While the Modi factor has its staunch advocates, among whom appear Muslims as well, not supporting ‘Chaudhary Sahab’ is unthinkable for many others.
The youth are with the BJP, it appears, while the old guard vows to support Ajit Singh in Muzaffarnagar.
The brutal murder of two Jat youngsters hailing from a tiny hamlet called Malikpura in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, in August 2013, sparked off a chain of violence that left more than 60 dead and thousands homeless. The murder was followed by political interference from the highest echelons of the then Samajwadi Party government to shield the killers, who belonged to the Qureshi community in the neighbouring Kawal village.
“It was Janmashtami eve. We had to go to Kawal to buy daily essentials. Gaurav (son of my younger sister) was passing through that village with two girls of our family. A no-gooder Qureshi bystander boy passed some comments which led to an altercation as a result of which Gaurav was assaulted. Then, Sachin (son of my younger brother) went to confront him, which is when things turned ugly. The Qureshi boy had a knife and he tried to attack Sachin, who snatched it away from him and stabbed him in self-defence. The crowd then lynched both the boys. Their mutilated bodies left all of us scarred for life,” says Tahendra Talyan, as he narrates what happened that day.
The police arrested a few culprits but they were soon released on pressure allegedly exerted by Samajwadi Party strongman Azam Khan. Then the Jats, who were returning from a panchayat in Nangla Mandod, were attacked near a canal. The perception that the state administration under Akhilesh Yadav had given a free hand to Muslims to attack Jats with impunity initiated a mad rush for revenge. Thousands of Muslims were forced to flee the villages. The riots polarised the whole region.
Both Malikpura and Kawal fall in Bijnor Lok Sabha constituency. But political ramifications were seen throughout western Uttar Pradesh. Jats here used to be captive voters of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), the party of Ajit Singh, son of former prime minister Chaudhary Charan Singh.
This incident, however, changed the socio-political dynamics of the region.
“We were traditionally Lok Dal voters. But 2013 changed our view. Ajit Singh was in the government. He was a union minister. But he didn’t visit us. His son Jayant came after a very long time. They feared if they came, they would lose Muslim votes. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, small and big, called on us to offer sympathies and their support. Even Akhilesh Yadav visited us but Ajit Singh didn’t come,” Talyan says. “We have over 60 votes. All will go to the BJP this time too,” he says.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the farming community deserted the RLD and voted en masse for the BJP because of blatant insensitivity shown by Ajit Singh and his son. RLD contested eight seats in the region in alliance with the Congress, but drew a blank.
In 2019, Singh is contesting from Muzaffarnagar as the Mahagathbandhan’s candidate. With over 5 lakh Muslim votes, over 2 lakh eligible Jatavs who tend to vote for the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and around 1.5 lakh Jat votes, he is hoping to sail through comfortably. With demographic arithmetic on his side, Singh has vowed to bury the BJP in Muzaffarnagar.
But will Jats, who he deserted and who deserted him in return, come back to the RLD’s fold and vote along with Muslims to defeat the BJP’s Sanjeev Balyan, the only person who stood with the community through thick and thin?
Why some Jats are leaning towards Ajit Singh
In Titavi village, a Jat-majority hamlet, a group of seven villagers are seen playing cards. They are divided over whom to vote for: three are leaning towards the RLD and the remaining four say they will vote for the BJP. “We don’t have any problem with Balyan. He is our brother. But we are fed up of the BJP. Modi over-promises and under-delivers,” says Kalu Diwan Singh, who is in his seventies.
“They promised to settle sugarcane dues within 14 days of offloading of crop at the mills. But payments are taking months,” says Virender Verma, a farmer. “As far as sugarcane dues are concerned, Mayawati was the best. She gave good prices and on time,” says Virender Singh, who is supporting BJP.
“Since then, it’s been a mess. And it will continue to be a mess. So, we don’t expect anything on that front. Modi is a good Prime Minister. And Balyan has given a lot of money for this village’s development,” he adds. The group then plunges into a shouting match over Balakot and PM-Kisan scheme, which can make prime-time television debaters jealous.
At the Titavi sugar mill, farmers are upset over the pending dues. “I haven’t got my payment since January. The BJP promised to clear dues in 14 days but this hasn’t happened. I am still a big farmer but at least the government should settle dues for small farmers first,” says Jaiveer Singh.
Two Balyans from Balahara village who are supporting Ajit Singh refuse to disclose their names. “Stray cattle is a big problem here. Earlier, farmers used to sell them and get some money. Now, they are roaming the fields and destroying crops. We would be content if they weren’t getting slaughtered but that’s not the case. Butchers still steal them but they don’t have to pay for them. Cattle eat our crops and the butchers are making moolah,” they tell Swarajya.
Sanjeev Balyan has tried to project himself as a local leader while painting Ajit Singh as an outsider. While this is finding traction in the constituency, not everyone is buying into it. “Ajit Singh is a big leader of Jats and farmers. How can he be called an outsider? Wo to hamare apne hain (he is our own),” says Vinod Kumar of Nangla Jassi.
One resident of Kadi Khera village described the reason he will be voting for Singh. “The outsider tag won’t stick. We are surviving because of Ajit Singh. When he was minister, he opened up six sugar mills without which Jats of this region wouldn’t be this prosperous,” he adds.
From Titavi, we move to Kakda village where the Balyans are in a majority. A group of nine people was seen sitting on a couple of cots discussing politics. “Fifty per cent of villagers are supporting Ajit Singh. The reason is simple. Ye hamare astitva ki ladai hai. Ek he Jat party hai. Isko bacha ke rakhna hai. Agar isko hara diya to phir hamara kya rahega (This is a question of our caste-existence. We must protect our Jat party. If we defeat it, then what will we have left),” says Yashpal Balyan.
“See, these are only three seats where we are voting for RLD. We know it won’t have much impact on Modi’s re-election. We also want Modi to be Prime Minister. There is no doubt about that. He is a good leader. But from here, Ajit Singh must be voted. If he wasn’t contesting from here, we would’ve voted for BJP,” Jawahar Balyan says. “Balyan would’ve gotten a bigger victory than last time if Singh wasn’t contesting from here,” Satinder Balyan seconds.
In Sisauli, a Jat-majority town that BJP swept last time, we spot a group of five elders smoking hookah. All are RLD supporters. “We are fed up of the BJP. Electricity bills for farms have doubled. Farmers are feeling let down. We are neither getting the right price, nor are we getting sugarcane payments on time. To top it all, we have to be vigilant at night due to fear of stray cattle destroying crops,” a farmer, Sanjeev Balyan, tells Swarajya. “We are traditional RLD supporters. Last time, it was a “wave” election. This time, we are back with Ajit Singh,” he adds.
Balyan’s accessibility and Modi factor a big positive for BJP
Despite Ajit Singh jumping into the fray in Muzaffarnagar, Balyan remains wildly popular. His accessibility and the work done in the constituency are one of the major reasons why Singh can’t hope for a total sweep of Jat votes. Even those who are preferring Singh praise Balyan for being a good representative.
In Sanjeev Balyan’s village Kutba, villagers say the main reason why Ajit Singh chose Muzaffarnagar over all other seats in western UP is the rise and rise of Balyan as a Jat and farmer leader in the region, which Singh is unable to digest. “The reason to contest from here is simple. Balyan was increasingly seen as the next big leader in this area. And like he has done with other rising Jat leaders previously, Ajit Singh is trying to stop Balyan from overshadowing his family’s clout. Only Singh could think of defeating Balyan. That’s why he chose to contest from here. If he succeeds, his family politics will survive for another decade or two. If he fails, the dynasty will lose its sheen,” explains Arun Kumar Balyan.
“Balyan has a strong network and contacts in over 600 villages in this constituency. He also knows people there by name. He has done some work in all areas. Ajit Singh has no connect here. Where was he in 2013? Balyan spent money from his pocket to hire lawyers for people against whom cases were filed by the previous government. He got them bail,” says an agitated Veer Sen. “He will lose big. Does he fancy himself a Jat leader? Chaudhary Sahab had left Ajit Singh 85 seats when he died. How many has he now? He has survived in politics so far only on the basis of his father’s good deeds,” he adds.
In Sisauli, Swarajya talked to three groups of villagers - one on entering the village, in which all were RLD supporters - and the other two groups in the market, in which, except for a couple of Ajit Singh fans, all were firmly behind the BJP.
“See, Modi will be the Prime Minister. But I am voting for Ajit Singh,” says Sudhir Balyan. “This is also a Hindu-Muslim election. We aren’t thinking of caste,” says Dharmendra Balyan, another Jat in the group. “They are trying to polarise the election. But bhaichaara has returned. It won’t be the same,” Balyan counters.
What happened to bhaichaara last time? “We had forgotten it. I barely survived. I had to spend the whole night in another village,” says Sudhir Balyan smiling. “When there is difficulty, they remember BJP, but otherwise will vote for Singh,” says another Jat, taking a pot-shot at Sudhir.
“Sanjeev Balyan is our local leader. He is always in the constituency. Hamare sukh dukh mein saath rehta hai (He is with us in joy and sorrow). If Ajit Singh wins, we will have to go and find him in Delhi. Balyan lives right here,” says Dharmendra.
Lalit Kumar, a youth in the crowd, says that all young voters are with the BJP. Mehak Singh, in his 60s, suggests that Swarajya talk to children of those who are supporting the RLD. “Their children will be voting for BJP. Just wait and watch,” he says with confidence.
“Sixty per cent of Jats are with Modi. For us, the country comes first. Not just in Sisauli but in the whole region, Balyan will sweep the polls,” says Sushil Balyan. “Modi and Yogi have given us freedom. Earlier, you couldn’t travel from one village to another after sunset. Now, there is no problem even at night. Gunda gardi khatam kar di hai (The reign of muscle has been stopped),” he adds.
Far from Sisauli, just outside Mandod village, people are gathering to hear Ajit Singh speak. A group of eight youngsters who have come for the sabha say they will vote for Modi. “Our village is also split in half. Out of 800 votes, 400 will go to Balyan and the rest to Singh,” says Shivendra Malik. “The youth is with Modi and the old are with RLD. Since Singh is our leader, some are voting for him out of respect. If he wasn’t the candidate, all votes would’ve gone to the BJP,” Sunil Panwar says.
On Balyan, people agree that he has done excellent work for the village. “He has been a great leader. He has always stood with us. He comes here whenever we need him,” Satish Kumar tells Swarajya.
In neighbouring Nangla Kabir, barring old Lok Dal loyalists, most are backing Balyan. Even in Balyan’s own village, the houses don’t display as many BJP flags as the people here do. ‘Seventy-five per cent votes will go to Balyan. Itni bhaag daud wala saansad hai nahi. Poori UP mein he nahi milega (there is no other MP as hardworking as him in the whole of UP). And the Modi factor is also there. He is doing good things for the country,” says Yashbir Joon.
Balyan in not just popular among villagers and Jats but in Muzaffarnagar city too, where the Agrawal community is substantial in numbers, apart from Muslims. The sitting MLA from Muzaffarnagar Assembly constituency is also an Agrawal.
“Balyan is a local. We can reach out to him whenever required. Will we go to Delhi to ask Ajit Singh for any favour? Whenever an untoward incident happens, be it even a simple fight in the locality or a theft, Balyan definitely comes and ensures we get justice,” says Rajinder Saran, a trader in Muzaffarnagar mandi. “Ajit is not a good person. His father was a great man. When he couldn’t win from here, what chance does Ajit have,” he asks.
“Sukh ka to pata nahi, par Balyan sahb to har kisi ke dukh mein shaamil hote hain, chahe koi bhi ho. Ab Ajit yahan kyun aaya (I can’t say about joyous times, but during our tough moments, Balyan is with us, irrespective of person. Now, why has Ajit barged in?). He was rejected by his own people in Baghpat. Now he has come here to fool people,” says Nishit Bansal, another trader in the city mandi.
“We aren’t seeing Balyan or Ajit. The candidate doesn’t matter. We are voting only for Modi,” another voter, Anoop Garg, tells Swarajya with a sense of finality.
“Ajit Singh is thinking that all Congress, SP and BSP voters will vote for him. But that’s not going to happen. Congress voters will go to BJP instead of RLD. Modi will get a lot of Jatav votes too due to his schemes. The fight is very close, but Dalits will decide who wins the election as they have a sizeable population here,” Suresh Goel analyses.
Apart from Agrawals, conversations with Tyagis, Kashyaps, Sainis, Kumahars, Valmikis, Prajapatis, Gaderia/Pals and Gujjars in all five Assembly constituencies of Charthawal, Muzaffarnagar, Khatauli, Budhana and Sardhana revealed that they were firmly with the BJP.
In Shahpur, Rampal Gaderia, a sugarcane juice seller, praises good governance of the state BJP government. “We used to do vigilance during the night. Every day, a family was on night patrol. It was pretty bad during winters. But now, we sleep peacefully,” he told Swarajya.
Another voter, Vivek Kashyap, says his reason to support Modi is Balakot. “Before Modi, how many prime ministers could give Pakistan a befitting response? I am voting BJP because of Modi, though I don’t like Balyan.”
In Khatauli town, we stop to ask a tea seller who he is voting for. “Hum to ji Modi ka saat hain. Aur kisko denge vote? Only Modi,” says Krishan Pal Prajapati.
In Charathawal, Mukesh Tyagi runs a small flour mill. Some of his Tyagi brethren are hosting Ajit Singh at their home. “Most Tyagis are BJP supporters but there are Muslim Tyagis too and some Hindus have also good personal relations with Ajit Singh. But my vote is for Modi. How can one vote for the Mahagathbandhan? These people are raising doubts on those who are dying for us. This coalition they have cobbled up is only for their own benefit,” he says.
A group of youngsters from the Pal community in Kukra are not happy with either of the candidates. “Both are Jats. For us, it’s like choosing between the devil and the deep sea. That’s why we aren’t looking at the candidates. Our vote is for Modi,” said one of them who didn’t wish to be named.
Similar sentiments were expressed by people of the Jogi community in Titavi village. “We voted for the BJP last time. Now, both candidates are Jats. We are really in a dilemma,” one elder explained.
Dalits, not Jats, may decide who wins Muzaffarnagar
Dalit voters are said to number over two lakh in the constituency and may play kingmaker in this seat. Conventional wisdom says that most of them, at least Jatavs, said to be a captive vote bank of the BSP, will vote for the RLD. The BJP has worked hard to galvanise non-Jatav voters to its side in the last five years, be it through schemes targeting the lowest sections of society or by giving these castes some representation in party posts. The results were for all to see in the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2017 Assembly polls.
It is in the Kukda and Bilaspur areas of the city that most of the Dalit voters live. And some have benefited from the central government’s schemes. “Development has been witnessed. They have provided cylinders in every other home. The poor have got bank accounts. Many have got money to build their pucca houses. Take my example. I didn’t have electricity for the past 30 years. I recently got a connection for free. How can I say development hasn’t happened,” Ombir Kumar tells Swarajya.
But is that enough to earn his vote? “We will see about that. Whichever way this area votes, I will also vote accordingly,” he says keeping his cards close to his chest.
Santu, a Dalit youth, says the locality is leaning more towards nalke wala (RLD’s election symbol, handpump). “Every election, some fresh face is needed. This time, Singh is that face. People want change,” he says as Ombir looks away nonchalantly, almost disagreeing with his younger associate. Both are labourers.
In Quila Mohalla, where the Valmiki community has over 1,200 votes, two young labourers tell Swarajya their reasons to vote for the BJP. “There is no gunda gardi for the past two years. Earlier, there used to be a murder every day in this area. One would hear incidents of molestation and what not but now there are cameras everywhere,” says Surender Valmiki.
In the same colony, Sunil Birla explains why the community is happy with Balyan. “There was a community toilet in the area. Balyan ji is building a dharamshala (rest house) in its place since there are many toilets now. We are happy with him and of course everyone is happy with Modiji as well. But there is the problem of unemployment,” he says. He calls out to a youth who is educated but not getting a job. “Look at him. He is searching for a job but he is ready to fight for Modi.”
“See brother, the country is first for me. All this community, caste and small issues of employment come later. Modi is giving a befitting reply to attacks on our country. Congress would just cower in fear and do nothing. Only Modi can lead the country. Mahagathbandhan is a corrupt, selfish bunch who have come together to save their skin,” says Sunny Birla.
Far away from the city, in Budhana town, even a Jatav colony near Ambedkar Bhawan is fully in support of Modi. “We don’t have anything to do with the BJP. The only reason to support it is Modi,” says 45-year-old Suresh Chand. Four youngsters join in. They tell us that they voted for BJP in 2014 and 2017 too and will vote for the party again. “Of all the prime ministers, Modi has been the best. There is no one else out there at present who has the talent to take the country forward,” says Bittu, who is in his late 20s.
“The Opposition used to mock Modi for touring the world but when we attacked Pakistan, all nations supported us. That’s because of Modi going to all these countries and improving relations. Similarly, the benefits of his other policies like GST will be seen in future. It’s for our own benefit,” he adds.
One Jatav elder says that like the previous two occasions, a majority of the 3,500 votes of their colony will go to the BJP.
At the busy market junction in Shahpur town, Lakhan Singh, a flower seller, is all praise for the Yogi government for putting an end to gunda gardi. “Mayawati’s administration was considered the best so far by us when it came to security. But under this government, the environment is even better. The police patrol van is always on the move. I haven’t got either a cylinder or a house, but I will vote for the BJP because the country comes first,” Singh said.
He says that more than half of the Jatavs in his colony will vote for Modi but there is one section which is associated with the Bhim Army, which won’t. “This bunch is as bad as the goons of the Samajwadi Party. They run an extortion racket. One family didn’t pay them off during their wedding function so they didn’t let the marriage happen. It was a really good match.”
In Charathawal town, north-west of Muzaffarnagar, while Valmikis are supporting the BJP, Jatavs who live near the bus stand area, say they will vote for the Mahagathbandhan’s candidate. “There is no use of voting for anyone else because even if we vote for them, they won’t believe us. There is no value in it. So, why waste our vote. We will vote for whoever Mayawati is siding with,” says Rajpal. His brother Inder Pal nods in agreement.
Muslims who are leaning towards the BJP
Jats aren’t the only ones who have moved on. In the absence of polarisation that gripped this area in 2013, some Muslims are also leaning towards Modi, something Hindus in the area find hard to believe.
The theory one often hears from them is that only the privileged and educated five per cent elite would consider voting for the BJP.
But from Shahpur to Khatauli to Muzaffarnagar city, one could find both educated as well as the poorest of the poor Muslims gearing up to press the lotus button come 11 April.
“Here, Qureshis are in a majority, and the rest of the Muslims aren’t on the best of terms with them. Since Qureshis are voting for RLD, some Syeds, Pathans and other Muslims may vote for Balyan,” says Haji Shahnawaz Khan, a bangle seller in Muzaffarnagar's Khalaba area. “Ajit Singh can’t be trusted. He may switch sides after the election. Some are saying why not vote for Modi directly,” he adds in jest.
Mohammad Arif, a pan seller at Khalabar chowk, explains his reasons for supporting Modi. “One great thing the BJP state government did was closure of all slaughterhouses. The whole colony used to be a big mess. Now, it’s so much cleaner and peaceful,” he says. “Modi has done a lot of development work. In the lane where I live, six families have got Rs 2.5 lakh in their bank accounts for building houses,” he adds.
Arif tells the tale of his 52-year-old neighbour who got Ayushman Bharat card thanks to which he underwent eye surgery, which would’ve otherwise cost him Rs 9,000, free. “Why shouldn’t one vote for Modi then? Work is worship,” Arif says, in Urdu.
As he dishes out paan after paan, one of his customers, Mohammad Shahid, butts in. “Both candidates are Jats. Now, with no other alternative, we will have to vote for the lesser evil, i.e. Ajit Singh,” he adds.
Just a few metres away from the chowk, a group of Muslim men are seen sitting outside a spare parts shop. “Many Muslims have got cylinders and even electricity connections. Due to such schemes, there is a craze for Modi among our womenfolk. Even the youth is favouring him. So Muslim votes will be split this time,” says advocate Sabeel Ahmed.
“The biggest positive of the BJP government is they have stopped gunda gardi, which was rampant in the city earlier. And there have not been any riots. This is the best thing for the poor,” he adds.
It's hard to tell who is winning Muzaffarnagar. Armchair psephologists may predict a clear victory for Ajit Singh based on arithmetic. The conventional wisdom from the ground however, whether one asks a BJP supporter or Mahagathbandhan voter, is that election is too close to call.
What this correspondent can say with utmost sincerity is that Sanjeev Balyan is an immensely popular leader thanks to his accessibility and readiness to help his constituents. Modi enjoys immense goodwill among all sections of society, even among Mahagathbandhan's vote bank - Jats, Jatavs and Muslims - in that order. All sections of voters applaud central government's muscular policy vis-a-vis Kashmir and Pakistan. Policies targeting the poorest of poor such as Ujjwala yojana, PM Awas scheme, Ayushman Bharat, etc., have helped the party make inroads into the traditional non-BJP vote base.
The saffron party's winning coalition of 2014 is intact barring a section of old RLD Jat loyalists and farmers going back to 'their' party, in absence of Modi lehar and polarisation along religious lines.
In an interview recently, Sanjeev Balyan accepted that this battle between him and Ajit Singh is aar-paar ki ladai that will settle the debate over which leader will dominate the politics in western UP for years to come. 'Ajit Singh wants that from Jat community, he alone should be the leader. He has never allowed any other leader from the community to rise. Whenever someone tried, he somehow succeeded in bringing them down. This is the reason why he has decided to contest from here.'
Ajit Singh says he has come to Muzaffarnagar to bury the BJP. His real intention may actually be to bury Balyan, who is fast emerging as the tallest Jat leader in the region. Nonetheless, whichever Jat wins, the debate, ironically, will be settled by non-Jats.