Of the seven phases into which the upcoming Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections have been divided, perhaps the most crucial for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the first one on 10 February, when 58 seats in what is widely known as the ‘Jat belt’ will go to polls.
With their influence and muscle power, the Jats have powered the BJP to a near-complete sweep of the region in three successive elections, helping prepare a solid foundation for the party’s stunning victories in Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha polls and the 2017 Assembly poll in between.
A Depressingly Familiar Narrative
Consequently, the importance of the first phase for the BJP cannot be emphasised enough, more so because this time, the loyalty of the Jats to the saffron cause seems to be wavering after a year-long face-off with the Modi government on the borders of Delhi over three new agriculture laws that farming communities in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh worried would harm their interests.
The laws have since been scrapped. But surprisingly, the BJP has not capitalised on Modi’s unprecedented rollback to reach out to farmers to pick up brownie points and earn goodwill among western Uttar Pradesh Jats.
Instead, the party’s campaign in the Jat belt has a depressingly familiar ring to it as BJP leaders spin their divisive narrative to polarise Hindus into voting for the lotus.
The 2017 Audio Cassette vs Today
Rewind to 2017. An audio cassette surfaced and was circulated widely while the campaign was in full swing in western Uttar Pradesh. It was a recording of a meeting between Amit Shah, then-BJP president, and select Jat leaders, in which Shah was heard extolling the shared bond (of fighting Muslims) between them and warning that a vote against the BJP would help the party that believed in Muslim appeasement (Samajwadi Party).
Now, come to a meeting Shah had in the heart of the capital recently, again with a select group of Jat leaders. Although currently the Union Home Minister, Shah’s message to his audience was exactly the same as when he was BJP president: an exhortation to vote saffron because of an age-old common bond of fighting the Mughals (read 'Muslims').
Reviving Jat-Muslim Harmony
A communal narrative has netted the BJP huge rewards for three successive elections in Uttar Pradesh. But it won’t be so this time, insists the most prominent farmer face from western Uttar Pradesh and Bharatiya Kisan Union leader, Rakesh Tikait, whose emotional breakdown during the farm protests proved to be a turning point in strengthening the resolve of the agitators to brave it out till the government caved in.
The “old model” of communal polarisation will no longer work in Uttar Pradesh, Tikait said in his latest interview to a leading English daily. “Farmers forced to sell their produce at half price and hit by lathis know who to vote for,” he declared in a reference to the violence that was unleashed on the protesting farmers by the Uttar Pradesh police.
The BJP clearly thinks otherwise. It is convinced that what paid off in the three previous elections will work a fourth time. And why not? Western Uttar Pradesh still carries the scars of the 2013 Muzzaffarnagar communal violence which pitted Jats against Muslims and shattered a winning social and electoral alliance forged by north India’s tallest peasant leader, the late Choudhary Charan Singh.
His grandson and Rashtriya Lok Dal leader, Jayant Choudhary, is determined to repair that bond and restore the communal harmony that kept the wheels of the rural economy in western Uttar Pradesh turning smoothly through shared economic interdependence between Jats and Muslims.
His decision to ally with Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party is driven by this impulse, and the visible groundswell of anger among Jat farmers against the BJP over the farm laws seems to have created a favourable environment for the project.
The results on 10 March will tell us whether ground realities have shifted or whether the BJP is right in pursuing its tried-and-tested strategy of Hindu-Muslim polarisation.
The Same Old ‘Jinnah versus Ganna’ Pitch
The feeling of déjà vu is difficult to shake off. Reports from western Uttar Pradesh quote Jat farmers grumbling about unpaid sugar cane dues, inflation, high electricity and water costs, the stray cattle menace that has hit the agriculture economy thanks to cow protection vigilante groups, and pending cases against farmers who took part in the protests near Delhi. These are complaints that surface election after election.
But BJP campaigners seem unmoved. From Yogi Adityanath to Amit Shah to Rajnath Singh to J P Nadda, and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, all are reeling out the same old spiel as they have since 2014. They talk of ‘Jinnah versus ganna’, the so-called Hindu ‘exodus’ from Kairana, keeping wives and daughters of Hindus safe by locking away (Muslim) Mafia gangs and goons, the Ram temple (to which Kashi and Mathura have been added this time), and so on.
Amit Shah's Visit to Kairana
The Hindutva pitch is blatant and sometimes crude – like when Amit Shah visited Kairana where he kicked off his campaign.
Reports from there say he stuck to Hindu areas through his walkabout and avoided Muslim houses. In a bid to stoke old prejudices and fears, he repeatedly raised the Hindu “exodus” issue, which is now all but forgotten.
At the Qila gate market area, he chatted with a select group of Hindu traders, including a sweet seller. Ironically, the sweets shop is just a stone’s throw from the residence of sitting Kairana MLA Nahid Hasan of Samajwadi Party, who was arrested under the Gangster Act a week before Shah descended on the town. There were several Muslim houses nearby but Shah pointedly gave them a miss.
Rakesh Tikait's Clear Message to Farmers
To add punch to its Jat outreach, the BJP packed off its Jat MP from Muzzaffarnagar, Sanjeev Baliyan, to meet Rakesh Tikait’s brother, Naresh. The “courtesy call”, as Baliyan described it, yielded results but only briefly. Naresh Tikait issued a statement regretting his supportive comments of the SP-RLD alliance. “Hum thoda sa faltu bol gaye,” (I said some silly things) he said, sending the BJP social media cell into paroxysms of delight as it amplified his words on every platform possible.
Unfortunately, for the BJP, Naresh Tikait has gone silent since and it is his brother Rakesh who is doing the talking on behalf of their Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), with a clear message to farmers to keep their movement going so that the pressure is on to keep the government of the day in check (read BJP).
The BJP has not exhausted its bag of tricks yet. As polling day nears, its campaign is only likely to get more communal and more divisive. The first phase will be a test of whether the politics of religion and hate has run its course or still appeals to the voter at large.
(Arati R Jerath is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)