Asked to comment on electoral reforms, Union minister Ajit Singh chuckled, “Reforms? We believe in capturing booths.” That was late last year and Singh was referring to his clan’s one-time image of preventing Dalits from casting their votes.
Politics in western Uttar Pradesh has revolved around the Jat-Jatav caste dynamics that got altered after the arrival of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati on the state’s political landscape.
Circa March 1994: A new chapter was added to the state’s history on caste clashes when lathi-wielding Dalits bashed up a policeman in full public glare in Meerut. They were protesting desecration of BR Ambedkar’s statue in a park.
The incident sent shockwaves across the political spectrum. The state then was run by the SP-BSP coalition government headed by Mulayam Singh Yadav but controlled by Kanshi Ram and Mayawati. Soon, similar skirmishes were reported from other parts of UP.
The hitherto docile Dalits were getting a new assertive voice a decade after the formation of the BSP in March 1984. It took another 20 years to complete the story of their empowerment — the formation of a majority government by Mayawati in 2007 on a broader, inclusive social base.
But the cross-community accord behind her magical win is now wearing thin. The resurgent Jats, buoyed by the puissance of RLD-Congress alliance, are out to snatch the veto power the Jatavs wouldn’t easily let go for their social survival. If anything, the SC turnout in the Jatland was a confirmation of the Dalits’ freedom from fear.Badri Narain Tiwari of Dalit Resource Centre at Allahabad’s GB Pant Social Sciences Institute terms it as their democratic empowerment. "I have renamed Jatland as Jatavland as in every constituency they have 50,000 votes that are transferable. They are well-prepared to meet any eventuality." The BSP’s bulwark of support base came from this region in earlier elections.
Booth capturing has become passé but the Jatavs are ready in their combat gear with both money and muscle power. The Election Commission’s directives to cover the elephants in Maya’s dream parks made tougher their resolve to stand by the BSP supremo.
The schism between these social groups will find expression in the election results. A glimpse of it was available in a village where Jats live in big numbers.
Baghpat’s Baoli is locally described as the country’s biggest village. Its residents, many among whom are former defence personnel, take pride that several prime ministers — Jawaharlal Nehru to Rajiv Gandhi — visited their village.
Ajay Pal Singh Tomar, a rebel Jat admits groundswell of support for Choudhary but with a caveat: “Don’t underestimate the BSP. Jatavs are rock solid behind Maya’s pandit candidate.”
The Jatavs and other backward castes like Kashyaps have come together. “We are united and don’t fear the Jats. In Maya’s rule no one dare trouble us,” said Manipal Kashyap.
Campaigning hard for the BSP candidate, Kashyap felt his community was strong enough to take on the Jats under Ajit Singh. “Pehle hukka pani band kar dete thei. Ab nahin (They used to socially boycott us. Not now).”
The Dalits draw strength from the changing times and social alliances. But the Muslims who flocked under the BSP flag five years ago have moved out. In several areas they sounded determined to defeat Mayawati. “We have just one mission here — defeat the BSP,” said a roadside vendor in Hapur.
The intemperate Jats too admit they can no longer prevent lower castes from voting. Their strategy is to vote en bloc for the RLD-Congress alliance that’s focusing on the BSP’s reverse persecution to mobilise other communities, notably Muslims and Brahmins.