The importance of the eight constituencies going to the polls in western Uttar Pradesh on 11 April is not lost on Prime Minister Narendra Modi or on gatbandhan supremos Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav and Ajit Singh. For each of the gatbandhan leaders, it's a battle to save their political legacy.
No leader epitomises this more than Ajit, leader of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), who is waging a rear guard action for his political survival.
The constituencies where this battle is being waged are Baghpat, Kairana, Saharanpur, Muzzafarnagar, Meeruit, Bijnore, Gautam Budh Nagar and Ghaziabad.
Modi knows that the polling here will determine the voting trends for the other crucial 73 seats in Uttar Pradesh. He is hoping his charisma along with his battle cry of national security will help the BJP notch up these seats. Whereas, the gatbandhan is confident that the solid phlanx of Muslim, Yadav and Dalit voters will help them cross the winning line.
The Jats, who have played a key role in the politics of western Uttar Pradesh, having seen their farmer leader Chaudhary Charan Singh catapulted to the post of prime minister, should vote in one voice, but they remain a divided lot. In 2014, they admit to having cast their vote in favour of Modi but this time around they continue to hedge their bets on who they will vote for.
The village of Malmajra in the heart of Baghpat epitomises the reality of the Jat temperament. Farmer Sanjay Chillar, sitting in front of a large framed photograph of Chaudhary Charan Singh, pointed out, "We used to earlier vote for Ajit Singh but in 2014, there was a Modi wave and we all voted for the kamal (lotus, election symbol of BJP). MP Satyapal Singh has done a lot of work for us including ensuring that the road construction work that had been held up for the last 40 years gets completed in our area."
Chillar insists that Jats in his village will continue to vote for the BJP, but Jats in the nearby village of Binoli speak in a contrary voice. The Jat farmers here are upset at what they believe were disparaging references Modi made in a public rally held in Saharanpur last week when he spoke against Ajit and his son Jayant Chaudhary.
Modi had described Ajit as being opportunistic and working out of self interest since he had not helped the riot-affected victims in Muzzafarnagar in 2013. "Why should he speak out against our Jat leader in this manner? Jayant is our candidate in Baghpat and our biradiri will support Ajit in Muzzafarnagar also," says a farmer from Binoli.
Dalits and Muslims of Binoli also speak in one voice when it comes to supporting Jayant.
Brahmanand, a farmer who also owns a sweet shop and is a Jatav, however, is upset for other reasons. "The water of the Krishna and the Hindon rivers are black because of effluents and high sewage levels. Our children are being forced to drink that water. Despite repeated representations to the government, no effort has been made to clean these rivers," said Brahmanand.
RLD leader Ajit believes that Modi showed his nervousness when he mentioned both him and Jayant in the election rally. "This is an either or election. There is no room for a third party. The Jat voters are solidly behind me. We will also get the votes of the Dalits. Mayawati’s voters work silently. They go from house to house and are telling the voters that this time they must not vote for the elephant but for the RLD chinh (symbol)," said Ajit.
Farmers across this sugarcane belt are upset with Modi and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath because despite their assurances that all sugar can dues would be cleared by April, more than Rs 13,000 crore continues to be owed to approximately 35 lakh registered sugarcane families.
Farmers also complain about how labour, diesel, fertiliser and pesticide costs have risen sharply in the last five years while a glut in sugarcane production has seen prices come crashing down.
But the upper most question in the minds of Jat voters is whether Ajit will be able to defeat sitting MP Sunil Balayan.
Manoj Kumar Jain who owns a paint shop in the main market place of Muzzafarnagar expresses confidence that Balyan will cruise to victory.
"Balyan has done a lot of work in his constituency. He has help get the road constructed. He has helped kick-start several higher educational institutions. My own son can now do his BTech from Muzzafarnagar, otherwise I would have had to send him to Delhi. Balyan has also helped us get a double track railway line between Muzzafarnagar and Saharanpur for which we had been clamouring for several years," said Jain who was earlier a Congress supporter, but in 2014 switched loyalties and voted in favour of Modi.
Muslims who form around 25 percent of the voting share in these constituencies are solidly behind the gatbandhan, though. Speaking to Muslims shop keepers in both Muzzafarnagar, Baghpat and Kairana, they point out they will support the gathbandhan.
"In Baghpat and Muzzafarnagar, there is no gatbandhan candidate so obviously we will support Jayant and Ajit," said Ahmed Hasan who runs a scooter repair workshop on the main Bahgpat-Muzzafarnagar Road.
In Kairana and Saharanpur constituencies where the Congress have put up candidates, the key question is whose vote bank will they eat into?
"Imran Masood, the Congress candidate from Saharanpur, is extremely popular and in the 2014 election, he had managed to get over four lakh votes but was still defeated by the BJP. Masood is expected to eat into the gatbandhan vote in this city and that is why there is a strong possibility that their candidate Fazlur Rahman may have to bite the dust against Raghav Lakhanpat (BJP candidate) who was accused of fanning communal violence during the Saharanpur riots," said Tanvir Ahmed, owner of a restaurant on the Kairana-Saharanpur road.
The Kairana contest is equally hotly contested though Tabassum Hasan standing on an Samajwadi Party ticket, and is expected to defeat both her BJP and Congress rivals Pradeep Chaudhary and Harendra Singh Malik, respectively.
Dr Jagmohan Singhal, a physician by profession, claims that most of his patients speak highly of Modi and will cast their vote for BJP canidate Pradeep. Young people across all constituencies are also strong votaries for the BJP and they maintain it is Modi’s personal popularity which is going to help the party and not the work done by the sitting candidates, most of whom they maintain have done little work on the ground.
Ram Veer Rathi, a local activist in Kairana, however, believes that Tabassum will manage to win because even if the 1.5 lakh Jat vote in Kairana gets divided, the 5.8 lakh Muslims and the 2.25 lakh Dalits will vote for her.
"The Jat community takes offense easily. They are upset with chief minister Adityanath for having said in an election rally that Ajit bheek mang ne ghar ghar ja rahe hain," said Rathi.
His words were echoed by Charat Bansal, a local businessman, "Fifteen percent of the Jats will vote for Congress another 20 percent for the BJP but the remaining decisive vote bank will go to Tabassum," maintained Bansal.
“This election isn’t just about saving the country’s democracy but also the glorious legacy given to us by our past Jat leaders. It is also about saving leaders who have represented the farmers' viewpoint in the Parliament and across several other platforms,” said Karnal Singh, a farmer on main Baghpat road.
Several Jats repeat the magical tale of how Chaudhary Charan Singh will start appearing in their dreams a few days before voting and whisper to them who they should vote for. This time, the Jats claim, he has been coming to them in their sleep and telling them to cast their precious votes in favour of his son and grandson.
Ajit is confident that his father will help him tide over this crucial battle. "The night before the election, Chaudhary Charan Singh will come to the Jat voters in their dream and tell them which symbol to caste their vote for," he said.
How far this message of a mythical dream will help unite the divided Jat voters will be known once the results are out on 23 May. But sending out this message seems to help create a semblance of unity in what remains a divided legacy.
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Updated Date: Apr 10, 2019 22:05:43 IST