Shamli/Baghpat/Muzaffnagar: Krishnpal Chaudhary, a farmer from Babli village in Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat district, is sitting atop his tractor, waiting outside a sugar mill for his crop to be assessed for procurement.
He is not alone. Behind him is a long queue of tractors laden with sugarcane, including that of his friend Harpal Chaudhary from Silana village of the same district.
After their produce is assessed, they will each get a parchi (slip), according to which they will get payment for the state government’s purchase of their crop.
Politically, one friend is rooting for Chaudhary Jayant Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), while the other wants the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to win the upcoming UP assembly elections. But both have a common grievance — they haven’t got payment for their sugarcane, the lifeline of western UP — since last February.
“Yogi had promised in 2017 that we will get payment in 14 days, but forget interest, we haven’t even received the principal amount for the last 12 months. He hiked sugarcane prices by Rs 25 at election time. This is just about the polls,” says Krishnpal.
In September last year, five months ahead of the 2022 assembly polls, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had raised the price of sugarcane by Rs 25 per quintal, which took the price of common variety cane up to Rs 340 from Rs 315 after a gap of over four years.
Krishnpal’s anger is resonating across the sugarcane belt of western UP, which includes districts like Baghpat, Shamli, Muzaffarnagar, Meerut and Bulandshahr, and comprises a high percentage of Jat and Muslim farmers.
The Narendra Modi government’s repeal of its three contentious farm laws came as a huge relief to farmers in western UP, and even made a section of them develop a more favourable view of the prime minister. Krishnpal’s friend Harpal, for example, adds: “Modi has done a lot of work for farmers. He has promised small farmers Rs 6,000 under the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme. Amid the pandemic, the Modi government had distributed ration. It also promised to build the Ram temple and has kept a check on Pakistan and China at the borders.”
However, the toll taken by the year-long protest, coupled with unemployment and inflation amid the pandemic, has rallied a sizeable number of Jat farmers against the ruling party that had swept this region in the last state elections.
Due to the farmers’ anger, the RLD, a traditionally strong party of the region that is descended from former PM Charan Singh’s Lok Dal, is gaining ground again. The question now is how much of the Jat vote will drift away from the BJP. This is the common topic of discussion in chaupals across the region — how much percentage of Jat votes will the BJP lose? Some say it will be around 40 per cent, while a few say 30 per cent of the BJP’s Jat votes will shift to allies RLD and Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP).
“Not only Jat, all farmers have suffered in the last one year. So they will back the gathbandhan. There were initial hiccups over one or two seats. There will be no problem of transfer of vote despite BJP’s efforts to polarise the election. They are trying to spread fear among Jats about SP’s Muslim leadership. People know all the tricks,” claims RLD general secretary Rajendra Sharma.
Meanwhile, BJP MLA from Budhana Umesh Malik claims law and order is a big issue in western UP, and that will keep the electorate in his party’s camp. “Akhilesh is known to lose control on policing. BJP has done enough work for farmers, the government has waived Rs 36,000 crore debt of farmers. The party has made payment of Rs 1,48,000 crore to cane farmers,” he says.
Also Read: Wooing Jat farm leaders like Tikaits, attacking RLD: BJP’s 2-pronged strategy for west UP
Sugarcane dues, inflation, electricity & stray cattle
During the farmers’ protest, issues like delayed payments for sugarcane, hiked electricity rates and stray cattle — which directly affected them — spurred western UP farmers to rally around Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) Rakesh Tikait.
The year-long protest has aggravated this anger. In Malakpur, a village of predominantly Jat farmers in Baghpat district, Virendra Chaudhary says: “Yogi has increased (sugarcane) rates by Rs 25 only while rates of diesel and petrol jumped by more than Rs 40 in the last five years. How will we raise our children at a time of inflation, when the cost of electricity in UP is more than that of any other state?”
Adding to the disillusionment of farmers is the issue of stray cattle destroying their wheat, mustard and sugarcane at night. While the Yogi Adityanath government had promised to build gaushalas (cow shelters) when it first came to power in 2017, the farmers say that even five years later, these are few in number, adding that many gaushalas often leave cattle free to roam in the evening.
Sompal, another farmer from Malakpur, says that in the daytime, they work on their farms, while chilly winter nights are spent protecting the farms from stray cattle. “I will vote for whoever will save us from awara pashu (stray cattle). Yogi ji promised gaushala, where is gaushala in Baghpat, show me? They are eating our crops at night. We have barricaded our fields but there is no respite,” he says.
Villages in Muzaffarnagar district face the same problem. “Yogi had promised a lot for protecting cows but he has done nothing to rein these awara pashu. Now they are roaming in our fields without fear and state protection,” says Rajvir Malik from Budhana.
According to the 20th Livestock Census released by the animal husbandry ministry last year, the stray cattle population in UP had risen by 17.34 per cent between 2012 and 2019, even though the overall (countrywide) population declined. In 2019, the UP government had allocated Rs 247.60 crore for construction of gaushalas in its state budget for 2019-20.
“There are some 545 registered gaushalas in UP but most are overcrowded, which has become a major issue this election. Last year, Akhilesh Yadav had, during his rath yatra in Unnao, promised compensation of Rs 5 lakh to families of those who die in bull attacks. Last year, two farmers were killed after being attacked by stray cattle in Banda and Bulandshahr,” says Harpal Chaudhary, the BJP supporter from Silana mentioned above.
BJP vs RLD in ‘Jatland’
Soon after the farmers’ protest gained prominence last year, the RLD started holding farmers’ panchayats in all districts of western UP. The party also organised ‘bhaichara’ meetings to cement Jat-Muslim unity, which took a beating during and after the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013.
Rakesh Chaudhary of Chhaprauli, a Jat-dominated constituency in western UP, says young people from the community voted for Modi in the 2014 (general), 2017 (assembly) and 2019 (general) elections, while those aged above 50 years voted for RLD due to the presence of Charan Singh’s son and former union minister Chaudhary Ajit Singh. “The young Jats all voted for Modi. They did not listen to their families. But now they have realised, Jat bhi gawaaya aur bhat bhi nahi khaya, chhokro bahak gaye the (they lost their identity but in return they did not get anything, they got swayed). This time a lot of young voters will also vote for RLD despite Modi’s appeal among young voters,” Rakesh says.
Malook Chaudhary of Budhana says that in 2019, the issues were different. “Balakot happened, everyone rallied behind the nationalism factor, but this time there is no such emotive issue, pet bhi to dekhna padega (livelihood is also important),” Malook adds.
In the last few days, there has been some hostility towards the BJP in Shamli and Muzaffarnagar districts. BJP MLA from Shamli Tejendra Nirwal faced resistance while campaigning in Chunasa village. As soon as he entered, people started shouting slogans like ‘RLD zindabad’ and ‘Go back Nirwal’, videos of which went viral on social media. Meanwhile, in Lilon village of Shamli, people wrote messages on walls, warning BJP leaders not to visit seeking votes. Even Union minister Sanjeev Balyan faced such protests.
According to Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) data, in the 2012 UP assembly polls, only 7 per cent Jats voted for the BJP, which jumped to 77 per cent in 2014 (Lok Sabha polls), and 91 per cent in 2017 (UP polls).
While the BJP had 11 Jat MLAs in 2017, four became ministers in the Yogi Adityanath government. The RLD got only one seat, Chhaprauli, but its candidate also switched to BJP in 2018. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, three Jats became BJP MPs.
Jat votebank and effect of Muzaffarnagar riots
Jats reportedly form 18 per cent of the population in some districts of western UP. According to data of political parties in Muzaffarnagar, the Budhana assembly segment, as an example, has 70,000 Jat votes and 1.4 lakh Muslims, while Charthawal has 40,000 Jat votes and 1.5 lakh Muslim, Muzaffarnagar has 26,000 Jats and 1.1 lakh Muslims, Khatauli 27,000 and 70,000 respectively, Purqazi (SC) 26,000 and 1.1 lakh respectively and Meerapur 42,000 and 70,000 respectively.
In their list of candidates for the first and second phases of the upcoming assembly polls, the SP has left 33 seats for the RLD, while five candidates will be fighting from SP on the RLD symbol. The alliance has fielded 10 Jat candidates, while BJP has fielded 16.
The BJP is banking on the splitting of Muslim votes and Dalit OBC polarisation, as well as a sizeable chunk of young Jat voters. Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has fielded many Muslim candidates, which could benefit BJP. This could also be a challenge for the SP, which may face a splitting of the Muslim votes. The SP is also grappling with resistance from RLD workers over ticket distribution.
In the 2012 elections, the BJP had won 11 seats out of 70 in this region, but in 2017, it won 51 of 70, while the SP won 15, Congress two, and RLD and BSP won one each.
BJP had on earlier occasions allied with the RLD in UP for the Jat vote. But the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots changed the entire equation of Jat politics in UP.
While BKU leader Rakesh Tikait has been projecting the farmers’ identity this election, it is the Jat identity that may take precedence in western UP. The upcoming polls will also be a test for Jat-Muslim unity, which RLD president Jayant Singh has been working on for the past year.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)
Also Read: Who’ll be ‘man of the match’ in UP? West-to-east polls has clear answer
Source: The Print