the Muzaffarnagar riots, the BJP has been keen to keep this vote base intact through its Hindu consolidation strategy, but demonetisation has hit this section hard. As commercial activities slowed down, this section faced increased hardships and job losses, due to which they are vocal about their disenchantment with the BJP. “Notebandi ke chalte kaam bhi kam hua, fir jo kaam karate hain vo pure paise nahin de rahe, salary vale bhi jo kuch log the private naukri-dukaan vagairah par the unko bhi dikkat hui hai” (Due to demonetisation, work has come down and those who give work are not making payments. Even those who were doing private jobs or work in shops are not getting full salaries), says Rajesh Valmiki, at Dera Muhalla of Pilakhna village, Aligarh.
Such a response was not limited to only these two districts. Across Valmiki bastis in Bulandshahr, Saharanpur, Hapur, Ghaziabad, Meerut and Mathura districts, respondents have been quite vocal in their displeasure with demonetisation and the BJP. On the other hand, Jatav voters were extremely vocal in their commitment to making Mayawati chief minister again. A Dalit consolidation of sorts seems to be occurring in western UP, which could create troubles for the BJP.
Jats, Sainis, EBCs and ‘Hindu consolidation’ keep the BJP ship afloat
However, what keeps the BJP competitive in these elections is a consolidation of non-Yadav OBCs and Jat votes, other than the traditional upper caste votes. In the Saharanpur-Bijnor-Muzaffarnagar districts of western UP, Sainis and Kashyaps are two OBC castes with a good numerical presence of more than a dozen seats. While Sainis belong to the Shakyas-Kushwahas caste group of central UP-Bundelkhand, the Kashyaps and Dhimars belong to the Kahar caste group.
Most of the Saini and Kashyap respondents I talked to expressed their support for the BJP. Contrary to the Gurjars of Gautam Budh Nagar district who are not averse to voting for the BSP, the Gurjars in Meerut, Saharanpur, Muzaffarnagar were more inclined towards the BJP. The Thakurs and Brahmins are also quite vocal in their support for the BJP, as contrary to past elections, this time the party “seems to be in a winning position”. The Jat consolidation that occurred in favour of the party after the Muzaffarnagar riots remains intact.
Will the demand of Jat khap leaders to boycott the BJP for remaining non-committal on the issues of farmers and Jat reservation have an impact on the BJP’s prospects?
Ashok Balyan, a prominent BKU leader in Muzaffarnagar coming from Balyan Khap, says there won’t be much of an impact and the Jats will stay with the BJP. “Our heart is with Ajit Singh, but his electoral prospects are weak, while we hope that the BJP would do something about Jat reservation after elections,” he added.
Jat respondents from the Muzaffarnagar, Meerut and Ghaziabad regions expressed similar views, while Jats in Mathura and parts of Aligarh still see the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) as their first choice.
What explains this mixed response? “The memory of the Muzaffarnagar riots and the recent Bijnor riots are still fresh in this region, as cases pertaining to riots against the Jats are still pending in courts. Hence, the Jat-Muslim divide is still quite deep, and in absence of a strong alternative, they will stay with BJP,” says local journalist Arvind Bharadwaj in Muzaffarnagar. On the other hand, Aligarh-Mathura region did not witness such communal tension and polarisation in past years, due to which, RLD’s hold on Jats s comapratively stronger in this region.
The limits of Babuji: Whither Lodh votes
However, a vote base that the BJP is very confident of securing but may fail to get are the Lodhs. Also known as LR and Kisan, Lodhs are an OBC sub-caste, which has more than a dozen seats of influence in the Bulandshahr, Aligarh, Farrukhabad, Etah, Mainpuri, Kasganj and Mathura districts of western UP. In the 2012 election, the Lodhs went with Kalyan Singh’s Jan Kranti Party, which caused the BJP candidates to nosedive in these districts, but with Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharti on board, BJP hopes to get Lodh votes this time. However, seat to seat equations say otherwise.
“We will vote for Harish Lodhi, not the BJP candidate,” say Lodh respondents in the Debai seat of Bulandshahr, which has the highest number of Lodh voters in the district. Harish failed to get a BJP ticket despite repeated attempts as Babuji (Kalyan Singh) didn’t want a strong, independent Lodh leader here, they allege. On the Charra seat in Aligarh, Lodh voters echo similar sentiments. “Kalyan Singh may think we will go with him, but LRs are not anybody’s captive,” says 70-year-old Subedar Singh, a Lodh elder, at Barla Mod, Charra, who is angry that the BJP fielded a Thakur here despite large number of Lodh votes.
Although the Lodhs are not angry with the candidature of Kalyan Singh’s grandson from the BJP on the Atrauli seat, some criticise him for making it a family fiefdom.
The BSP has also kept this equation in mind. The party is fielding Jaimini Rajput, a Lodh candidate from the Bhojpur seat of Farrukhabad. A BJP leader of the district admitted, on condition of anonymity, that majority of Lodh voters are supporting the BSP candidate there. As Kalyan Singh’s grip weakens and new leaders from the community rise to pick up the mantle, the Lodhs are an elusive vote bank for the BJP.
BSP’s equation: the magic number of 184
While travelling around the villages of Hapur (SC) assembly area, I see a village level meeting of the BSP in Ghunghrala, a Muslim-dominated village. A BSP leader from Delhi was speaking: “Brothers, there are 87 SC reserved seats in UP and on 97 seats BSP has fielded Muslim candidates. On the Muslim seats, our Dalit brothers and sisters will vote for the elephant. If our Muslim brothers also vote for BSP on the 87 SC seats, then we will reach the magic number of 184, and then nobody could stop us from forming the government.” After him, other leaders also spoke but the message was clear – 87 SC seats + 97 Muslim seats = 184. While the Dalit-Muslim alliance strategy of the BSP is not generating much exposure, it is working well on the ground, silently and efficiently, as is the the BSP’s style.
Primarily a BSP-BJP contest in Phase I
While Dalits seem to be uniting behind the BSP and Muslims are showing a willingness to go with the one who could defeat the BJP, upper caste plus non-Yadav OBC consolidation is helping the BJP. The party is doing everything to polarise voters on religious lines. It has fielded Umesh Malik from Budhana and Vikram Saini from Khatauli (Muzaffarnagar), Sangeet Som from Sardhana (Meerut) and Suresh Rana from Thana Bhavan (Shamli), all of whom are accused in communal riots. As the SP-Congress alliance is failing to project itself as a credible force in most of the districts (except Hapur and some seats of Muzaffarnagar) and as RLD fails to impress its traditional Jat voters, it appears to be a BSP-BJP fight in phase I of UP elections.
Rajan Pandey is an independent journalist and author of Battleground UP: Politics in the Land of Ram.