Jats of western Uttar Pradesh keep BJP, gathbandhan on tenterhooks

It is common for the Jats of western Uttar Pradesh (UP) to attribute their voting preference to a dream they get a couple of days before the polling day. In the dream, or so it is claimed, Chaudhary Charan Singh, former prime minister, farmers’ leader and the most influential Jat politician in independent India, appears to tell his clan folk which symbol they should vote for.

Not just the candidates of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but those also of the gathbandhan, as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)–Samajwadi Party (SP)–Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) alliance is being spoken of in these parts, have been kept on tenterhooks by the Jats.

The dream is both a ruse to explain a political preference, and a ploy of political messaging to build consensus within the community over one party or candidate. It helped the Jats break away from their traditional voting patterns to vote overwhelmingly for the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2017 Assembly polls in the state. However, the battle is not that one sided this time.

Modi remains popular in the community, particularly among the Jat youths after the Balakot airstrike. Community elders blame it on television news and social media. Their heart is now with Charan Singh’s successors — his son Ajit and grandson Jayant Chaudhary — who have queered the pitch for the BJP by aligning with the SP and BSP.

Some express their disgust that Ajit and Jayant have to rely on Akhilesh Yadav but believe the ‘Jat’ dynasty needs to be saved. “Chaudhary created Mulayam Singh, and look what father and son have done with his legacy by queuing up like beggars for crumbs at the doorstep of Mulayam’s son,” says Kamal Singh, a small Jat farmer in Khair, Aligarh district. Small farmers such as Kamal have just seen their potato crop get destroyed because of adverse climatic conditions. They have received only a pittance of Rs 2,000 under the PM Kisan Nidhi scheme because their plot is subdivided among family members. Kamal, and other small farmers, say they are no longer fans of Modi.

The elections have come in the midst of the harvest season, which is not good news for the BJP. Trucks laden with sugarcane and wheat, or farmers busy harvesting in their fields, is a common sight. Farmers complain they are not getting a good price, particularly for their potato crop. The BJP is awake to the challenge; the PM addressed a rally in Amroha on Thursday, and will address a couple more to coincide with the polling day for the first phase.

The challenge for the gathbandhan is whether its non-Jat candidates would get the Jat support. Its non-Jat candidates want as many of Ajit and Jayant’s public meetings and roadshows in their constituencies as possible. On Sunday, the gathbandhan will have its first united rally in Deoband, Saharanpur, where BSP chief Mayawati, SP’s Akhilesh and RLD’s top leaders will be present.

In Amroha, BSP candidate Danish Ali’s entourage consists of key Jat leaders of his constituency, including Chandrapal Singh, the son of a former Lok Sabha member from the seat. However, the Jats do not seem enthused. Many are yet to overcome the religious divide.

In Hathras, a reserved constituency, four time Lok Sabha member Ramji Lal Suman of the SP is busy convincing the community by visiting each Jat village. “This election isn’t just about saving the country’s democracy but also the glorious Jat leadership,” Suman told a small public meeting in Rajawal village on Thursday. At 69, and a veteran of several elections, Suman is a seasoned campaigner and understands the pulse. He steers clear of discussing the airstrike, but not before pointing out how the sons of farmers, and not Modi, guard the country’s borders. And, any glory should belong to them, not the PM.

Suman also brings up Charan Singh frequently in his speeches, describing himself to be his disciple, and that Singh was not just a ‘Jat leader’, but a national leader of farmers. He gets the loudest cheers, mostly from those with at least some white hair, when he says Modi betrayed farmers. However, that few youth attend his meetings, or are interested in what he says, remains a concern for Suman and several gathbandhan candidates.

In all of this, the Congress remains the surprise element. If Suman and other gathbandhan candidates are hopeful the Congress resurgence in the region would hurt the BJP more than them, BJP supporters believe the Congress presence would help split the gathbandhan votes.