Cauldron Simmering Till 2019
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