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Ajit Singh Passes Away: Can RLD Fulfill His Unfinished Mission?

Ajit Singh’s aim was to revive agrarian politics in West UP and mend ties between Jats and Muslims. 

Published
Politics
4 min read
Chaudhary Ajit Singh, RLD founder, passed away at the age of 82 on 6 May. 
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Chaudhary Ajit Singh, founder of the Rashtriya Lok Dal, passed away due to COVID-19 at a hospital in Gurugram on 6 May. He was 82. His death is likely to create a major vacuum in national politics, especially the politics of Uttar Pradesh.

Farmers Movement and Ajit Singh’s Unfinished Mission

"Defeating Chaudhary Ajit Singh was a big mistake we made," said Bharatiya Kisan Union chief Naresh Tikait at a Mahapanchayat in Muzaffarnagar, protesting against the Modi government's farm laws.

Ghulam Mohammad Jaula, a former comrade of late BKU patriarch Mahendra Singh Tikait, also reminded the Jat community that the defeat of Ajit Singh from Muzaffarnagar in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections was their "biggest mistake".

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The farmers' protest had revived the space for Ajit Singh and BKU's agrarian politics, that had shrunk folloing the 2013 Muzaffarnagar communal violence which created a divide between Jats and Muslims of Western Uttar Pradesh.

Despite his uneven health, Ajit Singh was actively trying to revive this space. He was the first politician to reach out to BKU leader Rakesh Tikait after the latter broke into tears during a media interaction at the Gazipur protest site. Even just before the COVID-19 second wave, the RLD had announced its plan to conduct a ‘Bhaichara Zindabad’ campaign in West UP.

However, it remains to be seen what happens to this process after Ajit Singh's demise.

Who Was Ajit Singh?

Son of former Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh, Ajit Singh began his career as a software engineer in the United States. After his B.Tech in computer science from IIT Kharagpur and Masters from Illinois Institute of Technology, he became one of the first Indians to work for IBM in the 1960s.

However, after working for a little over 15 years, he returned to India in the 1980s. He first became an MP in 1986, after Chaudhary Charan Singh fell ill. After Chaudhary Charan Singh's death in 1987, Ajit Singh took over reins of the Lok Dal. But when several factions of the erstwhile Janata Party decided to merge as Janata Dal, he became the party's general secretary. He was elected as an MP from Baghpat on a Congress ticket in 1996.

In 1996, he formed the Rashtriya Lok Dal and became its president.

Though his political base was in Western UP, Ajit Singh's focus almost always remained at the Centre.

He became minister for industry in the VP Singh government between 1989 and 1990, minister for food processing and industry in the PV Narasimha Rao government between 1995-96, minister for agriculture in the AB Vajpayee government between 2001 and 2003 and for civil aviation in the second Manmohan Singh ministry between 2011 and 2014.

Ajit Singh's Rise and Decline in Western UP

With stints in almost every government at the Centre barring a few, Ajit Singh got the reputation of being one of the smartest politicians in the country. This was even before Ram Vilas Paswan - who died last year - acquired a similar track record.

What lay at the root of Ajit Singh's success was his clout over the Jats of Western UP. It is to secure the support of this section that both the NDA under Vajpayee and UPA under Sonia Gandhi gave Ajit Singh important ministeries at the Centre.

Ajit Singh's father - former Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh - held sway across Western Uttar Pradesh. Though most popular among Jats, he also enjoyed the support of Ahirs, Gujjars, Muslims and some Upper Castes when he was at his peak.

By the time Ajit Singh inherited the mantle, the base had reduced to the Jats of West UP and agrarian Muslims of the region.

From two seats in the 1999 and three in 2004, the RLD reached its peak in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections winning 5 seats in Western UP. In the UP Assembly, it won 15 seats in 2002, 10 in 2007 and nine in 2012 elections.

However, the 2013 communal violence in Muzaffarnagar broke RLD's Jat-Muslim base. Younger members of the Jat community are said to have made it clear to Ajit Singh that he would be rendered irrelevant if he tried to intervene. However, unlike Rakesh Tikait of the BKU who had a similar base as RLD and was even briefly part of the party, Ajit Singh remained silent during the violence. Tikait on the other hand is accused of giving incendiary speeches against Muslims.

But trying to maintain a balance didn't help Ajit Singh as he lost Jat support to the BJP and Muslim support to SP and BSP.

The RLD was wiped out in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and down to just one seat in the 2017 UP elections. It joined the SP-BSP Mahagathbandhan in 2019 but still failed to win a single seat. Ajit Singh lost by a narrow 6000 votes to BJP's Sanjiv Balyan in Muzaffarnagar.

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What Lies Ahead for RLD?

The mantle of the RLD will now fall on Ajit Singh's son Jayant Chaudhary's shoulders. Following his father's death, Chaudhary put out a tweet saying, "We must observe all safety protocols...to keep ourselves and everyone around us healthy and safe. This would be the best way to honour Chaudhary Sahib as well as the COVID warriors working day and night to protect us".

Chaudhary has also been a very vocal face of the farmers' protest and has been taking part in protests in different parts of UP.

"We must think and act as farmers, not according to community," is a message Chaudhary has been giving in most of his speeches.

Jayant has also been steadfast in his opposition to the BJP, understanding the existential threat the party poses to the RLD's brand of politics.

His challenge would now be to complete Ajit Singh's unfinished mission of reviving agrarian politics and restoring Jat-Muslim ties in West UP.

RLD's success in the recently held Panchayat elections in UP is a good sign for the party and it may hope to continue the momentum in the build-up to the 2022 Assembly elections.

Then the late Ajit Singh's mission would truly be complete.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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