UP: Why do the Jats not want the BJP?

Abeer Kapoor

Jat leaders in western UP, across outfits, are working over-time to persuade their community to abandon the BJP

Jo Jat Bhajpa ko vote dega woh Jat beej ka nahin hai (Any Jat who votes for the BJP is not a child of the Jats), said the gravelly-voiced septuagenarian Shastriji, outside Cheetal Grand, a popular pit-stop, on the highway that connects Delhi to Muzaffarnagar. At a January 8 rally thousands of Jats came together and passed a resolution to not vote for the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly elections. Since then, various Jat organisations have been working all over western UP to convince members of their community to boycott the BJP in the polls. Angry at the perceived iniquity handed out to them by the party, they are displaying steely resolve to defeat the ruling party at the centre. If their actions bear fruit, it would not only spell defeat for the BJP in the Assembly polls but would have far-reaching implications at the national level. After all, it was the Jat support in western UP that provided the BJP the necessary traction to make a clean sweep of UP during the 2014 general election and propelled Narendra Modi to power. 

Electorally, Jats usually punch far above their weight. With just 17 percent votes, the Jats of western UP exert influence in nearly 125 of the 140 seats being contested. Of these, 104 seats are in the sugar belt. As polling launches from this area on February 11, it will have an impact on the remaining six phases also. In 2014, the crucial factor that heavily tipped the scales in the BJP’s favour was the overwhelming backing that the Jats gave it in the aftermath of the Muzaffarnagar communal riots the year before. The grisly bloodbath in Muzaffarnagar had reordered politics and the way local communities went about their daily business and life. 

The post-mortem conducted by Jat organisations of the voting trends of 2014 reveal that in regions where the Jat population held numerical sway, the BJP crushed all other parties. The Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), traditionally the party of the Jats, was decimated. Now the Jat leadership promises to conduct a surgical strike on the BJP and if the shift by the Jats away from the BJP is successful – as a pamphlet of the All India Jat Arakshan Sangharsh Samiti (AIJASS) doing the rounds says, “Hum Bhajpa ko khata nahin kholne denge” (We will ensure that the candidate of the BJP does not get even one vote) – it could alter the outcome or at least return the electoral trends in the region to normalcy. 

Why are the Jats shifting? 

The unfulfilled demand for reservation is one reason. Khatauli, a village in Muzaffarnagar district, is one of the hubs of the Jat Andolan. The district in-charge, Pramod Ahlawat of the AIJASS, says, “The Dalit, Muslim and the Yadav are not voting for the BJP, now the Jat won’t as well.” In the past month, Ahlawat has been working with five teams — of the 125 that have come from Rajasthan and Haryana to help with the door-to-door campaigning. “We go door-to-door and sit with the families and explain to them why they should not vote for the party, we have written material that we carry with us, and the teams from Haryana talk about the violence they faced at the hands of their government,” he says. 

The Jats have been demanding reservation for nearly two decades. The rise of the community as a formidable electoral and economic force in the region was a fortunate side-effect of the green revolution. Areas in the Upper Doab, the region that extends from Punjab and Haryana to western UP, saw the adoption of newer seed varieties of sugar cane and wheat and a massive adoption of newer irrigation technology like tubewells. The net result was that many Jats became wealthy landholders in the span of a decade. However, in recent times the large landholdings of the Jats have been broken up. A recurring question that Jats in villages like Bisada, Khatauli and Muzaffarnagar ask is: “How does one expect to earn from farming in five-bigha fields? That is less than an acre.” The fluctuating prices of crops don’t ensure any income security, and with falling plot sizes, the wealth of the community has dipped considerably. The agrarian system has witnessed near total collapse, in recent times – over nearly two years – the sugar mills have also defaulted on their payments. Mills in Shamli, Titawi and Malakpur have defaulted on the payments for the crops they have bought. Slowly, the image of a wealthy community exerting economic and electoral influence has eroded. The first demand for reservation by the AIJASS was made in 2011. 

The UPA government caved in to the demand and accorded the community reservation in March 2014, but a year later the Supreme Court struck down the order. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 promised that his government would work to ensure that reservation would be granted to the community. Despite the promise, no tangible results were seen. The AIJASS launched a peaceful protest in Haryana in February 2016, which took a horrifyingly violent turn. Everywhere you go from Baghpat to Muzaffarnagar, the story of the violence that the State unleashed on the protesting Jats has left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, “In Haryana, the police showed no compassion towards us. They killed so many of the protesters,” said Shastriji. Ahlawat continued, “Where there are no Muslims, Jats are made the enemy; they are called non-Hindus and are treated like dogs. In Muzaffarnagar, where it was convenient it was a Jat versus Muslim riot, in Haryana, it was all other Hindus versus the Jats.” The anger towards the state government in Haryana has snowballed, and is the driving force behind the mobilisation that is making its way to UP. This is clubbed together with the demand for reservation which for them is no longer a matter of want, but a need, “Reservation is linked to representation. Our children get 90 percent marks and still don’t get access to jobs or educational institutions,” continued Shastriji. If you ask him, the injustice meted out to Jats in Haryana will be costly for the BJP in the future. 

While numerically small, the Jats have considerable influence in many districts in western UP, like Baghpat, Muzaffarnagar, Shamli, Meerut and SBS Nagar, to name a few. “The Jat does not vote alone; he carries other castes with him. The Jat moves other castes and communities along with him,” says Surinder Pradhan in a backroom of Moonlight restaurant in Shamli town. That’s what the Jat community is hoping for, but this is easier said than done. 

Where are the Jats going? 

At a rally in Lisara village, 20 km outside Shamli town, RLD candidate Brijendra Singh Kirawa is followed by a group of about 150 youths who scream in unison, “Yeh Jat ki ghar wapasi hai” (The Jat is coming home). “We voted for the BJP in 2014 and we were misled again and again, and now we are going to vote for our party,” said an ecstatic youth as he followed Kirawa down the street. Lisara was one of the hotbeds of the communal clashes in 2013, and this is where they say that the return home will begin. Surindra Fauji, a member of the Jat organisation, says that they will bring back the RLD from the jaws of electoral death. Shamli town is Muslim-dominated and it will be interesting to see whether the Jats will vote for the RLD or fulfil the promise to topple the BJP and rally behind the strongest candidate. 

The local Jat leadership is looking to prop up the RLD as the default choice of the community. This narrative of returning home will probably inflict severe damage on the vote share of the BJP. Stitching a narrative of how the saffron party has been unfair to the legacy of Charan Singh, they are hitting out at the idea of swabhiman or self-respect of the Jat, “It is our party and what did the BJP do? It has disrespected our tallest leader, did they ask anyone else to empty out their houses? They forcibly made Ajit Singh empty Chaudhary Charan Singh’s house and that was wrong, on his birthday in December they didn’t even make an effort to commemorate him. What Ajit Singh has done for us must not be overlooked,” said Malik, a Jat outside Titawi Sugar Mill. They also look at Jayant Chaudhary as their leader, “He reminds us of his grandfather, he will bring together all the 34 different paals (sub-groupings),” said a union leader outside the mill. 

As if at the behest of the Jat leaders, the RLD has fielded candidates who are making it easier for the Jats to decide. They have fielded several Muslim candidates, in Charthawal they have fielded Salman Zaidi, in Purqazi it is Choti Begum and in Thanabhawan it is Javed Rao. The common belief is that seeing Jats vote for a Muslim candidate fielded by the RLD will draw Muslims to vote along with the Jats. At the same time, this will help in appeasing the Muslim community and rebuilding the Jat-Muslim alliance. Second, the RLD is the Jats’ party and the vote shift of the Jat is easier to convert for the RLD than the SP, BSP or the Congress. 

What are the hurdles? 

Historically, the strength of the Jat community lay in bringing together different groups into one unified, cascading vote. Now, four years after the riots that shred the social fabric of the region, the Jats are looking to rebuild burnt bridges. In Muzaffarnagar’s Loha Mandi, tea vendor Ashfaque is candid about the relationship between the two communities: “We don’t resent them for what happened, but we won’t vote with them anymore. What used to be, no longer is. In Jat-concentrated areas where there were Muslims they have moved out, and in Muslim areas where there were Jats, they have left. Large gates surround the colonies that were once open and free.” The wedge has widened, but the Jats are optimistic of patching up what was once a powerful political alliance. The optimism is not shared universally. 

“They’re coming back [the Muslims], but not immediately and not all of them; this election we might vote differently, but our gameplan is to change the voting pattern by 2019,” said Fauji. There are those who say, “If the Muslim is upset, so are we! They got compensation, what did we get?” The Samajwadi Party, according to the Jats, was hand-in-glove in the orchestration of the 2013 riots, “We got used like pawns, the Muslim went to the SP, we to the BJP.” It will be telling if the Muslim vote goes with the SP-Cong alliance and the Jat vote goes to the RLD. This could be advantageous for the BSP, or even the BJP. 

The popular stand keeps shifting – from preventing the BJP from winning in 2017, to making them lose in 2019. There are many Jats who are unsure whether they will be able to pull away large parts of the community in time, this time.

Even the shift of Jats is not complete: estimates range from anywhere between 25-60 percent. The BJP is hoping for a non-Muslim, non-Yadav alliance that would help it sail through in the region. The Jats are now being recognised as central to that mission, and the party has fielded 15 Jat candidates. Over and above this, Amit Shah met the Jat leadership. An audio clip documenting this interaction is doing the rounds on Whatsapp — its authenticity is unverified. In the clip, he beseeches the Jat to come back to the BJP, “In you moving away, we are losers, but so are you. We have to survive and so do you.” The idea that the Jat survival is based on voting for the BJP is the biggest public relations challenge. However, in the past two years, the Modi-led government has been perceived as anti-farmer, pro-corporate and, more important, anti-Jat. In these circumstances, the narrative of the old party, the RLD, Chaudhary Charan Singh’s legacy and the Jat pride, can swing the vote.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2017