UP Elections: On the BJP Campaign Trail

UP Elections: On the BJP Campaign Trail

By Amit Bhardwaj

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Usually at this time of the year, the farms of western Uttar Pradesh await the harvest of sugarcane. This year is different. The numerous flags, hoardings and billboards along National Highway (NH) 58 tell you that it’s election season. On November 5, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flagged off its first parivartan rath (a 12-seater bus worth Rs 20 lakhs) from Saharanpur kick-starting its electoral campaign. From three other different parts of UP — Jhansi, Sonbhadra and Balia — similar raths began their journey towards Lucknow.

Western UP has always been important for the political landscape of the state; farmer rallies here have shifted the locus of power — both in the state and at the centre. This year, the ghosts of the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots haunt the air.

On November 11, one of the four raths was travelling from Budhana via Charthawal, two of the five assembly constituencies of Muzaffarnagar. This leg of the journey featured BJP legislator Suresh Rana and Muzaffarnagar MP and Union Minister of State (MoS) Sanjeev Balyan, both of whom were accused in the communal riots in which over 60 died and approximately 40,000 were displaced.

The rath stopped every kilometre and a half, for short speeches and to play ‘desi-styled’ songs on how Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi would save UP. Other than Rana and Balyan, MoS Jitendra Singh was also a part of the yatra.

 From the top of the Parivartan Rath (the chariot of change), Rana, 46, kept reminding the gathered spectators of the Muzaffarnagar riots. A few kilometres from Shahpur town, the Shamli legislator asked the small crowd that had arrived to welcome BJP’s cavalcade, “Dange kisne karae? (Who was responsible for riots)?” The people responded, “Azam Khan ne, Azam Khan ne”.

Khan is the Muslim face and close aide of governing Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav (MSY). Rana promised the crowd that if the BJP came to power, it would ensure Rampur legislator Khan would be behind bars.

There’s a communal bias that BJP’s campaign is promoting subtly. Rana is one of the BJP leaders appointed as vice president of UP-BJP in July. In several of his addresses, he said, “Ek taraf hai Naseemudin, ek taraf hai Azam Khan, ek taraf hai Iqbal Bala, ek taraf hai Kadir Rana aur ek taraf hai Sanjeev Balyan aur Suresh Rana … chant lo (On one side you have Naseemudin [Siddiqui], Azam Khan, Iqbal Bala, Kadir Rana and on the other side you have Sanjeev Balyan and Suresh Rana…select one)”. Kadir, Bala and Siddiqui are leaders from Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and it is perhaps not a coincidence that they are also all Muslim.

Rana saved his vitriol for Kadir: “Kadirwale jail jaenge (Those like Kadir will be in jail). Nobody will dare to touch our sisters like happened during in 2013 which led to the riots.” Kadir, like Rana, is an accused in the riots and was the elected MP from Muzaffarnagar in 2013. He blamed the SP for the arrest of hundreds of Hindu youths for the riots, claiming, “If they were not wrongly implicated, they would have joined the army so far”.

 It’s not as though Parivartan Yatra didn’t see any other issues raised. Singh’s addresses were about the achievements of the Modi government, such as India’s response to a violation of the ceasefire by Pakistan and the ‘surgical strike’ on both — the neighbouring nation and black money. Balyan spoke on a variety of issues, such as pending sugarcane dues, providing subsidies to farmers instead of sugarcane mills, and the lawlessness in UP.

 As the rath slowly wound its way through villages and towns, the popularity that and support that BJP enjoys in the Hindu areas was unmistakable. Hundreds of bikers, wearing shirts with Balyan’s face on them, joined the cavalcade of the rath and 10 Innovas for stretches. Several SUVs would randomly join the other vehicles on the trip. When the rath went through residential areas, people showered flowers on them from their windows and balconies. Chants of Modi rang through the streets as the rath made its way.

Notably, on the way from Baghra to Charthawal, tractors joined the rally in large numbers. Tractors have been an integral part of the political culture of Western UP. They were a show of strength during former Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh and later were taken up by Jat farmer leader Mahendra Singh Tikait. “When a farmer joins the political rally with his tractor, it shows his commitment to the party,” Balyan told Newslaundry as we crossed green farmlands. “These are not our stronghold areas…despite this can you see the kind of support we are getting from farmers?” He said that the response in Baghpat had been just as overwhelming.

 The farm belt of western UP, dominated mostly by Jats, has traditionally been a source of support for Charan Singh’s son and political heir Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD). It is believed that after the RLD’s rout during the 2014 general elections, Mayawati’s BSP made inroads in these areas. However, Balyan’s team managed a good show.

When the rally entered Khusropur village, children came out with flowers. It was here that the BJP’s strategy for the 2017 assembly election became clearer. Balyan urged the villagers to ignore their individual and caste-based politics in this election. “Party ko vote dena (vote for the party),” he emphasised. One could sense the reason behind such as appeal — the Hindu vote-bank is divided along caste lines and in contrast, the Muslim vote is consolidated (and traditionally goes to SP). According BJP leaders, the party’s prospects depend upon being able to bring the entire Hindu community, all castes included, together.

“We want Hindus from all castes, including backward and Dalit communities to come together to fight the Muslim vote bank,” Vimal Sharma, the coordinator for western Parivartan Yatra, told Newslaundry. Jang Bahadur Singh, a commerce graduate, from the village of Amin Nagar, agreed. “Char mein se teen candidate Muslim honge, isliye hum BJP ke sath hain (Three of the four candidates will be Muslims. That’s why we are with BJP).”

A few hundred meters ahead Muslim households began, as the the rath was leaving Khusropur. Here, there were no supporters on the streets and the rally got a cold and cautious response. This remained a trend in almost every Muslim area that the rally crossed.

A senior BJP leader, on condition of anonymity, said that despite the pleas to ignore caste, it was too important a factor in Western UP to be cast aside, particularly in assemblies adjacent to Muzaffarnagar. After Jats, Kashyap (classified as Other Backward Classes) and the Saini community come in second and third place (in terms of population). Balyan admitted that traditionally these are not the BJP’s vote bank. While the party is likely to keep caste combinations in mind when distributing the tickets. it will also bolster its arguments with emotional agendas like nationalism.

As Rana, Balyan and other BJP leaders addressed a meeting of no less than 400 people at a banquet hall in Charthawal, we spoke to a few supporters gathered there. Sachin Chauhan, 14, and his friend Shivam Keshri, 12, waited for the address for four hours. When asked why, Sachin said, “BJP ko support karne aae hain … Sanjeev Balyan [PM] Modi ka aadmi hai (We are here to support BJP … Sanjeev Balyan is Modi’s man).” A 56-year-old labourer from Nagala Rai village, Sukhbir, held a BJP flag with Sanjay Dhiman’s name – a ticket aspirant – and said he too would vote BJP. We asked him what he would do if Dhiman was not given ticket. “Fir biradari ki baat hai, sochna padega (then it will become matter of caste, I will have to think),” he said.

It’s perhaps to counter these caste and community loyalties that the BJP’s campaign relies heavily upon Islamophobia and nationalism. Rana repeatedly spoke about the surgical strike and commended the government’s response to each bullet fired from Pakistan with a cannon. Modi’s demonetisation policy was also a favourite and was aimed specifically against Mayawati and her party.

It isn’t just the references made that are significant, but where and when they’re introduced. Pitting four Muslim names against Hindu leaders in riot-hit Muzaffarnagar  makes such references critical. The BJP’s strategy is to ignore the Muslim vote bank (which has traditionally supported SP) and instead bring the Hindu population together across caste lines. While Muslims form 19.2 percent of UP’s population while Dalits are 20.5 percent. With the assembly elections scheduled for March 2017, it’s easy for political parties to use communal rhetoric in their speeches. The question is, in which direction will UP’s voters sway?