Baghpat: As the polling dates for western Uttar Pradesh approached, the excitement amongst the masses in Baghpat and Kairana was palpable. For the first time in decades, three different flags with the symbols of a cycle, a hand-pump and an elephant – indicating the mahagathbandhan or grand alliance between Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Lok Dal and Bahujan Samaj Party – were tied together, crisscrossing each other, in the newly opened Election Office in Kairana town.
Tabassum Hasan, widow of well-known leader Munawwar Hasan, is seeking a re-election from the Lok Sabha constituency in Kairana. Just a year ago, in a by-poll, Tabassum had defeated Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Mriganka Singh – daughter of influential Gujjar leader Hukum Singh, whose death had necessitated the by-poll. While last year Hasan fought the election on an RLD ticket, this year she is representing the Samajwadi Party, indicating the flexibility and understanding amongst the alliance partners who had, until recently, been arch rivals.
“This election is different. It is about saving the diversity and constitution of the country,” cadres from all three parties said repeatedly in their speeches at the inauguration of the new election office in Kairana. References to guldasta or a bouquet of diverse colours of flowers were made repeatedly and slogans like ”Na jaat par napaat par, Gathbandhan kebaat par” (Not on caste creed or creed, but vote on the agenda of the Gathbandhan) were raised.
Gathbandhan’s voting base
However, in India and particularly Western UP, caste-based politics runs deep and mobilisation on community lines has always determined electoral outcomes. The three parties, therefore, are up to a difficult task. Over the years, all three parties have consolidated their support bases around specific communities: the RLD’s support base consists of the largely agrarian jaat population; the SP finds support among the Yadavs and Muslims; and Mayawati’s BSP’s support base is composed of mainly the Dalit Jatav caste.
The upper castes in the state, like the Rajputs, Baniyas and the Brahmins mostly rally behind the BJP along with some non-Jatav Dalit castes like the Sainis, Valmikis and Kashyaps. The non-Yadav OBCs like the Gujjars have remained elusive and shift their loyalties from election to election.
But has west UP never voted beyond its caste dynamics? It has. In fact, in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had successfully forged a ‘Hindu alliance’ cutting across caste lines by fomenting communal polarisation in the area after the Muzaffarnagar riots. Across western UP, the BJP registered a massive victory by consolidating the Hindu vote and isolating Muslims, whose support was divided between various candidates of the opposing parties. Veteran Jaat leader Chaudhary Ajit Singh came third in his own stronghold constituency in Baghpat in 2014. In constituencies like Muzaffarnagar, Baghpat and Kairana, BJP candidates won by margins of over 2-4 lakhs.
The gathbandhan, therefore, needs to trump communal polarisation and unite the various castes, between whom there has been considerable animosity due to differences over the sharing of resources and traditional caste-based frictions. While this monumental task seemed almost impossible before, travelling across Shamli, Kairana, Baghpat, it appears to be materialising.
Agrarian distress and cow vigilantism
What is cementing the narrative in favour of the gathbandhan is the deepening agrarian crisis and massive unemployment among the youth. The plight of sugarcane farmers in this belt of western UP runs particularly deep. The sugarcane crop – that is usually cut by the end of March – is seen standing in the fields because of a substantial amount of credit money pending to the farmers. This crisis has hugely affected farmers across caste and community lines.
“The PM is such a liar,” said a number of farmers in the Naujjal village in Shamli. They, however, belong to the Rajput community, traditionally the support base of the BJP.
“In 2017, from the Red Fort, the PM declared that he had ensured all payments were given to the sugarcane farmers. But it turned out to be a lie. Today with all the promises of 15 lakh, 2 crore employment, the return of black money, smart cities etc falling flat the whole nation knows what we sugarcane farmers knew for more than two years – our PM is an out and out liarm” said Digvijay Rana, a sugarcane farmer in his mid 40s.
The Yogi government that came to power in 2017, made Suresh Rana, the local Rajput MLA, the sugarcane minister, who did nothing to relieve the agrarian distress of the farmers. “The payments are still pending and we are only given dates after dates as assurances,” said another farmer.
The electricity bill, in the meantime, has spiked from Rs 11,000 per annum to Rs 27,500 per annum and arbitrary cases have been slapped on people for not paying their electricity bills.
Another problem affecting farmers a great deal is the issue of stray cattle – a point that figures prominently in the narratives against BJP. One of the first initiatives of the Yogi Adityanath government was the closure of slaughterhouses. Cow-vigilantism in the name of gau raksha (cow-protection) is making it increasingly difficult to self any male calfs or old cows for slaughter.
In addition to suspending a source of income for them, the farmers are now having to guard their fields at night from stray cattle which enter the fields at night and destroy their crops. “It is such a menace. We call these cattle Modi-Yogi. The older ones are Modi and younger ones are Yogi,” said Ashutosh Rana of Naujjal village.
Vineesh Chaudhary in Daha village of Baghpat repeated the exact same grouse. The enforced and politically motivated love for cows of the Yogi Adityanath government has destabilised agrarian practices and anger against that is translating into anti-BJP votes in west UP.
During the last elections, the BJP had fomented a communal divide. This year, however, any traces of such polarisation have more or less vanished in the face of agrarian distress and an overall failure of the Modi government. Ramesh Chaudhary, a septuagenarian farmer from Daha insisted that those “wounds” have “healed”. “Jats and Muslims are voting together again. In fact, that is how it always was,” he insisted, adding that the “last time was a painful aberration”.
Switching the narrative in western Uttar Pradesh
The BJP, too, is not playing up the communal divide much in this region this time. Rather, they are relying on the narratives of nationalism and national security in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack. However, it is not cutting much ice. From Kairana to Baghpat the most dominant sentiment regarding the Pulwama attack, is the failure of the intelligence network, which led to the loss of lives of the soldiers, eleven of whom are from UP.
“They could detect 3 kg of beef in someone’s fridge, but could not detect 300 kg of RDX in a sensitive place like Kashmir?” asked Rajaram Choudhary (60) of Daha village, Baghpat. There was also palpable anger over the fact that none of the local or national level BJP leaders ever visit the families of the jawans who had been killed at the border in lesser hyped incidents. A BJP supporter in Ansar village, Baghpat seemed disheartened for another reason. On the condition of anonymity, he said that “the infighting within the party is marring its electoral chances in Kairana, Muzzaffarnagar and Baghpat”.
Jayant Chaudhary, the young leader of the RLD and son of Ajit Chaudhary, has worked hard to weave a narrative around the farmer as the primary identity of the people of the region – trying to bind people around the mass suffering from the agrarian distress that has been exacerbated by the Modi regime. An alumni of the London School of Economics, Jayant uses his speeches, beyond the usual rhetoric, to reflect hard facts regarding economics and ground data, articulated in simple language.
In last year’s by-polls in Kairana, when the BJP tried to engineer a communal divide by evoking a controversy around Jinnah’s portrait in the Aligarh Muslim University, Chaudhary swiftly sidelined the narrative by remarking, “Jinnah nahi, ganna issue hai (The problem is sugarcane, not Jinnah).”
His political acumen turned the narrative around and helped Hassan win by a margin of 50,000 votes. The grand alliance is now trying to extend the Kairana model across western UP. In the erstwhile riot-torn hinterland of the country, it is showing positive results for them in the very first phase of this crucial general election.
Banojyotsna Lahiri is a lecturer of Sociology at Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi and a political activist with United Against Hate.