The Jat Bhawan on the Delhi-Saharanpur highway in Baghpat town is the socio-political epicentre of this dominant community that still calls the shots in parts of western Uttar Pradesh. Today, the normally busy and buzzing Jat headquarter was deserted because everybody, including the office-bearers of the Jat Mahasabha, were out to ensure a high voter turnout. In the past three elections in 2014, 2017 and 2019, the Mahasabha worked for the BJP. This time, it has switched its allegiance to Ahmed Hameed, the candidate of the Samajwadi Party-Rashtriya Lok Dal (SP-RLD) alliance—or the SAPA-RALODA—as it is called in this neck of the woods. Hameed’s candidacy provoked BJP-inspired conjectures about Chaudhary Jayant Singh, the RLD president, being “unhappy” with a Muslim for fear of polarising voters along the Hindu-Muslim divide.
Jayant stoutly denied the innuendoes, fanned by social media and sections of the press. Hameed hired the Jat Bhawan to conduct his electioneering. Unthinkable even a year ago because western UP was still chased by the ghosts of the Muzaffarnagar communal violence of 2013 that split Hindus and Muslims for time to come. Or so it seemed as the BJP reaped a rich harvest of Hindu votes in every election for eight years. “When Hameed asked if he could rent our premises, nobody raised objections,” said Mahabir Singh, who heads the Baghpat Jat Mahasabha. Yogesh Dhama, the BJP’s candidate and sitting MLA, has his own office. “If Dhama had approached us, we might have discussed the matter because he’s also a Mahasabha member,” added Singh.
It’s a measure of a degree of fall– small perhaps– in the communal temperature that caused the Mahasabha to throw its weight behind a Muslim candidate. “Other ghosts have returned to trouble the BJP. Its government had evicted Chaudhary Ajit Singh (Jayant’s deceased father) from his Delhi bungalow after he lost the election (in 2014). The issue didn’t matter in 2017 and 2019 because there were other considerations. Today, when we see and listen to Jayant campaigning, Ajit Singh’s memories (he died of Covid in 2021) return,” said Singh. Looming large in the backdrop is the persona of Chaudhary Charan Singh, Jayant’s grandfather and by popular reckoning, India’s tallest Jat leader.
Baghpat is among the 58 seats in 11 districts which voted today. The districts span the swath from Ghaziabad and Meerut on Delhi’s border up to Agra. Baghpat is 48 kms to the north-east of the national capital. However, Charan Singh and his legatees are not the only defining feature of the election. Sunil Chaudhary, a Jat sugarcane farmer of Katha, a village in the Baghpat district, said, “We thought the BJP was a pro-farmer party. But it fooled us. Its politics revolves around pitting Hindus against Muslims. The ‘kisan andolan’ was an eye-opener for us. We support the RLD as a party and are not looking at the candidate. It doesn’t matter if he is Hindu or Muslim.”
It’s the marginalisation of communalism in the popular discourse that left Hindus somewhat cold to the controversy over disallowing girls in Karnataka’s colleges to wear a “hijab”, that snowballed into a law-and-order crisis when Hindu fundamentalists, sporting saffron shawls, were out on the streets, heckling Muslims. “Why did this controversy erupt right before the UP elections?” asked Chaudhary.
The ‘kisan andolan’ coalesced into a significant and long-drawn movement against the Centre and in UP, the Yogi Adityanath government, by the farmers of Punjab, Haryana and western UP. It was sparked off by the Centre’s disputatious laws, intended to “reform” and “liberalise” the agrarian sector. The laws had the opposite effect because farmers were convinced that they were a mechanism to virtually de-regulate the market and deprive them of the protection they got from a statutory umbrella. The laws were rolled back by the Centre, keeping the Punjab and UP polls in mind.
In UP, the laws were as much of a provocation as the state government’s failure to force private sugar mills to clear a massive backlog of payments owed to the farmers and its reluctance to enhance the state advisory price (SAP) of cane. Finally, chief minister Adityanath relented and raised the SAP by a paltry Rs 15; the net payment, farmers complained, hardly offset the costs they incurred by way of power tariff and expensive agricultural inputs and nutrients.
It wasn’t just the relatively well-off cane farmers who were upset. Sudhir Kashyap, a backward caste peasant also of Katha, said the vegetable produce from his shrunken holding barely enabled him to keep body and soul together. “No positive steps were taken by the state government to help us. Like Jats, we too supported the BJP in the past but this time we seek change,” said Kashyap.
However, there are Jat farmers like Prem Pal and Rakesh Kumar who continue to swear by the BJP. “I don’t look at sugarcane prices and farm laws. For me, it’s the big picture that matters. That picture is composed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Yogi. It’s about guarding our borders, protecting the lives of our soldiers and at home, fixing the ‘goondas’ and guaranteeing the safety of our women,” stressed Pal. Jats have a big representation in the army and police and, therefore, relate to the BJP’s “nationalist” plank. Even an episode like the mowing down of farmers at Lakhimpur-Kheri by a central minister’s son did not move them. “We are closer to Delhi than Kheri and so national issues matter more to us,” said Kumar.
Next door to Baghpat, the Loni constituency reported a number of instances when Nand Kishore Gurjar, the BJP’s sitting MLA and now candidate, was chased out of villages such as Mandola, Agrola, Meerpur and Mehmoodpur. At Nagla Bahlolpur village on Loni’s periphery, Ram Veer Singh, a Dalit-Jatav and a former Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) adherent, said this time his choice was the SP-RLD. “Behenji (Mayawati, the BSP chief) hasn’t put up an effective candidate. The BSP workers have feathered their own nests. Why waste our votes on him?” asked Singh. This shift from the BSP towards the SP-RLD was also discernible in Ghaziabad’s Sahibabad seat.
The SP-RLD’s candidate is Madan Singh Kasana, an OBC Gurjar, with the image of a “dabang” (strongman) that ought to deter the Dalits. In pockets of western UP, the Gurjars are upset with the BJP for not enshrining a local king, Raja Mihir Bhoj as a caste icon of theirs. When in 2021, Adityanath unveiled the Raja’s statue in a college at Dadri, near Loni, Gurjar was not appended in the title. The Rajputs claimed the king was from their community. The ownership claim over Mihir Bhoj is not settled. Ravindra Kasana, a former BJP activist of Loni’s Jawli village, said, “We are in a mood to teach the BJP a lesson.”
Where the BJP scored over its opponent was in micro-managing its booths and voters, that was evident everywhere. BJP workers were up and about from the crack of dawn, mobilising voters and keeping the slips of hand. The SP-RLD lacked organisational muscle and candidates were left to their own devices.