A Tug of War for Jat Votes

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The alliance with the RLD has not stopped the Congress from trying to siphon off Jat votes. Kunal Majumder reports

Luck now? Jayant Chaudhary, Rahul Gandhi, Ajit Singh and Digvijaya Singh at a poll rally
Luck now? Jayant Chaudhary, Rahul Gandhi, Ajit Singh and Digvijaya Singh at a poll rally, Photo: Indian Photo Agency

AS POLLS in western Uttar Pradesh approached, a rumour started doing the rounds in the Ajit Singh-controlled sugarcane belt — his son and MP Jayant Chaudhary could be the chief minister if the Congress-Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) combine wins the election. The Congress initially tried to avoid answering questions on this issue but party general secretary Digvijaya Singh had to finally clear the air. “The RLD is only contesting 46 seats in the 403-member House. How can the leader of a party contesting such few seats become CM?” he asked.

The question is: Did RLD or Jayant even make such a claim in the first place? It seems unlikely. If you were to believe politicians in Jatland, the rumour was started not by the RLD but Congressmen themselves. The gameplan? The Congress is trying to transfer RLD’s vote share to its own candidates. “Perhaps a dream to see Chaudhury Charan Singh’s grandson as chief minister of UP would force the traditional RLD supporter to reluctantly give his vote to the Congress,” says a senior journalist based in Muzaffarnagar.

In Aligarh, former RLD ally and senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj taunted Ajit Singh, saying he seems to be undertaking pilgrimage to all four dhams (Hindu religious centres). He was once with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA); another time, he aligned with the Third Front. Now, he has joined the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and has been rewarded with the civil aviation portfolio.

Any alliance between the grandsons of Indira Gandhi and her rival Charan Singh will sound strange to the ears of those in Delhi’s political corridors. On the ground, however, there is a reluctant acceptance of realpolitik. “We all know Ajit Singh is only after power but 60 percent of Jats will still vote for him,” says Kamal Veer Verma, an activist in Shamli. However, his father Rajveer Singh Mundet, a prominent Jat leader and state president of the Bharatiya Kisan Mazdoor Sangharsh Manch, represents an older school of thought and is more appreciative and supportive of Ajit Singh. “Whenever the country needed stability, Ajit Singh has given his support to save the government,” he says.

But how do farmers of western UP gain from Ajit Singh’s stint as civil aviation minister? “His presence in the Cabinet ensures farmer-friendly policies are adopted by the government,” he says. Mundet accepts that in spite of being with many Central governments, Ajit Singh has failed to implement the long-standing demand of reservation for Jats. He also accepts that Ajit Singh has kept the issue of a separate state for farmers of western UP on the backburner. “Yet no one has done so much for us as Ajit Singh has,” he says.

Mayawati has fielded a number of Muslims in the area, fully aware she cannot woo Jats away from Ajit Singh

ACROSS THE town of Shamli, near the Sir Shadi Lal sugar mill, a few elderly men are discussing the RLD-Congress alliance at former pradhan Kishen Pal’s house. “Ajit Singh shouldn’t have tied up with Congress,” says Pal. “But we will still support him.” His grandson jumps into the discussion to say, “Ajit Singh is a greedy man who only goes after the chair.” Ranveer Singh, who had just joined in, gets all agitated. “What do you know about Ajit Singh?” he charges. “He has been fighting with Sharad Pawar to get us good deals on sugarcane price,” he adds. So will they vote for Congress candidates? “Congress will certainly benefit a bit,” says Kishen Pal, who is also fighting the election as an independent candidate. He adds, “If it is a Jat candidate, yes we will vote for him.”

While Rahul speaks about development and a UP beyond caste and religion, the only way his party can gain ground is on the back of RLD’s Jat votebank. Mayawati has fielded a number of Muslim candidates in the area, fully aware she will not be able to break the Jats away from Ajit Singh. Some of her key decisions like doubling sugarcane prices, creating a new district for Shamli and corruption-free police recruitment is grudgingly hailed by the Jat voters. But when it comes to voting, they say they prefer the RLD. Why? “Mere man ki baat hai” (It’s my preference) says Ompal Singh, sitting besides Kishen Pal. Pal is more frank: “Jatiwaad hai” (It’s casteism).

The Congress has fielded candidates mostly in urban areas and left rural bases to the RLD. Almost everyone accepts that there are no issues in this election, only caste matters. A trip around Shamli and Muzaffarnagar makes it quite clear that RLD’s Jat vote bank is intact.

So will the Congress continue to ally with the RLD if it doesn’t improve its tally in western UP? “Look at the history of the alliances made by the RLD. At the end of the day, it has only strengthened the party not the ally,” says Sanjiv Chaudhary, a senior journalist in Muzaffarnagar.

With a mercurial Mamata Banerjee threatening to walk out of the UPA at the drop of a hat, the five RLD MPs are already crucial for the Congress. How much the party helps the RLD fulfil Rahul Gandhi’s dream of capturing Lucknow is still a question mark.

Kunal Majumder is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
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