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Lucknow: Uttar Pradesh’s Western region, just a few kilometres away from Haryana’s Kurukshetra, the Mahabharata’s legendary battlefield, has become the battleground for the crucial 2021 assembly elections in UP. In the last year, the biggest opposition to the Adityanath government has emerged from this region itself, where farmers protesting the now notorious agricultural laws are taking on the BJP government with much intensity.
Western UP has 20 districts and around 100 assembly seats. According to estimates from political analysts, some of the major communities in the area are Muslims (22%), Dalits (16%), Jats (14%), Brahmins (7-8%), Thakurs (4-5%) and Gujjars (3-4%). Apart from Jats and Gujjars, OBC communities comprise 10-12% of the region. The BJP has performed exceptionally well in the region after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots. In the 2017 assembly elections, the BJP won 78 while Samajwadi Party (SP) could only manage 16 out of the 100 seats.
BJP also defeated the top leaders of the Rasthriya Lok Dal (RLD), the biggest regional party in Western UP. Its founder, Ajit Singh and his son, Jayant Chaudhary, lost the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 and 2019 to the BJP. This time, however, things seem a little different.
The farmers’ agitation which has gone on for the last 11 months poses a big challenge to the BJP. “Western UP has never been the centre of such a big and fierce electoral battle ever before. And since the BJP had swept the last election, it is facing the biggest threat for losing the ground,” says Brijesh Shukla, an independent journalist and political analyst.
The BJP’s efforts
Well aware of the palpable anger against the party in Western UP, the BJP is in damage control mode.
Prime Minister Modi laid the foundation stone of a university named after the Jat king, Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh in Western UP’s Aligarh district September 14. Addressing a rally on the occasion, the Prime Minister repeated the name of the Jat king 17 times during his 40-minute speech and accused the opposition of neglecting his role in freedom struggle.
Modi also invoked farmer leader and former Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh, saying, “Chaudhary Charan Singh ji cared for the small farmers. It is very important for the government to stand with them like a partner. In our country, more than 80% farmers are small land holders.”
Since BJP leaders claim that only ‘big’ farmers are involved in the ongoing agitation, this speech is being seen as a subtle message to create a divide between big and small farmers.
Apart from this, UP chief minister Adityanath unveiled a statue of a 9th century Gujjar king, Mihira Bhoj, at Dadri in Gautam Buddh Nagar on September 22. The political analysts’ estimates say Gujjars make up 3-4 % of the population of Western UP. Swatantra Dev Singh and A.K. Sharma, president and the vice-president of the BJP in the state, have also toured many districts of Western UP, in what is being considered as an attempt to regain lost ground.
The RLD is a regional party of Western UP currently led by Jayant Chaudhary (42), who has a Master’s degree in Accounting and Finance from the London School of Economics. He is also a former MP. His father, Ajit Singh, was an eight-time MP and his grandfather, Chaudhary Charan Singh, was the Prime Minister of India from 1979-1980.
Chaudhary Charan Singh was the biggest farmer leader of his time. He created a ‘MAJGAR’ formula, a formidable combination of Muslim, Ahir, Jat, Gujjar and Rajput, which got massive support. However, after his death, the RLD gradually shrunk until it became a party representing only the Jat community. After the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots, the party also lost its traditional Muslim- Jat combination in the area.
In the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the party couldn’t win a single seat. What’s more, it managed only one seat in the 2017 assembly elections. The RLD has been in an alliance with the SP for the last few elections. However, analysts say the RLD stands to benefit the most from the farmers’ protests in the region. Alok Joshi, a senior journalist and author says, “The biggest benefit of the anger which [the] farmers’ protest has generated will be reaped by Jayant Chaudhary in the elections.”
Chaudhary is working hard to revive the party. The RLD has launched several programmes, such as the Bhaichara Zindabad, Nyaya Yatra, Har Booth Jeetega Youth, Jan Aashirwad Yatra and so on to revive their connection with the masses. Anupam Mishra, RLD spokesperson says, “Jayant Chaudhary ji has been travelling extensively in the West since the last year. He has written letters to 59,000 gram pradhans (village heads) seeking their suggestions for the election manifesto. Apart from this, he will virtually interact with three crore people in a month.”
After the sudden death of Ajit Singh, a sympathy factor is also at play for Jayant Chauadhary. “This time, a large number of Jat farmers feel guilty that Ajit Singh passed away without winning the election. This will help RLD in elections,” Shukla said.
Is the Jat-Muslim divide over?
On September 5, 2021, social media was abuzz with slogans of Allahu Akbar and Har-Har Mahadev, raised by Rakesh Tikait on the stage of a kisan mahapanchayat at Muzaffarnagar. Tikait is the national spokesperson of Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU), the biggest farmers union in India. Tikait was also accused of spreading hate speech against Muslims and calling upon Hindus for revenge on September 7, 2013, in a panchayat in Muzaffarnagar.
The September 5 Muzaffarnagar mahapanchyat, however, has played a major role in bridging the communal divide. In the run up to the mahapanchayat, eight mosques on the highways of Western UP were opened for Hindu farmers stay. Similar reports of unity came from different parts of Western UP as well. Ravi Kant, associate professor at Lucknow University, says, “Jat and Muslim communities put food stalls together in Khatauli, Jansath, Meerapur and Kawaal villages, which were the hubs of the riots in 2013.”
Now, the biggest challenge for the alliance will be to safeguard this unity. Keeping this in mind, the RLD has started several campaigns, one of which is the ‘Bhaichara Zindabad Abhiyan’. “With the Bhaichara Zindabad campaign, we went to 25 districts in a month to bring together Jats, Muslims and Dalits,” Mishra said.
Will the Muslim vote get divided?
The Muslim vote is very crucial to the region. As per the 2011 Census, Muslims make up around 22% of the population of Western UP. After the 2013 riots, Muslims mostly voted for BSP which has a strong Jatav vote base in the region. In a highly polarised society, they felt that the BSP was the only strong alternative to BJP. The Congress has also done well in certain pockets with the help of Muslim votes. However, there are apprehension about the division of Muslim votes.
Though the Jat-Muslim bonhomie has changed the scenario. Imran Masood, former Congress MLA from Saharanpur says, “There is a lot of anger against the BJP in Western UP. This time, they will be wiped out and not get more than 20-25 seats.”
The Samajwadi Party also seems confident of getting Muslim votes en-bloc. Juhie Singh, national president of the Samajwadi Mahila Sabha says, “In Western UP, SP has strong team of traditional Muslim leaders who have influence in the area. They will ensure [that the] Muslim vote [does] not getting divided.”
The Jat-Muslim unity has also raised concerns of ‘reverse polarisation’ against the SP-RLD alliance. Shukla says, “In reaction to Jat-Muslim unity, there are apprehensions of the realignment of smaller Hindu castes in Western UP like the Tyagis, Sainis, Gujjars, Lohaars, Kahaars and Kanchis in favour of the BJP. They are not very active in the farmers’ agitation.”
Some analysts feel that BJP has devised a strategy of counter-polarisation to avert a larger political crisis closer to the elections. A section of these smaller communities feel that if the RLD-SP alliance wins, only Jats and Muslims will get the benefits of jobs and government contracts. Narendra Pal, a primary school teacher in Shamli says, “People are scared that if the SP-RLD alliance wins, Jats and Muslims will be in a dominating position. Only the BJP can protect us from them.”
Political analyst feel that the SP-RLD alliance needs to expand their base. Shamshad Khan, psephologist and managing director of the PEACS news service says, “The Jat-Muslim combination is most effective only on 30-35 seats of Western UP. On these seats, Jats and Muslims are around 80,000 to one lakh (33%). On the rest of the seats, the Jat and Muslim population is only 30,000-40,000 (11%). So the additional votes of 60,000 – 70,000 [voters] will be needed to win theses seats.”
Azad Samaj Party (ASP) chief, Chandra Shekhar Aazad shares the same view. He says, “The BJP can’t be defeated by combining one or two castes. They have got electoral dividends by giving space to smaller castes. If the opposition wants to win, tickets should be distributed tactically.”
This is why SP is planning to adopt Mamata Banerjee’s strategy; they will distribute tickets to the leaders of those communities in which they have less support. A SP leader, who did not want to be named, says, “Jats and Muslims are already with us. So we will try to give tickets to other smaller communities like the Sainis, Gujjars and Kashyaps to seal our victory.”
The Dalit factor
The political analysts’ estimates put the Dalit population of Western UP at 16%. Among Dalits, Jatavs are the majority, followed by Valmikis and Koeris. The BJP has been successful in making inroads into the non-Jatav Dalit community but Jatavs, the sub-caste which BSP supremo Mayawati belongs to, have been firmly behind her.
This time, the entry of Azad into the electoral arena has made the election more interesting. Azad, who has positioned himself as a street fighter for the cause of Dalits and the downtrodden, belongs to Saharanpur district of Western UP. He has held several rallies in the region and there are rumours in political circles that he will ally with SP-RLD alliance.
Speaking to this reporter, Azad said, “ASP will become a big force in Western UP. If RLD, SP and ASP come together, it will be ‘one plus one plus one’ and our strength will definitely increase, but we are making ourselves self-reliant.”
Azad has his sights set specifically on the Dalit youths in the area. Ajmal Rahi, who runs an organisation for communal harmony in Muzaffarnagar, says, “The post-millennial generation, which has never seen Mayawati going to any place where Dalits are facing atrocities, will vote for Azad. He has strong social media groups of the Dalit youth in the area.”
The RLD is also trying to make inroads into the Dalit community. The party has launched the ‘Dalit Nyaya Yatra’; they have made Prashant Kanojia, a former journalist who is heading the Yatra, the national president of the party’s Scheduled Castes wing. Kanojia has travelled to eleven districts in last month and a half, mobilising Dalits in favour of the RLD. “Mayawati ji is not in a winning position, hence we are getting good response from Jatav and non Jatav communities, especially from Valmiki, Dhobhi and Khatik,” Kanojia said.
Some analysts feel that the pattern of Dalit voting may change. “Mayawati has lost the trust of Dalit community over the years and around 20% Dalits of the region may shift to SP-RLD alliance,” said Kant.
The BJP is also working hard to occupy the space vacated by the BSP. Amit Valmiki, the BJP’s secretary in Western UP says, “In every Dalit-dominated village we have made booth-level committees. And we have made the local Dalits it’s office bearer. The Valmikis, Sonkars and Koeris are already with us, but this time we are targeting the Jatav community as well.”
The new ‘Kurukshetra’ is all set for the battle for the new ‘Hastinapur’ with the battle and its result all set to become part of UP’s electoral history.