Caul­dron Sim­mer­ing Till 2019

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - Neerja Chowd­hury

As one en­tered Bi­jnor town, slated for polls to­mor­row, we saw fu­neral pro­ces­sion of a 17-year-old Jat who was al­legedly mur­dered by a group of Mus­lims the pre­vi­ous evening. Ten­sion was pal­pa­ble. Mayawati was ad­dress­ing a rally in town at the same time. In hushed tones, peo­ple talked about the in­ci­dent be­ing a “re­sponse” to the killing of three Mus­lim youth last Septem­ber. But, cu­ri­ously, the “re­tal­i­a­tion” was tak­ing place five months later and four days be­fore polling.

Many Jats felt that the un­for­tu­nate in­ci­dent would change the com­plex­ion of the elec­tion in the sec­ond round of polling in west­ern Ut­tar Pradesh. “The Hindu-Mus­lim fac­tor is back and the Jats here will go back to the BJP and Mus­lims will shift to Mayawati be­cause the BSP has fielded a Mus­lim can­di­date here, un­like the Sa­ma­jwadi Party, which was oth­er­wise ahead,” re­marked a Jat ad­vo­cate, giv­ing ex­pres­sion to a widely shared sen­ti­ment.

Till the Bi­jnor in­ci­dent, UP 2017 was not be­ing seen as a Hindu-Mus­lim elec­tion, as was the case in 2014 af­ter the ri­ots in Muzaf­far­na­gar. The Jat-Mus­lim vi­o­lence led to ma­jor elec­toral gains for the BJP. Hindu-Mus­lim is a new term in UP’s po­lit­i­cal lex­i­con. Sig­nif­i­cantly, many Jats said that they had be­come wiser this time to the machi­na­tions of po­lit­i­cal par­ties to di­vide them.

As one trav­elled through the Jat, Mus­lim and Dalit-dom­i­nated districts of west­ern UP, par­tic­u­larly in some of the 73 seats that went to polls on Fe­bru­ary 11. These seats are crit­i­cal for the BJP that had swept this re­gion in 2014. And some trends are ev­i­dent.

Caste has al­ways been a ma­jor fac­tor in UP and re­mains so in 2017. There is no wave for the BJP as in 2014. But the BJP is far from be­ing a washout. Modi still re­mains the big­gest draw of the party.

When peo­ple ex­press their pref­er­ence for the party, they do so by say­ing, “we are vot­ing for Modi”, show­ing that Naren­dra Modi has al­ready be­come larger than the BJP. The most back­ward castes, as also the non-Jatav Dal­its, who have been ‘Hin­duised’ over the years and be­lieve in Modi’s pro-poor pro­jec­tions, re­main largely with the BJP.

As for the up­per castes, the Thakurs seem un­shake­able in their sup­port to the saf­fron force. How­ever, a smat­ter­ing of Brah­mins is mov­ing to the Congress, where the party is in the fray. The Ba­nias are most up­set with de­mon­eti­sa­tion and feel be­trayed by the party they have sup­ported all along. The younger among them may vote against the BJP to give the party a be­fit­ting les­son. Some look at Akhilesh Ya­dav as an al­ter­na­tive, but many may not vote at all.

The Jats seem to be in­flict­ing the great­est dam­age on the BJP. A large num­ber — some say 50-80% — are said to be mov­ing to­wards the Rashtriya Lok Dal. Its hardly sur­pris­ing that Amit Shah re­dou­bled his ef­forts to bring them back to the BJP fold on the eve of the elec­tions. The Jats of west­ern UP are not ex­er­cised by job reser­va­tions like their peers in Haryana, but are up­set over is­sues such as mount­ing cane ar­rears to farm­ers from sugar mills.

The Jats had grav­i­tated en­tirely to the BJP in 2014, af­ter Muzaf­far­na­gar, lead­ing to the de­feat of Chaud­hary Ajit Singh and his son Jayant Chaud­hary. This time round, the Jats want to make up for the ‘hu­mil­i­a­tion’ they had in­flicted on their lead­ers.

They have felt par­tic­u­larly af­fronted at the way Ajit Singh was ousted from his Tugh­laq Road res­i­dence, which had been home to his fa­ther Chaud­hary Cha­ran Singh and his mother, also an MP — and a ‘thikana’ for the Jats when they came to Delhi: “Zyada hee chot pahun­cha dee, ab marham la­gani hai.” But Ajit Singh, who may turn out to be more of a spoiler, is try­ing to re­gain his lost base in prepa­ra­tion for 2019.

Not just the Jats, the Mus­lims too have their eyes on 2019 gen­eral elec­tions as they show a clear — and, in places, an over­whelm­ing — pref­er­ence for the SP-Congress al­liance, wher­ever it is in a fight­ing po­si­tion to de­feat the BJP. Their hopes are that a vic­to­ri­ous al­liance could be­come a ker­nel for an al­ter­na­tive to Modi in 2019.

Akhilesh Ya­dav en­joys enor­mous good­will. This has put the ‘gat­band­han’ in the fight against the BJP in west­ern UP. It is ex­tra­or­di­nary how Akhilesh Ya­dav has beaten back the anti-in­cum­bency of five years and a bit­ter fam­ily feud. It was a po­lit­i­cally savvy Akhilesh, ex­ud­ing power and author­ity, who had en­thused young peo­ple at a pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim rally in Meerut. Be­sides Mus­lims — and Ya­davs — what is go­ing for Akhilesh are the young and first-time vot­ers and good­will among all com­mu­ni­ties. Even op­po­nents con­cede that “ladke ne kaam toh achchha kiya hai”. The gat­band­han has come as a big setback for Mayawati. She was seen as the al­ter­na­tive to the BJP three months ago when the SP fam­ily feud was at its peak. This time, up­per castes or the most back­ward castes do not seem to be veer­ing around to the BSP, as they had done in 2007 when she had formed a vic­to­ri­ous rain­bow coali­tion. In 2017, Mayawati has played the Mus­lim card. And the BSP is ahead in those con­stituen­cies where she has fielded a strong Mus­lim can­di­date, and the SP has a non-Mus­lim in the race.

With the Jatav sup­port and Mus­lims more than ea­ger to de­feat the BJP, Mayawati should have swept west­ern UP with 136 seats, given the Dalit-Mus­lim arith­metic. The trou­ble is that Dal­its have been the face of the Hin­dus’ fight against Mus­lims in com­mu­nal ri­ots over the decades. This time, there are signs of even a small per­cent­age of Jatavs grav­i­tat­ing to the BJP, re­act­ing to Mayawati’s fo­cus on Mus­lims.

The Mus­lims have all along been wary of Mayawati, given her past tieups with the BJP. Many reckon she can go with the BJP again if no party gets a ma­jor­ity. The chances of a hung assem­bly are more if Mayawati man­ages to cross the 100-seat mark.

In sum, at the time of writ­ing, it seems to be an Akhilesh-ver­sus-Modi elec­tion in UP. Pro­vided, of course, the Hindu-Mus­lim ef­fect does not spread be­yond Bi­jnor.

No room for mis­step

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