VED SINGH GREETS you with a cautious smile, and in a show of restraint with a stranger, he twirls the right side of his mouth, just enough to differentiate a smile from a frown. He raises his eyebrows to ask about the purpose of our visit. Unlike many others in this relatively affluent village named Kinoni in the communally charged, riot-ravaged western Uttar Pradesh district of Muzaffarnagar, Singh is ready to talk politics, about how over the past five years the region has changed forever. “Riots are history,” he says, “but this place remains religiously polarised as ever. There is no violence, because it has gone from the surface to somewhere deeper, the mind.” He rants about the largesse bestowed by the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP) on Muslim refugees of the violence of 2013. Then he digresses. “Let bygones be bygones. We have all lost business over the years. And now, demonetisation has made it worse. My business has fallen by more than 30 per cent from pre-notebandi days. Of course, it had fallen drastically back in 2013 as well. The BJP has disappointed us. I will not vote for them for the first time in many years,” says this farmer-entrepreneur with a whiff of regret. His neighbour Rampal Singh, who had just had a haircut at a local barber shop, doesn’t want to talk much about the cash scarcity, though. He has had difficulties, but he offers the “greater good” argument and adds, “Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) lacks the political muscle, and so I will vote for the BJP because the competition in this region is between Hindus and Muslims.”
Kinoni is a Jat-dominated village where demonetisation is a contentious issue, discussed mostly in hushed tones. Right in front of me, Ved and Rampal get into a heated exchange over the topic. Youngsters interject to calm them down. “It is sure that this time the Jat votes will get split between the RLD and BJP, unlike in the 2014 elections,” Anand, who says he is a college student, whispers to me.
The BJP knew only too well that 2017 wasn’t going to be as smooth as 2014. The party was aware that religious hostilities would fade and it would need a new message for voters of the most populous state in the country, especially in western Uttar Pradesh, which has been a communal cauldron since the riots of 2013 that triggered mass migration and tensions even in the nearby districts of Shamli and Saharanpur. Cities such as Kairana and other major towns in Shamli known for their sugar and jaggery businesses have earned notoriety for their local politics with various religious leaders engaged in slugfests and endless stereotyping since then. The BJP’s MP from Kairana, Hukum Singh has refused to comment on his incendiary remarks that included warnings to Hindus in the area of another ‘partition of India’ and his claims of Hindus leaving in fear of Muslims to settle elsewhere. At the moment, he is busy promoting daughter Mriganka Singh, who is contesting the Kairana Assembly seat, much to the anguish of many other BJP contenders and party workers who resent nepotism. Meanwhile, Muslim leaders from Saharanpur, especially Imran Masood, have also made provocative statements in return.
The tone of the BJP campaign here has come full circle, it seems. From pushing a class divide until a few weeks ago to justify its demonetisation move, the party—which with its allies won 73 of UP’s 80 Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 General Election—has now slid back to its original battle-cry of ‘Hindus are in danger in UP’, a state where every fifth person is Muslim. BJP President Amit Shah betrayed signs of anxiety when he unveiled the party’s poll manifesto for the state on January 28th, vowing to work towards the building of a controversial Rama temple in Ayodhya if it came to power in Lucknow. This was a marked departure from its earlier poll narrative woven around Modi’s currency clampdown and the surgical strikes on militants in Pakistan in response to incursions and attacks on Indian Army installations.
THE VOLTE FACE IN the BJP’s poll strategy comes in the wake of an alliance between the SP, of which Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has emerged as the topmost leader, and the Congress party that could buttress the new front’s appeal for minorities. The SP, which has in the past two decades weaned away Muslim votes from the Congress, especially in the aftermath of the late-1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, had been accused of not doing enough to contain the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013. The news of a grand party organised by the party in Saifai, its founder Mulayam Singh Yadav’s hometown, even while riot victims were struggling to get their lives together, had not gone down well with the area’s Muslims— who along with Yadavs form the backbone of SP’s vote bank. However, a tie-up with the Congress, says Professor Sanjay Kumar, director at Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, makes the combine a formidable force now. It is not only attractive for Muslim voters who have lately voted tactically to keep the BJP at bay, but also ensures that non-BJP votes are not entirely divided (given that Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party is also vying for these).
Over the past three decades, the state has witnessed four-cornered contests, and the presence of a large number of Jats in western UP makes it an interesting poll battle to watch. There is a huge concentration of Jats in several places, especially in Baghpat, Muzaffarnagar, Meerut and Bulandshahr. The BJP faces two major challenges here: the presence of the predominantly Jat party led by Ajit Singh, RLD, means that Jat votes could get split as opposed to 2014 when the Modi wave swept the region, garnering a majority of these votes.
On the other hand, the SP and Congress are wary of a Hindu consolidation against any grouping that includes Muslims, a possibility heightened by the loud posturing of the latter’s leaders. The BJP has consistently argued that the welfare of Hindus is ignored by parties such as the SP, Congress and BSP. While the BSP has overtly taken a pro-Muslim line, the SP-Congress alliance has been careful about a pronounced pro-Muslim poll blitz so as not to alienate its sympathisers among Hindus who might be put off by such a stance in a polarised scenario.