With Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) initiating merger talks, the spotlight is slowly shifting to the key battleground state of Uttar Pradesh, which will see assembly elections in early 2017.
A glance at the performance of Bihar-based parties in UP and UP-based parties in Bihar indicates that they are not able to replicate their success from one state to another. There may be an overlap in the manner in which the Hindu caste structure affects electoral dynamics in both states, the importance of the ‘Muslim Vote’, the grammar of ‘social justice’ and the political culture. But each has its own history. Nitish’s efforts to carve out an alliance in UP will be a challenge, and whether he can pose a challenge to established leaders or will sink--precisely like Mulayam Singh sunk in Bihar--is to be seen.
But this is not about Nitish: it is about Ajit Singh, a man who has had a rough few years. Some have been surprised about the choice and wondered why Nitish may have collaborated with Singh. The skepticism about the alliance is understandable.
Singh’s RLD performed miserably in the last Lok Sabha elections, failing to win a single seat. This was a blow to him--as well as his articulate son and the inheritor of the RLD mantle, Jayant Chaudhary. The Muzaffarnagar riots and the subsequent communal polarisation destroyed the Jat-Muslim alliance, carefully built by Chaudhary Charan Singh and nurtured by Ajit Singh. Singh’s gambit of getting the UPA government (in which he was a senior cabinet minister) to add Jats in the OBC reservations list did not work. He had to vacate his central Delhi bungalow, and this has been a time of political wilderness for the father-son duo. Singh, who has the dubious reputation of having been in multiple parties and on all sides of the political fence, appeared to be facing his darkest moment yet.
But there is a strong case for the decision.
On a recent trip to western UP, it was difficult not to spot a trace of nostalgia for ‘Chaudhary Saheb’, as Singh is called like his father before him.
Jats are restive - and their anger is directed both at the SP state government. and the BJP at the centre. Cane farmers in the region have not got their dues from the mills in time for two years now. The farmers claim that the prices are low in any case, and when they do not get it on time, it becomes impossible to sustain livelihoods. The mills blame it on low sugar prices, but the farmers also blame the government for not being able to get the mills to pay on time. The government has offered relief packages but it does not go far enough. There have even been farmer suicides - something that wasn’t heard of in west UP. A Jat farmer told HT in Muzaffarnagar, “At least Chaudhary Saheb spoke for farmers in parliament. The BJP and SP don’t care for us.”
There is also another somewhat disturbing reason for increasing Jat disillusionment with the BJP. Many Jat young men had got implicated in the Muzaffarnagar riots. Their families and supporters had hoped that with the BJP coming to power, the cases would be ‘managed’ and the boys would get away. But this has not happened. A Jat village pradhan of Pinna village, which falls in the Bijnore Lok Sabha constituency, complained that they had been used as fodder in the riots, and would never get into such clashes again. The region remains a communal tinderbox--but there is a somewhat higher degree of caution because of the consequences that came with the riots and communal tensions for the men involved.
And then there is a somewhat inexplicable, but strong emotional bond that Jats still share with Charan Singh’s family. He was after all their tallest leader, the only Jat PM India has had so far. A Meerut academic explained it this - Jats get disillusioned when Ajit Singh is in power and vote him out, but they then start regretting having done so and feel bad for ‘betraying Chaudhary Saheb’, which helps in the subsequent election.
The polls are a year away. And there is little sense in making predictions. The RLD will face enormous challenges--Muslims and Jats are still unlikely to come together; given that RLD is not strong enough throw up a CM, in presidential-type contests, the party starts with a huge disadvantage; their patronage networks are limited to west UP districts; and they don’t quite have a strong governance record to sell. But in the maze that is UP politics, the Ajit Singh-Jayant Chaudhary duo matter. And that is what Nitish seems to have decided to bank on, in his quest to build a grand opposition to BJP.