Lok Sabha elections 2019: In West UP’s Jat heartland, a battle to keep Charan Singh’s legacy alive
On display in the ‘Jatland’ of western Uttar Pradesh is a socio-political experiment geared to repair the legacy of late prime minister Charan Singh, the tallest leader of the Jats who drew equal support from the Muslims and the backward communities.
Having steeply declined in the somewhat unsafe hands of his son, Ajit Singh, the former prime minister’s socio-economic legacy, resting on rural welfare, was dealt a mortal blow in the 2013 riots — the epicentre of which was Muzaffarnagar. The communal flare-up took in its sweep the Shamli district adjoining Baghpat, gutting the traditional Jat-Muslim accord that lent political weight to the economically interdependent communities.
The consequences were grave for Charan Singh’s inheritors. His son Ajit Singh lost Baghpat and grandson Jayant got pummeled at Mathura in the 2014 polls. The cause: the mass scale desertion of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) by the Muslims.
Ajit’s was an unprecedented humiliation in Baghpat -- a constituency that owed its identity to Charan Singh. He stood third in a quadrangular contest, behind the winning Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the defeated Samajwadi Party (SP) nominees.
Shaken by the outcome, the RLD chief took to socio-political masonry on his 80th birthday. His objective: to repair the Muslims’ ruptured ties with other communities, especially the Jats.
Since February 2018, his “jan samvad sabhas” (public dialogue meetings) have drawn people from across social identities. That he has chosen to contest from Muzaffarnagar shows his level of confidence. In 1971, his father was defeated on the seat currently represented by Sanjeev Baliyan, the BJP’s young but controversial Jat face.
What makes the contest doubly interesting is the candidature of Jayant for the adjoining Baghpat seat against the saffron party’s other Jat face, union minister Satyapal Singh. That way, the father-son duo wants to wrest seats lost by their fathers.
What has emboldened them is their three-seat equity in the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)-SP-RLD alliance and the Congress’s decision to not field candidates against them. The resultant straight fights with the BJP in Muzaffarnagar and Baghpat could recreate the Kairana template that helped the party and the alliance grab the traditional BJP seat in the 2018 by-election.
Voices on the Ground
From the voices heard at pit stops along Muzaffarnagar, Baghpat and Kairna, it was evident that the RLD will likely regain its lost Muslim support on the alliance’s aggregate strength. As pointed out by a disaffected BJP leader, the Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) won’t, for the first time, display the BSP’s elephant, the SP’s cycle or the Congress’s symbol of hand.
Discounting independents, the voter’s choice will be between the BJP’s lotus and the RLD’s hand-pump. The abridged menu will help the RLD consolidate the Muslim support.
“I would have voted for the SP if it was there. Now I’m with the RLD,” said Ashiq Ali at Muzaffarnagar’s Khatauli. He spoke sitting in a mixed caste group in the Gujjar-dominated Titoda village. A quick vote among them showed the RLD has traction even among the normally anti-Jat Gujjars and the Scheduled Castes. The projected split in the vote of numerical minorities that BJP galvanised in the Narendra Modi wave could distinguish these elections from the one-sided 2014 poll outcome.
The Jat mood
Like the Muslims and the Dalits, the Jats, numbering about 380,000 and 150,000 respectively in Baghpat and Muzaffarnagar, are less ambidextrous. In numerous conversations we had at roadside tea-shops and hookah gatherings -- the rural version of shisha bars -- the elderly Jats seemed inclined towards the RLD’s “Chaudharys” as opposed to the BJP’s “Satyapal” and “Baliyan.”
So much so that in his own Kutba-Kutbi village in Muzaffarnagar, the BJP candidate was referred to as Baliyan, the deferential “Chaudhary” prefix reserved for Ajit Singh. “We’ll vote for him to repay the debt of defeating the elder Chaudhary [Charan Singh] in 1971,” said Bhopal Singh of Kutba. His claim of wider support for the RLD found endorsement from a retired Brahmin teacher, who firmly put down a Baliyan camp follower at another spot in the same village.
The picture we gathered in talks with Baghpat’s Jat voters belonging to Satyapal Singh’s Tomar sub-caste was no different. “The young voters could split, the elderly are 100% with the RLD,” said a functionary of the Desh Khap of Tomars. Conscious of the age-group divide, Ajit and Jayant are complementing their individual appeals in each other’s constituency.
The strategy makes sense. For in Baghpat’s Shahpur-Bidoli, an elderly farmer, Atal Singh, saw in Jayant a reflection of his grandfather: “He talks and walks the same way… [wahi bol, wahi chaal].” In the light of past incidents that polarised voters, local observers do not rule out a repeat of events choreographed to disturb the emerging social alignments. They hoped, nevertheless, the people this time would be wiser and not rise to the bait.
The Urban-Rural Divide
In parts of the predominantly rural western UP, the saffron party retains its 2014 edge — or so it seems. It’s doing well in urban and quasi-urban pockets on the strength of Narendra Modi’s appeal and his religious-nationalist card. The party’s campaign finds resonance among the forward castes and certain numerically small backward communities weary of the empowered Other Backward Classes (OBC): Kashyap (water porters), Saini (horticulturists), Prajapatis (potters) and Gadarias (livestock keepers).
“In cities, the BJP seems to be doing well. I hear more about the alliance in rural areas,” says Dr Sudha Sharma, whose Vedantic International School is a milestone at Baghpat’s Aminagar Sarai. Originally from Amethi, she jocularly remarks: “For Congress, there’s no one except me.”
By her reading, the on-the-mend Jat-Muslim relations have made the rural folk introspect and think differently. Their intertwined economies have led to new beginning away from the bitter memories of 2013 that brought suffering for both.
Perhaps for the reasons Ms Sharma cited, the impact of the Balakot air strike and the Pulwama terror attack wasn’t tangible in Baghpat, Muzaffarnagar and Kairana despite the BJP’s persistently strong militarist pitch. Barring a section of unemployed youth and hardcore right-wingers, of greater import for the electorate seemed the unpaid sugarcane dues, local caste equations, and lack of easy access to government schemes.
If that wasn’t so, how else does one explain the induction in the BJP of the SP MLC Virendra Singh? He was won over to defuse resentment among Hindu Gujjars over the BJP’s Mriganka Singh not being made the party candidate in Kairana.
Daughter of the late Hukum Singh, a Gujjar chieftain whose death caused the 2018 by-election, Mriganka had worked hard to broker peace between the generally inimical Jats and Gujjars. After dumping her claim, the BJP brass wanted to secure the Hindu Gujjars supportive of her family.
Kairana isn’t among the seven seats where the Congress is not contesting against the alliance in UP. The BJP brought Virendra Singh to counter the impact of the Congress’s Harendra Malik, a Jat leader who can raid the saffron party’s anti-Muslim Jat base to the alliance’s advantage in the triangular fight.
In Meerut, Ghaziabad (first phase) and Amroha (second phase) as well, the Congress candidates look like helping the alliance and hurting the BJP. Example: Harendra Aggarwal, son of former UP CM Banarsi Das Gupta is expected to eat into incumbent BJP MP Rajendra Aggarwal’s vote bank. In this backdrop, a senior BJP leader agreed that this party could be in trouble if the alliance manages to replicate its combined vote share of 2014 Lok Sabha or 2012 and 2017 assembly polls. “If there’s a Modi undercurrent, we’d cross 74. Or else, it could be 24.” All of this begs the question: Will the Modi factor fill the gap? Or will the alliance arithmetic prevail?