A narrow lane next to the gurdwara in Kanth leads us to Jabbar Singh’s house. A former BSP leader having a wide following among Dalits, Singh had tried to play a role in defusing tensions between the Hindus and the Muslims last month. The dispute was sparked off by the presence of a loudspeaker in a temple during the month of Ramzan in the nearby Naugaun Akbarpur village, which Muslims wanted pulled down. A fragile peace ensues for now, with both sides battling it out in court.
But what is the larger politics behind such disputes between the two most marginalised communities in the state?
Singh says he can talk for Dalits. “There is no doubt that BJP tried to stoke sentiments in this case. They can smell an opportunity.” About 35 percent of Jatavs, the core vote share of BSP, went to BJP in the Lok Sabha polls, claims Singh. “Other Dalit castes used to vote for them earlier too but this shift of Jatav votes is unprecedented,” he said.
Why did it happen?
Mukesh Singh, a tailor from Kumhariya village, ascribed it entirely to the Modi ‘hawa’. “We felt bad for not voting for Behenji, but she did not have a chance to become PM.”
But will they stay with BJP? Singh calls it an aberration. “I am no longer in BSP, but I can say they will return to Behenji (Mayawati) in 2017.”
A quick test of whether her base remains with her would have been in the by-polls to 12 assembly seats due in the next few months.
But Mayawati has mysteriously opted out of the race.
Ashok Kumar, Moradabad district secretary of the party says, “There was no ‘benefit’ in fighting these elections and all eyes are on 2017.” Singh offers a more real politik calculation, “Her main aim is to weaken SP. There will be a straight fight between SP and BJP and the latter will win.”
But isn’t this a huge gamble, because this would make her base even more vulnerable to BJP? Her party office bearer Kumar responds, “No, Dalit Samaj is intact. Disillusionment with Modi is already rising.” Another observer suggests this could be her way to show Muslims they cannot defeat BJP unless they vote for her, because sticking to SP would not yield dividends anymore.
But beyond the party calculus, there is a deeper churning underway. Mukesh Singh admits to having an ‘allergy’ for Muslims which is growing, and hopes Mayawati won’t put up a Muslim candidate from their area. “I may still vote for her, but I don’t want to cast a ballot for them,” he said.
A few kilometres from Kanth is Salempur village. A group of Muslim men are talking about amity, and how their village has never witnessed any tension.
They announce that Salempur has 15-16 mosques and 6-7 temples and no one has stopped anyone from constructing a place of worship or praying. They call the recent dispute in the area as one between the police and Hindus, since the police had taken off the loudspeaker. But they also place the blame on recently elected BJP MP Sarvesh Kumar.
But ask about relations with Dalits, and they begin opening up. Sabir Hussain says, “They are left nowhere. They deserted their own party, and BJP will give them nothing.”
Would they vote along with Dalits for BSP, perhaps to defeat BJP?
“We have done it in the past. BSP used to have a Muslim MLA, Rizwan Khan from here. But this will not happen again. Dalits have betrayed their own party. How can they be with us?” SP, Hussain and his friends claimed, had stopped a potential riot by arresting BJP leaders pre-emptively last month. “We will remain with cycle (SP symbol), not hathi (BSP symbol).”
The maze of voices from the ground in west UP make it clear that the 2014 verdict is strongly determining political calculations of all sides, even as they start preparing for 2017.
BJP wants to sustain and expand the Dalit support it won, and if this required deepening polarisation or catering to extreme fringes, so be it; BSP is lying low but is banking on old loyalties to ensure the section of their base that went away would return; SP knows that while minor tensions may not harm, repeat of any large-scale riot, where inevitably, minorities will suffer more, would be suicidal for the party.