Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections: Why Phase 1 polling is a do-or-die moment for Yogi Adityanath

Caste and community equations in western Uttar Pradesh are in a state of flux after a year of street protests on the borders of Delhi brough...

Caste and community equations in western Uttar Pradesh are in a state of flux after a year of street protests on the borders of Delhi brought farmers of various shades together on one platform to oppose the Modi government’s agricultural reform laws.

The laws have since been scrapped and farmers are back in their fields. But a mood of restlessness and uncertainty prevails as voters rethink old paradigms and weigh new options in the changed climate.

In this file image, farmers block a railway track during a protest denouncing three farm laws approved by Parliament in September. AP

Assembly polls in UP kick off in this region on 10 February and of the seven phases into which the state elections have been divided, this first one is perhaps the most critical for the BJP.

Western UP has been the party’s citadel since 2014. In three successive elections, it set the stage for a saffron sweep of UP by generating a hawa that netted the BJP stunning victories in the Lok Sabha polls of 2014 and 2019 and the Assembly polls of 2017.

In the last Assembly polls five years ago, for instance, it won 53 of the 58 seats where polling will be held on 10 February. At any time, this would be a challenge to replicate. Today, the BJP’s formidable election juggernaut is spluttering and heaving at the enormity of the task ahead.

Several X-factors are at play in this phase. The pivotal one is the impact that the farmers’ agitation has had on rural communities in the area for whom agriculture is the chief source of livelihood. The Jat vote is in special focus for two reasons. One is that they have been wedded to the BJP since the 2013 Muzzaffarnagar riots. They have not wavered in their loyalty and even defeated the late son (Ajit Singh) and grandson (Jayant Chaudhry) of their tallest leader, Chaudhry Charan Singh, in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

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The other reason is that Jats were the driving force of the farm protests and suffered lathi blows from UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s police to stand up for their cause. In the process, the BJP seems to have lost a valuable ally in Rakesh Tikait who is the acknowledged leader of the Jat community today and became the most prominent face of the agitation after he broke down in tears over the brutal treatment meted out to the protestors. Tikait was with the BJP in the three previous elections but this time, he has turned his back on the party, at least in his public utterance.

File image of Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Rakesh Tikait. PTI

It is curious that western UP is popularly called the Jat belt. Actually, Jats only comprise around 17-18 percent of the population. The rest is a mixed bag of upper castes like Rajputs and Banias, middle caste peasantry like the Gujjars, Sainis and Tyagis, and a sizeable Dalit population of Valmikis and Jatavs. There are also pockets with concentrated Muslim populations which range from over 20 percent in places like Meerut and Kairana to more than 40 percent in Muzzafarnagar and Shamli.

Despite their not so large numbers, Jats wield considerable influence because of their economic clout and their muscle power. Which is why the BJP has consistently wooed them since the early 1990s. It struck gold finally after the 2013 riots when it succeeded in breaking the traditional Jat-Muslim social alliance and welcomed the community into the Hindutva fold.

Much to the BJP’s chagrin, the farm protests brought Jats and Muslims together in panchayat meeting after meeting where both communities resolved to put their past enmity behind them and fight to defeat the lotus.

It remains to be seen whether the resolve holds till the election or whether the BJP’s corrosive polarising campaign has succeeded in reviving the bitterness between the two communities. The party has spared no effort in wooing the Jats back. Union ministers, senior leaders and RSS workers have been traversing the entire region on foot with Home Minister Amit Shah doing a series of door-to-door campaigns. All have raised the by now familiar tropes of the so-called “Hindu exodus” from Kairana, the restoration of law and order by locking up goondas and mafias (read Muslims), the centuries-old common bond of fighting the Mughals and so on.

The BJP hopes it has managed to pull back its wavering Jat vote but should there be a revival of Charan Singh’s winning formula of Jats, Muslims and Dalits, the party could be in trouble. More so because it has to sweep the first phase to build the momentum for the remaining six phases.

The second X-factor that could turn the result is the Muslim vote. As mentioned earlier, this phase has several seats with a concentrated minority population. Should the Muslim vote consolidate on one side, it could alter the political landscape.

The BJP tends to depend on a split in the Muslim vote on one side and Hindu consolidation on the other. Muslims, however, are under siege in Yogi Adityanath’s UP and have virtually disappeared from the surface. This is the subtext of Hindu praise for Yogi’s success on the law and order front. But it has now become a question of survival for the community. If they vote one way, things could become sticky for the BJP, particularly in seats where Muslims number 30 percent and above.

Indian Muslims. Representational Image from Reuters

But these elections are not just about caste and community as UP polls tend to be. For the first time, economic issues have come to the fore as voters assess the damage to their livelihoods from the double whammy of demonetisation and the Covid lockdown. Several surveys have stressed the sharp fall in income levels of the bottom 40 percent. Their distress has been compounded by the stagnation in agriculture, falling economic indicators, growing joblessness and the mismanagement of the pandemic.

It will be interesting to see if economic factors will influence an election for the first time, or it’s back to basics in emotive issues.

The writer is a veteran journalist and political commentator. Views expressed are personal.

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