There is an air of bitterness that hangs over Western Uttar Pradesh in a season that’s usually a sweet harvest. Stalks of ripe sugarcane, laden with juice, sway in the gentle breeze as gangs of farm labour work their sickles feverishly, harvesting the most important crop in this region. But the mood of the people in the heartland of the sugarcane belt of India is weighed down by the still-fresh memories of the 378-day farmers agitation in which more than 700 tillers lost their lives.
Any conversation with the villagers in the heart of Jat-land is generously peppered with words like jhooth (lies), dhoka (betrayal) and bejaati (humiliation) just like the overloaded tractor-trailers and trucks with high stacks of the cash crop that dot virtually every country road snaking through the villages. They talk about how the BJP governments, both at the Centre and in the state, have not only renegaded on their electoral promises, but also heaped humiliation upon the farmers during the agitation by calling them names. The question is to what extent this simmering anger will alter the taste of the electoral brew remains to be seen on March 10 when the results come in.
The first thing that becomes apparent on the drive from Loni on Delhi’s border to Shamli through Baghpat, Baraut, and Chhaprauli is the conspicuous absence of BJP flags and festoons on the rooftops of the houses that line the NH709A. Instead, the white and green flag with the Rashtriya Lok Dal’s (RLD) symbol of a handpump flutter in the breeze, foretelling the shifting political winds like weathervanes. In the first phase of the UP elections, 58 assembly constituencies in Western UP will go to the polls on February 10. In the 2017 UP Assembly elections, in which the BJP won a record-breaking 325 seats, a saffron storm blew through the Jat-dominated area, picking up 53 seats. But history, most certainly, won’t repeat itself in this region in 2022.
“This time we are firmly behind the gathbandhan (Samajwadi party-Rashtriya Lok Dal alliance),” says Jawahar Chaudhry, a retired schoolteacher and community elder in village Banthala in Loni constituency. Chaudhry, in his late sixties, is a witness to the halcyon days of Chaudhry Charan Singh — the tallest Jat politician — to the rise of the BJP in Western UP. “In Loni, the sitting BJP MLA, Nandkishor, will finish fourth,” he predicts. “The fight is between Madan Bhaiya (RLD) and Ranjita Dhama (independent). In the past three elections (2014, 2017 and 2019), more than 70% of Jat votes went in favour of the BJP, but this time it’s exactly the opposite. The current MLA has done nothing for the constituency in the past five years. Instead, he has just looked after his interests.”
It’s nobody’s case that the BJP reaped a great electoral harvest in the past three elections in Western UP due to the intense polarisation in the wake of the 2013 Muzaffarnagar communal riots. But more than the year-long farmers agitation played a cataclysmic role in finally bridging the divide between the Hindu and Muslim communities. It was a culmination of a reconciliation process that was initiated by Charan Singh’s son, Ajit after 2017 through bhaichara baithaks (brotherhood meetings) in villages. Now, Ajit’s son, Jayant Chaudhry has picked up the mantle. “The BJP has tried hard to whip up communal divisions this time even, but it hasn’t worked at all,” says the retired schoolteacher. “Jobs for our youth, timely payment for sugarcane, crop damages by stray cattle following the ban by the Yogi (Adityanath) government on cow slaughter, electricity price for agriculture etc., are far more pressing issues here. But the BJP just keeps on harping the Hindu-Muslim binary. People are not interested anymore because they know that it’s a futile exercise.” The state of roads, heaps of garbage and marauding herds of abandoned cattle on the streets script a tale of neglect by the people’s representative and the government machinery in Loni.
In neighbouring Baghpat, people on the street wore an indifferent attitude towards news of the home minister and the BJP’s chief election strategist, Amit Shah coming to town for door-to-door campaigning on January 6. If news reports in the mainstream press are to be taken on face value, it would seem that a close contest between the BJP and the SP-RLD alliance is in the offing. But Muslims, who make up around 28% of the population, seem to think otherwise. “This time, the entire Muslim vote is with the RLD, unlike the 2017 election when it was fractured,” says Shakeel Ahmad with a determined wag of his forefinger as he tucked in another morsel of mutton korma and naan at the Nasir Restaurant, straddling the main crossing on the national highway.
Ahmad’s observation is not an aberration. Harinder Dhama of Sankhrod village, six kilometres off the highway concurs. “In this election, Muslims are not going to vote in chunks for other parties,” says Dhama. “They and the Jats are with the RLD. For example, in this constituency, the sitting BJP MLA is Yogesh Dhama from my community, but we are supporting RLD’s Ahmad Hamid. In fact, Yogesh is not even welcome in our village.” For people like Dhama, whose family owns 120 bighas of land, protecting his crops from stray cattle is a more pressing concern. “Every farmer is suffering because of crop damage. I have to spend ₹3-4 lakh to fence my entire land to prevent cattle from entering the fields,” he says pointing to a pile of concrete fencing poles in his front yard.
People are unanimous that the BJP’s attitude towards the farmers agitation is the main reason for turning their back on the party and the mainstream media, which has played a key role in building and sustaining a narrative that’s disconnected from the ground realities. “The BJP is an anti-farmer party. The way the BJP leaders speak is unacceptable; we are not subjects and they are not kings. And the way the mainstream media, especially TV channels, have sided with the party at the cost of the people is sheer dishonesty. We have stopped watching news television a long time back, especially after their coverage of the farmers agitation,” says Dhama. People have more trust in the YouTube channels that have mushroomed over the past couple of years, more so during the farm law protests. Perhaps, this explains why the ruling party’s advertising blitzkrieg on TV hasn’t made much of a dent in the people’s perceptions in the run up to these elections.
The list of grievances of the people in Western UP is a long one and the high price of electricity is one of the major pain points. They point out that instead of giving the farmers relief as promised, the power rates have been hiked up and at ₹12.50 per unit, it’s amongst the highest in the country. “On average we have to pay ₹27,000 annually for electricity used for farming. On top of that, they promised to reduce our domestic electricity bills by 50% in January, but no notification has been issued and we had to pay full amount. On an average, each household has to pay ₹2,000 per month,” says Virender Kumar of village Putthi Dhonora in Baraut constituency, who works as a teacher in a government school. “There is a great amount of financial distress in this area, but our MLA (KP Malik) is afraid to raise his voice in front of Yogi. A farmer who doesn’t have additional income from some other job cannot even pay for the education of their children.”
The lack of job opportunities for the youngsters is yet another grouse that people hold against the government of the day. “We do not have any jobs here, but this government keep harping about Hindus and Muslims divisions. People have finally wizened up and have started realising that it won’t feed us,” says Dhama. The financial distress is further compounded by the inordinate delays in payments for sugarcane by the sugar mills. Payments for cane procured by the government-run and cooperative mills were usually made on time, but over the past couple of years, even they have started defaulting on making timely payments.
“We have got the payments that were due February 2021 in February this year and payments for last March, April and May are still pending. Farmers live from one cropping cycle to another; they are not industrialists who have access to large working capital,” explains Jagat Singh Chauhan, who retired as an assistant director in the Delhi Development Authority and now runs a brick kiln in Kirthal village in Chhaprauli besides owning 110 bighas of agriculture land. “The payments situation of the private mills is even worse as they have not paid the farmers for their crop for more than a year and in some cases two or three years…”
According to Sumit Malik, a prominent functionary of the Bharatiya Kisan Union in Shamli, sugar mills owe more than ₹12,000 crore to the farmer since 2017. “The situation has worsened with each passing year. There are 23 sugar mills in the region who have not paid the farmers for more than a year,” says Malik. “The way the BJP government at the Centre and the state treated the farmers during the agitation has caused deep wounds and they have a genuine reason to be angry. The agitation also helped to bridge a lot of divisions that emerged on caste and religious lines since the 2013 riots”.
While Jat-Muslim support for the alliance make them a formidable block, much will also depend on how the backward castes and Dalits vote in this election. In the past few elections, their centre of balance tilted in favour of the BJP, but a string of hate crimes against people of lower castes in the state under Yogi’s watch, especially the Unnao rape case, seems to have shaken them up. The BSP still enjoys some amount of patronage on the ground despite the considerable withering of its traditional vote back and organisational structure. In such a scenario, the people in Western UP are expecting splintered voting on part of the backward castes and Dalits, which will give the SP-RLD alliance tailwinds for the remaining phases. In that case, the outcome on March 10 might be quite different from what looked like a done deal for the BJP in UP a year ago.