One riot can devastate a party.
As Jayant Chaudhary -- Charan Singh’s grandson, Ajit Singh’s son -- arrives in Kairana, the town where BJP has claimed Hindus live in insecurity and fled from, the crowd cheers on.
But the normalcy of the rally conceals the fact that the Rashtriya Lok Dal -- once a key player in west UP -- is today fighting an election for ‘man, swabhiman’, honour, but also its very survival.
To win, RLD’s objective is simple -- turn the Jat who became Hindu in 2014 back to being a Jat and stop BJP. And in a sign that the generational transition is not just underway in SP, the man who has to deliver on this mission is Jayant Chaudhary.
The breakdown of the coalition
The Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 destroyed the carefully constructed Jat-Muslim social coalition of Charan Singh. BJP emerged as the champion of Jats, and their Hindu religious identity trumped every other identity. RLD, in 2014, failed to win a single seat.
Chaudhary told HT, “It was a traumatic, emotional moment for people here. BJP took advantage of this. It became difficult to counter their propaganda. And we lost the most politically.”
The political outcome was a result of the breakdown in social relations. As Pankaj Kumar, a Jat farmer in Shamli’s Khedi Karmu village, said, “The SP administration was one-sided. The BJP was completely with us. If they were not there, Jats would have got badly affected. Ajit Singh did not even come. BJP backed us during riots; we backed them during the elections.”
For RLD, if the 2014 trend lasts, it will mark the end of its politics. And that is why if its first priority in this election is to win seats in west UP - it either won or came second in 22 seats last time and is eyeing those - an equally important objective is to ensure that Jats return, and BJP does not win. Ajit Singh is known to have allied with all forces, but Chaudhary says even in a post-poll context, any deal with BJP is a ‘complete no-go’.
‘Be our pride, not BJP’s tail’
As Jats get disillusioned with the centre, RLD smells an opportunity.
Kumar - the BJP voter of 2014 - now says he will return to RLD. Why? He is unhappy with the central government over delay in cane payments.
A group of younger Jats around him express other grievances -- look at how Modi treated us in Haryana; where is reservation for us; where are the jobs; notebandi shows this government is anti-kisan and that perennial question, where are the achhe din?
Chaudhary also hopes to tap on something more intangible. In a message aimed for Jats, Chaudhary taunts them in the rally: “You got fooled repeatedly. Become wise now. Recognise your own. They think you have become weak. Have your pride.” RLD’s slogan captures this message - ‘instead of becoming the BJP’s tail (pooch), it is better to become RLD’s pride (mooch)’.
At the same time, it wants to send a signal to Muslims as well. RLD has given close to 20% tickets to Muslims, including two in Muzaffanagar. This begs two questions. Will RLD’s Jat supporters return? And even if they return, will they vote for Muslims? Chaudhary admits this is a big test, and adds it applies to Muslim voters as well in seats with other candidates.
A party worker sums up the RLD challenge of 2017: “BJP made Jats Hindu, we have to make them Jats again”. If it succeeds, the party could well be the swing force in west UP.