The Jat Engine

February 13, 2021 0 Comments


If the events of this year’s Republic Day, when lumpen youth hijacked what had hitherto been a determined yet peaceful farmers’ protest and led a siege of the iconic Red Fort, threatened to derail the movement, Rakesh Tikait’s tears on Beating Retreat Day (January 28), when police tried to force-clear protesters from Ghazipur, put it right back on track. His emotional outburst not only re-energised the movement, but it also led to something more momentous, bringing the Jats of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana together in solidarity with the Punjab farmer, undermining the central government’s insinuations that the movement was confined to Punjab, that it was being used by Khalis­tani forces to further their own radical agenda and was the work of ‘andolanjeevis’, professional protesters who live off agitations.

Before long, Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) president Chaudhary Ajit Singh, son of the legendary Chaudhary Charan Singh, buried his long-standing differences with the sons of Mahendra Singh Tikait, the renowned farmer leader of UP. The Tikait brothers, the elder Naresh, president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), and Rakesh, its national spokesperson, were widely believed to have been behind Singh’s defeat from Muzaffarnagar in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The rivalry ran deep till very recently, for instance, instead of attending the BKU dharna on the Ghazipur border, Ajit Singh’s son and RLD general secretary Jayant Chaudhary attended the farmers’ dharna in Baraut in Baghpat district. Tikait’s passionate appeal on January 28 changed all that, with Chaudhary tweeting in support the same night.

In neighbouring Haryana, too, after dissociating themselves from the movement in the wake of the Republic Day hooliganism, the khaps in the state once again backed the agitation. The mahapanchayat convened by the Sarva Jatiya Kandela Khap on February 4 had thousands turning up in solidarity. Attending it were the newly-anointed Jat leader Rakesh Tikait, BKU (Rajewal) chief Balbir Singh Rajewal and Aam Aadmi Party leader Gurnam Singh Chanduni, all three of whom have worked closely as part of the Sanyukt Kisan Morcha, the umbrella organisation of all farmers’ unions protesting the contentious farm laws. For the BJP, the silence of Jannayak Janata Party (JJP) leader and Haryana deputy chief minister Dushyant Singh Chautala can only have sounded ominous.

LOSING THE PLOT IN UP

It is in UP that the consolidation of the Jat vote spells the maximum trouble for the BJP, given that the state goes to polls a year from now. According to the 1931 caste census, 99 per cent of the Jat population in the state is concentrated in the 26 districts of the Agra, Aligarh, Saharanpur, Moradabad, Meerut and Bareilly divisions. Together, these six divisions account for 136 of UP’s 403 assembly seats and 27 of its 80 Lok Sabha seats. RLD’s Ajit Singh had been a prominent Jat leader in western UP till the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 left the region deeply polarised and saw Jat loyalties shift to the BJP. “Before the Muzaffarnagar riots,” says R.K. Singh, a former professor in the political science department of Meerut University, “Jats and Muslims used to vote together in western UP. After 2013, the Jat and Muslim voters found themselves on opposite sides. The Jats left the RLD and went with the BJP. As a result, the BJP became stronger with the support of the Jat vote in western UP while RLD became weaker.” The BJP now controls 70 per cent of the seats in western UP. It has 11 Jat MLAs in the UP assembly, of which four, Lakshmi Narayan Choudhary, Bhupendra Chaudhary, Baldev Singh Aulakh and Uday Bhan Singh, are ministers in the Yogi Adityanath government. The party also has three Jat MPs, Satyapal Singh in Baghpat, Sanjiv Baliyan in Muzaffarnagar and Rajkumar Chahar in Fatehpur Sikri. Mohit Beniwal, the regional president of western UP in the BJP party organisation, is also a Jat.

Over the past few years, the state’s sugar economy has also played a role in social and political realignments. The Muslims here usually work as farm labour on cane plantations. The schisms of 2013 not only upset this easily available source of farm labour, but unremunerative prices for his produce have also left the cane farmer increasingly restive. So when the farmers’ movement regained momentum under the leadership of Rakesh Tikait, the Muslims found themselves making common cause with their Jat brethren in the state. They were present in large numbers at the Muzaffarnagar and Shamli mahapanchayats held in the first week of February.

This cannot be good news for the BJP. In 55 of the 136 assembly seats where the Jat vote matters, Muslims constitute more than 30 per cent of the population. If the Jat-Muslim vote were to combine, it would form 40 per cent of the total vote. For perspective, soon after the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013, not a single Muslim MP was elected in the 2014 parliamentary election. However, Jat-Muslim unity was in evidence in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, when UP sent six Muslim MPs to Parliament, five from western UP. In fact, BSP candidates Danish Ali and Haji Fazlurrahman, who fought from the Amroha and Saharanpur constituencies, respectively, won with 51 per cent of the vote. This could not have been possible without a combined Jat-Muslim vote. Faheem Usmani, who runs a school in Deoband in western UP, says, “With the Jat and Muslim voters coming together on one platform, as was evident in the large crowds that gathered in the panchayat of the Indian Farmers’ Union, its impact will be seen in 2022.”

Meanwhile, the rise of Rakesh Tikait has filled the leadership vacuum that Ajit Singh’s waning influence left in Jat politics. If Singh’s RLD won 14 seats in the 2002 assembly poll in alliance with the BJP, 10 on its own in 2007, nine in 2012 in alliance with the Congress, it won just one seat in 2017. It could not even open its account in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, with both father and son losing their respective seats.

The Jats themselves have now rallied around Tikait. All khaps of western UP came together under the aegis of a Sarvkhap and held a mahapanchayat in Baraut in Baghpat district on January 31. Three other mahapanchayats in Mathura, Muzaff­arnagar and Shamli districts saw an equal groundswell of support.

HULLABALLOO IN HARYANA

Things look equally shaky for the BJP in Haryana. The survival of the BJP government in the state depends on the support of 10 JJP MLAs and six Independents. And there is increasing pressure on JJP leader and deputy CM Dushyant and his grand-uncle Ranjit Chautala, an Independent MLA and cabinet minister, from the Chautala village panchayat to either find a solution or exit the government.

Dushyant did meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah on January 13. They assured him that the MSP would stay. However, the grand renewal of Jat support for the farmers’ agitation has mounted fresh trouble for Dushyant.

His own MLAs have, for the moment, decided to hold on, despite the outreach by Bhupinder Singh Hooda and the Congress and pressure from local khaps. Among them is Amarjeet Dhanda, the JJP MLA from Julana, according to whom some khaps were planning to boycott their party on Hooda and Congress’s insistence. But, he adds, “It doesn’t reflect the collective will of the Jats. I haven’t faced any hostility in my constituency.” However, with one cabinet slot vacant in the JJP quota, his MLAs are exerting pressure on Dushyant to announce his pick.

Jats in Haryana rally around two poles: the Deswali Jats led by former CM Bhupinder Hooda, and the Bagri Jats, who owe their allegiance to the Chautalas. To build pressure on Dushyant and regain the support base that had shifted from the INLD (Indian National Lok Dal), Abhay Chautala resigned as Fatehabad MLA.

What does this mean for the BJP? Jats constitute 27 per cent of the state’s electorate. They voted overwhelmingly in the party’s favour in the 2019 general election, helping it win all 10 seats. However, in the assembly election soon after, its tally was reduced to 40 seats in the 90-member assembly. This was perhaps because voting in the general election was on the plank of nationalism, while the state election verdict was based on Khattar’s performance. And the Jats have had an uneasy relationship with Khattar since 2016, when they staged protests to drive their demand for backward caste reservation. It doesn’t help that Khattar is a non-Jat chief minister and has made no effort to appease the community. Of the 25 Jat MLAs in the current assembly, only five are from the BJP, which banks more on the JJP’s acceptance among young Jat voters and the limited appeal of its state unit chief, Om Prakash Dhankar.

THE SAFFRON COUNTER

How does the BJP plan to overcome this consolidation of the Jat vote, given that the Centre seems dead against a repeal of the farm laws as demanded by the agitating farmers? The prime minister reiterated that MSP was here to stay, and quipped that a new kind of FDI, foreign destructive ideology, was holding the nation’s development to ransom. In UP, the party has instructed all its MPs and MLAs to go from village to village and convince people about the new farm laws. With panchayat polls due in April, the panchayati raj minister in the Yogi government, Bhupendra Chaudhary, who happens to be a prominent Jat leader, is expected to start campaigning from February 16. He hopes to visit every district in the region, meet the BJP office-bearers and instruct them on how to sell the government’s new farm laws.

Simultaneously, the party has named district unit presidents and entrusted them with the task of publicising the Yogi government’s policies among farmers. BJP state president Swatantra Dev Singh has reviewed the Meerut and Saharanpur divisions, where Dalit leader Chandrashekhar Azad’s Azad Samaj Party is also planning to mount a village-to-village campaign against the farm laws. Chandramohan, the state-level BJP spokesman and Muzaffarnagar district in-charge, betrays the tone the BJP’s campaign will take when he says, “The farmers’ movement is a conspiracy of the opposition parties against the Centre and the UP government. The work we have done in farmers’ interests is unprecedented, and the farmers understand it. The BJP government is fully committed to farmers’ welfare.”

In Haryana, which has some years to go before it elects a new assembly, Khattar is banking on reverse polarisation of the Dalit and OBC communities to compensate for the loss of the Jat vote. Both the Jats, and the Dalits in northern Haryana, had drifted towards the Congress in the 2019 assembly poll. The BJP is now on an overdrive to win the Dalits back. Their strategy will be put to test soon enough, in the forthcoming Dalit-dominated Kalka bypoll.

With both the farmers and the Centre digging in their heels, it will be interesting to see who blinks first. Meanwhile, as the farmers’ protests gather increasing global attention, the government may find its international reputation suffering along with its electoral prospects.



https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/the-big-story/story/20210222-the-jat-engine-1768534-2021-02-13?utm_source=rss

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