VED SINGH GREETS you with a cautious smile, and in a show of restraint with a stranger, he twirls the right side of his mouth, just enough to differentiate a smile from a frown. He raises his eyebrows to ask about the purpose of our visit. Unlike many others in this relatively affluent village named Kinoni in the communally charged, riot-ravaged western Uttar Pradesh district of Muzaffarnagar, Singh is ready to talk politics, about how over the past five years the region has changed forever. “Riots are history,” he says, “but this place remains religiously polarised as ever. There is no violence, because it has gone from the surface to somewhere deeper, the mind.” He rants about the largesse bestowed by the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) on Muslim refugees of the violence of 2013. Then he digresses. “Let bygones be bygones. We have all lost business over the years. And now, demonetisation has made it worse. My business has fallen by more than 30 per cent from pre-notebandi days. Of course, it had fallen drastically back in 2013 as well. The BJP has disappointed us. I will not vote for them for the first time in many years,” says this farmer-entrepreneur with a whiff of regret. His neighbour Rampal Singh, who had just had a haircut at a local barber shop, doesn’t want to talk much about the cash scarcity, though. He has had difficulties, but he offers the “greater good” argument and adds, “Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) lacks the political muscle, and so I will vote for the BJP because the competition in this region is between Hindus and Muslims.”
Kinoni is a Jat-dominated village where demonetisation is a contentious issue, discussed mostly in hushed tones. Right in front of me, Ved and Rampal get into a heated exchange over the topic. Youngsters interject to calm them down. “It is sure that this time the Jat votes will get split between the RLD and BJP, unlike in the 2014 elections,” Anand, who says he is a college student, whispers to me.
The BJP knew only too well that 2017 wasn’t going to be as smooth as 2014. The party was aware that religious hostilities would fade and it would need a new message for voters of the most populous state in the country, especially in western Uttar Pradesh, which has been a communal cauldron since the riots of 2013 that triggered mass migration and tensions even in the nearby districts of Shamli and Saharanpur. Cities such as Kairana and other major towns in Shamli known for their sugar and jaggery businesses have earned notoriety for their local politics with various religious leaders engaged in slugfests and endless stereotyping since then. The BJP’s MP from Kairana, Hukum Singh has refused to comment on his incendiary remarks that included warnings to Hindus in the area of another ‘partition of India’ and his claims of Hindus leaving in fear of Muslims to settle elsewhere. At the moment, he is busy promoting daughter Mriganka Singh, who is contesting the Kairana Assembly seat, much to the anguish of many other BJP contenders and party workers who resent nepotism. Meanwhile, Muslim leaders from Saharanpur, especially Imran Masood, have also made provocative statements in return.
Farm workers went away because I couldn’t pay on time. Now I don’t have buyers either. Anyone who tells you they were not affected by notebandi is either telling you lies or has gone insane because of the hardship
The tone of the BJP campaign here has come full circle, it seems. From pushing a class divide until a few weeks ago to justify its demonetisation move, the party—which with its allies won 73 of UP’s 80 Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 General Election—has now slid back to its original battle-cry of ‘Hindus are in danger in UP’, a state where every fifth person is Muslim. BJP President Amit Shah betrayed signs of anxiety when he unveiled the party’s poll manifesto for the state on January 28th, vowing to work towards the building of a controversial Rama temple in Ayodhya if it came to power in Lucknow. This was a marked departure from its earlier poll narrative woven around Modi’s currency clampdown and the surgical strikes on militants in Pakistan in response to incursions and attacks on Indian Army installations.
THE VOLTE FACE IN the BJP’s poll strategy comes in the wake of an alliance between the SP, of which Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has emerged as the topmost leader, and the Congress party that could buttress the new front’s appeal for minorities. The SP, which has in the past two decades weaned away Muslim votes from the Congress, especially in the aftermath of the late-1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, had been accused of not doing enough to contain the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013. The news of a grand party organised by the party in Saifai, its founder Mulayam Singh Yadav’s hometown, even while riot victims were struggling to get their lives together, had not gone down well with the area’s Muslims— who along with Yadavs form the backbone of SP’s vote bank. However, a tie-up with the Congress, says Professor Sanjay Kumar, director at Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, makes the combine a formidable force now. It is not only attractive for Muslim voters who have lately voted tactically to keep the BJP at bay, but also ensures that non-BJP votes are not entirely divided (given that Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party is also vying for these).
Over the past three decades, the state has witnessed four-cornered contests, and the presence of a large number of Jats in western UP makes it an interesting poll battle to watch. There is a huge concentration of Jats in several places, especially in Baghpat, Muzaffarnagar, Meerut and Bulandshahr. The BJP faces two major challenges here: the presence of the predominantly Jat party led by Ajit Singh, RLD, means that Jat votes could get split as opposed to 2014 when the Modi wave swept the region, garnering a majority of these votes.
On the other hand, the SP and Congress are wary of a Hindu consolidation against any grouping that includes Muslims, a possibility heightened by the loud posturing of the latter’s leaders. The BJP has consistently argued that the welfare of Hindus is ignored by parties such as the SP, Congress and BSP. While the BSP has overtly taken a pro-Muslim line, the SP-Congress alliance has been careful about a pronounced pro-Muslim poll blitz so as not to alienate its sympathisers among Hindus who might be put off by such a stance in a polarised scenario.
I have no doubt that Akhilesh is a good leader, but he is in a hopeless party. Only the BJP can ensure that there can be development in western Uttar Pradesh, which has for long been neglected by successive state governments
As of now, however, says Professor Kumar: “Even in western UP, the SP-Congress alliance seems to have an upper hand over the BJP.” According to him, the BJP of today in UP is a replica of what the Congress was in the late 80s and early 90s when it had a near 30 per cent vote share and any cracks in the opposition worked in its favour. “This was why the BJP won in Jharkhand and Maharashtra and not in Bihar,” says Kumar, who is also a director of Lokniti, a research programme of the CSDS. The 2014 polls are incomparable with any other, he adds, for the fact that a yearning for change saw a massive Modi wave engulf the nation.
Udit Jain, an ardent admirer of Akhilesh Yadav for all his youthful resolve, is a traditional BJP voter. And he will vote for BJP this time too. His reasons have nothing to do with religious polarisation or demonetisation. This Meerut- based stockbroker feels that the western part of the state has been wronged for decades by parties such as the BSP and SP. “It is therefore only natural for voters like me to give the BJP a chance,” he says. The region’s long-standing demands haven’t been met yet, thanks to the apathy of state leaders, he says, emphasising that while Uttarakhand found ‘redemption’ after its formation in 2000, western UP is still neglected. This, he says, is evident in the lack of interest to create a High Court bench in Meerut, forcing people here to take overnight trips to Allahabad for court cases. Another grouse Jain has is that Meerut has not been linked smoothly to Delhi despite it being a mere 65 km away, while new townships have gained from the expansion of the National Capital Region. He also alleges that western UP gets step-motherly treatment from the Centre, while state politicians do nothing to boost industries in the region.
The businessmen of Meerut tell a different tale. Sanjay Rathore, who runs a sport goods shop on Meerut’s Surajkund Road, has always looked up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his efforts to fight corruption and black money. He also considers Akhilesh Yadav, seen as having sacrificed ties with blood relatives for his cause, a good bet. However, doubts cloud his mind: will the SP change its stripes under Akhilesh or will it remain a party of law breakers? “As a voter, my first preference is the BJP, but thanks to demonetisation, which has hurt my business badly, don’t be surprised if I vote for Akhilesh who is promising to modernise the state now that he has full control over his party,” says he. The BJP still has a lot of supporters in the manufacturing hubs of Meerut and elsewhere. Says Ashok, who runs an auto parts shop, “There can’t be pain without gain.”
We had voted for BSP last time. Despite the fact that Mayawati has fielded a Muslim candidate, Noor Saleem Rana, in our Charthawal constituency, we will vote for SP’s Mukesh Chaudhary because we want jobs and peace. We don’t want riots again
THE BSP HAS fielded several Muslim candidates, yet it should worry the BJP if Muslims decide to vote for non-BJP Hindu candidates against those of their own faith just to ensure its defeat. In Muzaffarnagar’s Tawli village, under the Charthawal Assembly seat, Noor Salem Rana, a BSP candidate, is not the most preferred one among many Muslim voters surveyed by Open. Raees Ahmed, with his squat gym physique and jovial manner, looks crestfallen when asked about his occupation. He has seen a sharp slide in his real-estate business over the past three-four years and blames demonetisation for heavy losses in the past few months. Backing the BSP, he feels, will do no good for his community. “Mind you, we don’t vote by caste or community. My vote is for Mukesh Chaudhary of the SP because he belongs the party that can stop fascist forces and those busy dividing people, especially those who work close to one another. Hindus and Muslims have to work together in almost all businesses, from textiles to jewellery and sugar to automobiles. It is ridiculous to drive a wedge between them,” he points out. The wounds of 2013, he says, are yet to heal. “Several BSP leaders were involved in the riots,” he alleges. Saidu, an elderly farmer in a nearby village, also says that he won’t vote for the BSP this time.
Western UP has seen deep fissures not only between Dalits and Muslims, who had coexisted in peace for long, but also between Jat Muslims and Hindus, generating talk that riots were a political ploy to pull in votes by engendering hostilities. In the days of the iconic farmer-leader Mahendra Singh Tikait, his processions from this belt to the national capital saw both turbaned and skullcap-wearing Jats joining hands for a cause. These two groups also participated jointly in sports, including wrestling matches. All that bonhomie vanished after the riots of 2013. Tushar Panchal of WarRoomStrategies, who has found that Modi’s demonetisation move is unlikely to turn votes against the BJP and that a majority of 3,000 respondents in a state-wide survey see the Yadav family fight as a ‘drama’, explains how electoral choices have changed over the past three or four years. “In 2014, western UP supported Modi wholeheartedly, thanks to the polarisation post Muzzafarnagar riots and Jat disenchantment from the RLD. And of course, the Modi wave,” he says. According to the reports of his research team, it now seems like “advantage Akhilesh, as the Muslim vote is likely to consolidate in his favour. People believe that he has also worked very hard for the development of this area”. He adds, “Jats now seem to be in two minds about supporting BJP, but this likely loss could be compensated by Muslim women voters, who are rallying behind BJP on the issue of ‘triple talaq’.” WarRoomStrategies’ conclusion is that the BSP would be the biggest loser at this point of time. The party had drawn a blank in the Lok Sabha polls of 2014. A CSDS survey puts the likely tally at 187-197 seats in the 403-seat Assembly for the SP-Congress alliance; 118-120 for the BJP; and 76-86 for the BSP. “As of now, this is the scenario, and the SP-Congress alliance will win smoothly,” says Professor Kumar.
I have favoured the BJP for several years. Now I have lost all faith in that party after demonetisation, which has badly affected me as a farmer. Modi’s popularity is on the wane
Mohit, a farm-labourer who lives in Rasheedgarh village of the Thana Bhawan constituency, says he is not worried about what happens in the other 402 seats of UP. “In this constituency, BSP will win because it is for all to see what the BJP is doing to the poorest of the poor, especially Dalits, across the country. Dalits are under constant attack. In our state, despite Akhilesh, things are not going to improve, and everybody is aware of the gross shortcomings of the SP, which, for all practical purposes, is a party that offers sanctuary to criminals. BSP is the only option left,” he says, brushing aside charges of corruption against Mayawati. “Who built these roads? They were not there before she became CM,” he says, stomping his right foot on the ground. Academic and Lucknow University Professor Sudhir Panwar, himself a Jat, is the SP candidate here. Panwar claims that there is unprecedented unity among Jats and Muslims ever since his name has been announced, akin to the pre-riot days. BJP’s Suresh Rana, the incumbent in the fray, has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Rana, who is named in multiple cases related to the Muzaffarnagar riots, made a speech recently in which he said that if he wins, he will impose a permanent curfew in the Muslim-dominated areas of Kairana, Deoband and Moradabad. This attracted a lot of flak, apart from police cases. The BSP candidate for this seat, Abdul Warris Khan, for his part, hopes to end the political career of the rabble-rouser BJP vice-president of UP, Rana, with the support of Dalits as well as Muslims. Panwar faces several hurdles, but he states that his win alone would ensure that the region, wracked by communal violence, will be back on the track of growth and development.
PROFESSOR KUMAR SAYS demonetisation is not going to be an issue in this election because no party has a clue of its actual impact. Yet, we do meet several voters who have identified notebandi as a scourge that has grievously hurt the poor. The shortage of day-to-day funds has been acute and disruptive. Ayoob, a 35-year-old farmer we meet in his field a few kilometres from Kairana city, sits staring at his 60-bigha plot of land. He grows cabbages here, but is distraught that none of his workers have turned up over the past several weeks. He had no cash to pay them for days on end, and then they left looking for work elsewhere. “I don’t know what to do with this. But this is the only thing I do. Demonetisation has wreaked havoc for people like us who used to just make our ends meet before [the currency clampdown],” he says, looking up at the sky. Agriculture is still a relatively lucrative option in western UP where there’s abundant water and the soil is considered extremely fertile. And yet, the dreams of farmers have been shattered. “Now I don’t have buyers either. Anyone who tells you they were not affected by notebandi is either telling you lies or has gone insane because of the hardship.” Ayoob says politics is the last thing on his mind, yet he expects to “react aggressively” to the “anti-poor policies of the Centre”.
BJP is reckless with its policies, and that party doesn’t care for the poorest of the poor. SP, despite Akhilesh, cannot offer decent law and order in the state. Mayawatiji is the only one to look up to. She alone can uplift us
Professor Kumar also says that the SP-Congress alliance is in a comfortable position even if the transfer of votes between them is at 60-70 per cent. However, BJP leaders in the state agree with what stock-broker Jain has to say: though the BJP has no chief ministerial face in these elections, in western UP, especially, Modi’s popularity is still a vote catcher. Besides, of its 140 candidates in the first two polling phases of February 11th and February 15th, a majority are from Other Backward Classes, with an eye on retaining its grip on non-Yadav OBC votes.
Even so, the BJP cannot count on a clear victory. The note ban has split its trader base and announcements such as the creation of ‘anti- Romeo’ squads have not gone down well with younger voters. “Modi’s popularity is on the wane,” warns Ved Singh, the farmer from Kinoni.
All the major players this time—BJP, SP-Congress and BSP—have to face winds of change in 2017. Victory or defeat may well begin here, in a farm in western UP, with its dark fertile soil and mango orchards.