Uttar Pradesh

Tired tactic

Print edition : April 26, 2019

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an election rally in Saharanpur on April 5. Photo: PTI

Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav with Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati on her birthday on January 15. Photo: Nirala Tripathi/AP

Rashtriya Lok Dal chief Ajit Singh campaigning in Muzaffarnagar. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi at a road show in Ghaziabad on April 5. The party has been showing signs of having regained some ground in certain pickets of the State. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

The going gets tough for the BJP in western Uttar Pradesh, where the paradigm of communal polarisation translating into an electoral divide does not seem to be working this time.

The intense and widespread communal polarisation in western Uttar Pradesh in 2014 following the Muzaffarnagar riots of August-September 2013 was one of the most important factors that propelled Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in the last Lok Sabha election. The riots had resulted in the death of over 60 people, inflicted debilitating injuries to hundreds, and led to colossal loss of property and means of livelihood.

The BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar unleashed a hate campaign in the aftermath of the riots. Amit Shah, then a party general secretary, led the hate campaign, which was sustained for nearly a year. Hindus in general, and particularly the socially dominant Jats, were exhorted to avenge their community’s suffering by voting for the BJP. The communally charged atmosphere saw a BJP sweep in the region. A significant social aspect of this polarisation was the manner in which a pan-Hindu identity was built up, subsuming the traditional loyalties of communities such as the Jatavs and Yadavs who had long identified themselves with the assertive politics of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), representing respectively the interests of Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBC).

As many as 16 seats from western Uttar Pradesh, all won by the BJP in 2014, are going to the polls in the first two phases on April 11 and 18. This time, however, the pan-Hindu sentiments that informed the social and political situation five years ago have perceptibly petered out. Caste-based identities are once again dominant and Jats, Dalits and Yadavs seem to be going back to the folds of parties that they were traditionally associated with—the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), the BSP and the S.P. That these three parties are fighting this election as an alliance also poses a major challenge to the BJP.

The clout of this alliance was proved through the victory of its joint candidate, Tabassum Hassan, over the BJP’s Mrignanka Singh in the May 2018 byelection to the Kairana Lok Sabha seat. The seat had fallen vacant following the death of BJP MP Hukum Singh, Mrignanka’s father.

Even the most ardent supporters of the BJP agree that there is no promise of a sweep in the region this time. The BSP-S.P.-RLD alliance apart, the Congress, too, is putting up a spirited fight. The party has captured tremendous public attention in seats such as Saharanpur and Kairana, on the strength of the individual influence and capacity of its candidates, Imran Masood and Harinder Mullick respectively.

Mrignanka Singh has been denied the BJP ticket this time. A number of her supporters told Frontline that the arithmetic of the votes polled in 2014 by the S.P., the BSP and the RLD, which fought that election separately, posed a challenge to the BJP in all the seats of the region. There were also, they said, factors beyond electoral arithmetic that might work against the BJP. Western Uttar Pradesh, perceived as the “backbone of Uttar Pradesh’s agricultural production”, has been in the grip of an agrarian crisis. All major crops are grown here, but the most widely cultivated one is sugar cane. The huge arrears in payment to the sugar cane farmers go against the ruling party. Both the State and Central governments have, over the past year, given various offers to sugar cane farmers aimed at clearance of arrears, but none has worked out on the ground. Compounding the economic hardships these arrears have caused is the chain effect of the demonetisation and GST implementation in the agrarian sector.

At Jagaheti village, a part of the Muzaffarnagar Lok Sabha seat, a group of Jat farmers and Dalit agricultural workers said that though agrarian distress was not new to the region, demonetisation and then GST implementation had inflicted much suffering. Pankaj Mullick, one of the more vocal members of the group, said: “No other government has put farmers through such horrendous economic ordeals as this one. That is why the Jat community has decided to go back to the RLD and its leaders, Ajit Singh and Jayant Choudhary. And we have joined hands with Dalits, Muslims and several OBC [Other Backward Classes] communities to ensure that the BJP is defeated.” Asked what would happen in the region if communal riots were engineered here, or elsewhere in north India, they said they had all been blinded by the passions generated by communal propaganda ahead of the last election but would not fall into that trap again. “The crippling economic conditions and the realisation as to who is responsible for it have opened our eyes. We cannot be blinded again,” Mullick said.

Megh Singh, a political analyst based in Butrada village near Shamli, pointed out that traditionally the three Cs of (sugar) cane, caste and communal polarisation had deeply impacted politics in western Uttar Pradesh. In 2014, all three factors were in favour of the BJP. He said: “This time around, cane and caste seem to be working against the dominant party, though the BJP can still fall back on the communalisation element to win back lost ground. Though the Hindu-Muslim polarisation paradigm does not seem to be impacting dominant communities such as the Jats, the Jatav Dalits and the OBC Yadavs, inroads that the BJP has made over the past few decades into non-Yadav OBC communities such as Lodh, Kurmi, Koeri, Saini and Nishad as well as the non-Jatav Dalit communities such as Pasi, Valmiki, Kashyap and Dhobi are still intact. The BJP can still use these bases to marshal forces and create communal situations. However, it remains to be seen what form this will take, especially in view of the utter lack of resonance for the BJP’s muscular nationalism campaign in the region. The party was trying to convert this into a anti-Muslim campaign, portraying all Muslims as pro-Pakistani. But resistance by Jats, Dalits and Yadavs has not allowed this to take off.” Many people in the region, even those belonging to the BJP and other Sangh Parivar outfits, concur with this view.

In the multi-phase elections of Uttar Pradesh, polling trends in the west have usually produced a pattern to be followed by the rest of the State. This held good in 2014, when 21 seats from the region went to the polls in the first two phases. The dominance of the BJP was evident through the polling in those seats, and this sense impacted voting in the other 59 seats spread across central Uttar Pradesh, Bundelkhand and eastern Uttar Pradesh. This factor, too, is disturbing for BJP election strategists.

Many leaders in the S.P., the BSP and the Congress are of the view that apprehensions on this count might impel the BJP-Sangh Parivar to embark on some dangerous and adventurist communal political initiative.

As things stand in the first week of April, the BJP has its back to the wall in a large number of western Uttar Pradesh constituencies. While the S.P.-BSP-RLD combine tries to take advantage of emotive issues, the Congress also shows some vigour, albeit in a limited number of constituencies.