Lucknow: Next month’s assembly polls in Gujarat and municipal elections in Delhi may be dominating the political discourse in the country, but it’s an assembly bypoll in Muzaffarnagar district’s Khatauli that’s creating a buzz in Uttar Pradesh.
The bypoll, scheduled on 5 December, was necessitated by the disqualification of BJP MLA, Vikram Singh Saini, following his conviction in a Muzaffarnagar riots case. His wife Rajkumari will now contest on a BJP ticket.
Significantly, repeated poll references to the 2013 communal riots played a role in helping the BJP consolidate its hold in western UP. Over the years, two names in particular were often heard in the speeches of BJP leaders — those of Sachin Singh and Gaurav Chaudhary.
These two Jat youngsters were reportedly lynched by a mob of Muslims on 27 August, 2013, while they were attempting to escape after allegedly killing Shah Nawaz, a resident of Kawal village in Khatauli, purportedly over an eve-teasing incident. This triggered a series of clashes between Hindus and Muslims, leading to the deaths of over 60 people.
However, while BJP leaders had repeatedly invoked the names of the two Jat youths in the run-up to the 2014 general elections, and in all successive assembly and parliamentary polls in 2017, 2019 and 2022, party leaders have refrained from doing so while campaigning for the Khatauli bypoll.
The reason: Gaurav’s mother, Sureshwati Devi, is contesting as an independent candidate, claiming that her son’s name was used for political gains, but he didn’t get justice. “Ever since the riots, there has not been a single election when BJP leaders have not used the names of Sachin and Gaurav in their poll speeches,” said Gaurav’s father Ravindra Kumar.
While filing her nomination earlier this month, Sureshwati Devi had said that her son could not get justice and that no leader came to meet them except on the two youths’ death anniversaries.
“We campaigned for [BJP] in every election. They kept on using our sons’ names, but never thought about their families after that,” Ravindra Kumar alleged. He added they went to Lucknow three times this year to meet Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, but were not granted an audience.
“No one came to visit us. Former president of the BJP’s UP unit, Laxmikant Bajpai, had promised that the Malikpur road (connecting Malikpur village in Jansath block in Khatauli to neighbouring villages) will be built. Despite some money being allocated for that, a part of the road which was built came off soon after it was laid. Rajnath Singh had promised that help will be extended to fight cases against our family (in connection with Muzaffarnagar riots) but we never got any help,” he alleged.
Ravindra said that while the BJP had used the names of two youths “in every election,” the families had decided they would not “let them use it this time”.
Khatauli is part of the Jat-dominated Muzaffarnagar parliamentary constituency where the BJP had lost four of six assembly seats in the elections held in March this year, believed to be an effect of the prolonged agitation against the now-repealed farm laws brought in by the Modi government in 2020. It did, however, manage to clinch the Khatauli seat, with Saini getting over 16,000 votes.
For the upcoming bypoll, the BJP line of attack has been mostly restricted to targeting rival Samajwadi Party-Rashtriya Lok Dal (SP-RLD) candidate Madan Bhaiya for being an alleged “bahubali (strongman)” and “outsider” (not a Khatauli resident). While there may still be a few mentions of the riots in speeches of leaders like Muzaffarnar MP and Union minister Sanjeev Balyan, the names of Sachin and Gaurav are conspicuous by their absence.
The SP-RLD combine has meanwhile, been hitting out at the BJP for fielding Saini’s wife, Rajkumari for the seat, while criticising the opposition for “dynastic politics”.
Frequent invocation of riots, to rare mention
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won 71 of 80 parliamentary seats in UP, riding on the Modi wave. However, some political experts believe that the party was also able to benefit from its rhetoric around the Muzaffarnagar riots.
“While the majoritarian narrative had been building up for quite some time even before the riots, the BJP managed to seize the moment by capitalising on it,” said Mirza Asmer Beg, professor of political science at Aligarh Muslim University.
In February 2016, Umesh Malik, then BJP executive member, had stood next to Balyan during an election rally and claimed that the “embers” from the riot had helped Narendra Modi become PM, and that it was a matter of “identity and honour”.
Cut to the present, and BJP leaders are shying away from even commenting on the allegations and candidature of Sureshwati Devi.
Speaking to ThePrint, former BJP MLA Saini claimed that the Khatauli bypoll was a one-sided election and expressed confidence that his wife Rajkumari, who has been fielded by the BJP, will register a bigger win than him
“My wife will win by 50,000-60,000 votes. It is a one-sided election,” he said.
He declined to comment on the allegations made by Sureshwati Devi and her husband, Ravindra.
A mixed electorate
There are reportedly 3,12,000 voters in Khatauli. The electorate comprises about 77,000 Muslims, 57,000 Dalits, and also over 70,000 voters from various OBC communities.
The OBC voters include 27,000 Sainis, 19,000 Pals, and 17,000 Kashyaps.
The constituency has about 16,000 voters from the Jat community and 20,000 from the Gurjar caste.
The SP-RLD combine has its hopes pinned on reaching this Jat-Muslim-Gurjar-Dalit vote bank and has fielded a Gurjar candidate, Madan Bhaiya, for the seat.
Dalit leader Chandrashekhar Azad’s Azad Samaj Party has also extended support to Bhaiya.
The BJP has, meanwhile, has meanwhile deputed leaders and ministers from across castes — OBC, SC, and upper caste — to campaign in Khatauli. The list includes Kapil Dev Agarwal, Narendra Kumar Kashyap, Dinesh Khatik, Jaswant Singh Saini, Gulab Devi, Jitin Prasada, and UP deputy CM Brajesh Pathak.
‘Outsider’ versus ‘parivarvaad’
While SP-RLD candidate Bhaiya is battling allegations of being a bahubali and an ‘outsider’, the combine is hoping to cash in on support from the Azad Samaj Party and the disillusionment among the Tyagi community in Khatauli over the Shrikant Tyagi controversy in Noida.
The self-proclaimed BJP member was arrested earlier this year for allegedly abusing a woman in his residential complex and is currently out on bail. His family members have claimed mistreatment at the hands of the police and spokespersons of the community have announced a “boycott” of the BJP in the Khatauli bypoll.
Tyagis, a community of Brahmin landowners, are mostly concentrated in five villages in Khatauli. Though a small part of the population, they wield considerable clout.
The SP-RLD combine has also been accusing the BJP of fielding a convicted MLA’s wife, despite claims of not indulging in “parivarvaad (dynastic politics)” and targeting other parties over it.
“By fielding Vikram’s (Saini) wife, the BJP has indulged in parivarvaad,” alleged the SP’s Muzaffarnagar district president, Pramod Tyagi.
The popular sentiment on the ground, however, appeared to be that the SP-RLD had spoilt its chances by its choice of candidate.
“The SP-RLD had a good chance for swinging the poll in their favour, but since they have fielded a candidate who is being seen as an outsider and bahubali, a local Gurjar leader (Abhishek Chaudhary) has rebelled against the candidature,” Navneet Tyagi, a Muzaffarnagar resident told ThePrint.
His comments were echoed by Chaudhary, a former RLD leader who joined the BJP earlier this month after being denied a ticket for the Khatauli bypolls. Chaudhary told ThePrint that the party had let down its workers by fielding an “outsider and bahubali” like Madan Bhaiya.
He added that the SP-RLD combine was unlikely to benefit much from the Azad Samaj Party’s support, pointing out that the latter’s candidate Manoj Panwar had got only 824 votes here in the assembly elections in March.
According to Navneet Tyagi, “the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) vote bank” could become the “deciding factor” in the seat. The Mayawati-led BSP has refrained from contesting the bypolls and “it has been seen that the Dalit vote usually goes with the BJP in absence of BSP”.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)