New Delhi: The controversial farm laws have come to haunt the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s electoral arithmetic in western Uttar Pradesh.
Sunday’s massive farmer mahapanchayat in Muzaffarnagar saw Jats and Muslims come together, along with Gujjars, to protest these laws.
The farmer movement has given the Jats and Muslims a common cause against the BJP, and they are firmly leaving behind the bitterness of the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013.
The mahapanchayat was attended by three to four lakh farmers, according to officials’ estimates, and this number has sent BJP’s election heads scurrying to safeguard its prospects in a region where it has been traditionally weak.
Uttar Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Maurya retaliated by comparing the mahapanchayat with anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, saying the Congress and the Samajwadi Party supporters were adding to the numbers.
But the BJP is not taking this emerging voter equation lightly ahead of the 2022 assembly election.
Noting that the party had lost six Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 general polls, a senior state BJP leader said, “And this after the 2016 surgical strikes and the pro-nationalism wave after the Balakot air strikes! The victory margin of our leader Sanjeev Balyan from Muzaffarnagar was only 5,000. This was too slim for comfort. The growing camaraderie between Jats and Muslims plus farmer disenchantment can hurt us in Western UP,” he said.
The party held a media conference the very next day after the mahapanchayat to sympathise with the farmers’ cause, and called them ‘annadata’ (provider of food). Party leaders also promoted initiatives taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for farmer’s welfare.
At the wedding reception of Union Minister Pralhad Joshi’s daughter, Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar and Information & Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur too sang the government’s praise about steps taken to lighten the farmer’s burden — PM Samman Nidhi, reduction in urea prices and the constant discussions to thrash out the problems.
BJP strategists will now further woo farmers with schemes such as increasing sugar cane prices and holding more kisan panchayats, party sources said.
The party is also trying to mobilise small Jat farmers, while keeping up its polarisation game between Dalit and Backward Castes. The aim is to offset the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD)’s hold over the area.
The leader quoted above is in favour of starting talks afresh with farmers, but reiterated that the three farm laws — the point of contention between the protesting farmers and the Centre — will not be repealed. BJP MP from Kairana, Pradeep Kumar seconds this view. “We must open all channels of negotiation with farmers,” he said.
Farmer protests are taking place in Haryana’s Karnal and in Punjab too, but the BJP is not too bothered because the Haryana assembly election is far off while the party has little stake in Punjab.
Farmer agitation a uniting force
In western UP, with the reanimation of the old, powerful and victorious alliance of Jat and Muslims, it is a different kettle of fish for the BJP. Farmer sentiments seem to be soothing the animosity between the two communities.
In India’s most populous state, both the state government and the party are directing their verbal salvos at opposition leaders rather than farmers.
In Jat areas of western UP, the BJP plans to increase the price of sugarcane since a major demand of farmer leader Rakesh Tikait is to raise it from Rs 315 per quintal to Rs 360.
A senior central leader told ThePrint: “Farmer resentment in western UP is different from that in Punjab. Punjab has big mandis, and protests are due to fear that these may close. But in UP, the government can win back the Jats by hiking sugarcane prices. And, small peasants are angry because of pending dues.”
He added that the Yogi Adityanath-led government has already asked sugar mills to pay the dues.
The BJP’s woes are further exacerbated because it no longer has stalwarts like Kalyan Singh, who passed away this August, and Hukum Singh, who passed away in 2018, around. These leaders had a strong influence on Jats and other peasant communities in western UP.
At Kalyan Singh’s Lodh community, PM Modi made a major gesture by observing his terahvin (the 13th day of mourning) and naming roads and a medical college after him.
BJP insiders believe they need this Plan B if fresh negotiations with farmers do not work out. They say Rakesh Tikait has political ambitions of his own and a dialogue with popular go-between, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, may no longer be profitable.
“The time for more talks is almost over as the Samajwadi Party, the RLD and the Congress are openly supporting farmers. We will stress on the narrative that the real agenda of all political parties is to only defeat Modi. The PM will continue to show respect to farmers at rallies. But he will attack those who do politics in their name. That will be our strategy,” said a party leader requesting anonymity.
Party MP from western UP’s Meerut Rajendra Agarwal told ThePrint: “The Modi government has held 11 rounds of talks with farmers. Unfortunately, the movement is being steered by misguided people. Opposition parties want to defeat Modi at all costs. Their workers have infiltrated the farmers’ movement.”
Breaking Mayawati’s vote base
The other plan is to polarise the Dalit votes, party sources said. Except Jatavs, other Dalit castes have supported the BJP in the last few elections.
Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party got 19 per cent votes in the last assembly polls, but the BJP managed most of the non-Jatav Dalit castes. Now with Mayawati’s subdued activism and BJP’s emphasis on Hindutva, the party plans to breach the last remaining fortress —Mayawati’s Jatavs.
BJP’s answer to the Jat-Muslim unity will, therefore, be to harness the upper castes like Brahmins, Rajput and Banias along with Dalits and OBCs. It will also rally the small farmers against the larger Jat ones.
The Jat-Muslim relationship, while still fragile, has been on the mend. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, 71 per cent Jats had voted for BJP. This went up to 91 per cent in 2019.
However, in the immediate aftermath, the impact of the Muzaffarnagar riots was so severe that even Chaudhary Ajit Singh, the late RLD chief, had to face successive defeats — first from Baghpat and then from Muzaffarnagar.
In 2012, the BJP bagged only 38 seats out of 110 in western UP, and boosted its tally to 88 seats in 2017. This was because Jats went against Muslims after the 2013 riots and voted BJP.
In the present circumstances, Akhilesh Yadav’s SP can consolidate its 11 per cent core Yadav votes and 18 per cent Muslims with Jats and other OBCs.
By the SP’s side is the RLD which can further garner at least two dozen seats in western UP on the back of the Jat-Muslims. RLD leader Jayant Chaudhary is constantly feeding this unity through bhaichara sammelans.
Helping the RLD is the legacy of Jayant Chaudhary’s grandfather, Chaudhary Charan Singh, the former prime minister who was the tallest leader of the Jatland and had the support of Jats, Muslims, Yadavs (Ahir), Gujjars and Rajputs (MAJGAR).
In 2014, Narendra Modi had started his election campaign from western UP’s Meerut by remembering the legacy of Charan Singh. He managed to make a big dent in the Jatland, albeit with the help of polarisation.