From a still polarised west to the fluid Awadh, Uttar Pradesh is on the brink of one of its most crucial assembly elections, virtually a prequel to the big one in 2019. Over a 1,423-km journey, Outlook sought to catch the popular mood against all the layered, conflicting narratives. After the potholed village roads of Meerut, Aligarh and Baghpat, heart of the demonetisation-hit sugarcane belt, and communal hotspots like Kairana/Muzaffarnagar, the Etawah-Lucknow expressway came as a laboratory to test CM Akhilesh Yadav’s development claim….
All parties have sharp-focused their lens on the 73 assembly seats here that go to polls first on February 11, and set the tone. A fragmented electorate means no party or coalition looks good enough to get a majority as of now, and things are still in flux. If the anti-BJP forces face the risks of a split vote, the BJP is up against the backlash of demonetisation. No BJP leader utters the word “notebandi” in a region that gave it major gains in 2014—with a majority of Jat votes and some Muslim votes. The anger due to the cash crisis is scarcely veiled now, and many Jats are looking to return to the Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD).
Left with no viable economic plank, the BJP has lapsed back to its playbook of older tactics. Abattoirs, triple talaq, the alleged ‘palayan’ (exodus) of Hindus from Kairana, even sporadic mentions of mandir—hot-button, polarising issues—suggest its leaders have given up on Muslim votes.
According to a CSDS study, the BJP had 10 per cent of Muslim votes in the state three years ago, with members of the community not being immune to the collective enthusiasm for Narendra Modi’s development pitch. Mulsims constitute 19 per cent voters in UP and are at the heart of a fierce contest between two rival suitors, the BSP and the SP-Congress alliance. Pre-empting any consolidation in favour of SP-Congress is crucial for Mayawati as this is the region where her party is really in the fight, and the BSP’s overall performance hinges on it.
Baghpat: As trucks laden with sugarcane roll down the cobblestoned main road of Kantha village, a handful of supporters stand with garlands, waiting to welcome BJP candidate Yogesh Dhama, a Jat leader and a recent entrant from the RLD. A public meeting is scheduled. Embarrassed by the thin crowd, local leader Krishnapal Sharma hands out BJP flags to curious, wide-eyed children drawn to the hubbub and urges them to raise slogans for the candidate.
“Jaan laga do par Dhama na jitne wala (try your best but Dhama isn’t going to win),” mocks Satpal Singh, standing nearby. He offers two reasons: the Jats are angry with him because he ditched the RLD, and cadres see him as an outsider. Once considered an impenetrable RLD fortress, the larger Baghpat LS constituency had ditched Ajit Singh for the BJP’s Satyapal Singh in 2014.
The elderly Jats are still loyal to Chaudhary Charan Singh’s legacy. Sukhram Singh, 72, says barring some youngsters, most Jats will plump for RLD’s Kartar Singh Bhadana, though he’s a Gujjar, and only Ahmed Habib, one of Mayawati’s 97 Muslim candidates, poses a threat to him. Local poll pundits claim there are around 62,000 Muslim, 45,000 Jat, 35,000 Dalit and 22,000 Gujjar voters in Baghpat constituency.
Baraut: Inspired by the movie Dangal, young BJP leader Ankur Nain has organised a tournament for the young in Saroorpur. The only difference: it’s not wrestling but a long-distance race, “17 rounds of 400 meters each”. In a clear patch amid sugarcane fields, there’s a festive hum as girls and boys run, both in shorts. No objections to that attire for girls? “Why should anyone object,” counters a spunky 15-year-old Karuna. “The weather is getting warm and we can’t possibly run in salwar-kameez or trackpants.”
It’s part of an outreach plan. “This is the best way to involve the young with the BJP. We keep organising sporting events and our efforts are bearing fruit,” claims Nain. Many villagers stand and cheer the participants, waving BJP flags and wearing Modi masks. Soorajmal, sitting on his cane-laden tractor, has no flag. “I’m here only for the tamasha. I’m not going to vote BJP at any cost. Not after notebandi,” he says.
The nuts and bolts of farming run entirely on cash and demonetisation couldn’t have come at a worse time for farmers like Soorajmal. “I didn’t have money to pay the labour or the transport firm. The sugar mills give us cheques, they were useless as banks were not encashing them,” he says. Here, it’s between two Jats: Sahib Singh (RLD) and K.P. Malik (BJP). Soorajmal voted BJP in 2014 but will put his finger on the RLD’s handpump symbol on Saturday.
SP rally at Kairana
Kairana: The small town is barricaded as it awaits Akhilesh Yadav. The CM’s chopper appears in the clear sky, flying low enough for people gathered in the local stadium to feel Akhilesh sees them. A frenzied waving of hands, shouts of “bhaiya”. Outside, Muslim-run meat shops and Hindu-owned eateries and other shops sit cheek by jowl. In a town that gave Ustad Abdul Karim Khan to the world, and the famed Kirana gharana via him, the main topic of discussion is ‘palayan’—did it happen or not?
No, says Irshad Khan, a cycle shop owner in Mela Shadyan market. “Hindus didn’t run away. They just took huge plots from the government after selling their houses here. There was no communal problem. Hindus and Muslims have been living together for so many years. This was all created by politicians,” he says. The BJP MP from Kairana, Hukum Singh, had flagged the ‘exodus’ issue last year, claiming hundreds of Hindu families had fled the town after excesses by Muslims who, incidentally, are nearly 70 per cent of the population here. Hukum subsequently backtracked to concede it was probably economic migration.
Anubhav Kumar, owner of Sadhu Halwai, the oldest sweet shop in Kairana, waves away any hint of tension. Several Muslims are enjoying his desi ghee-rich gajar halwa. One of them, Ehsaan, a clothes merchant, echoes the sweet-maker’s words. “The fight is between two political families: Hukum’s and that of Munawwar Hassan (SP). If these two families do an exodus, there will be peace in Kairana,” he says, only half-joking. A general hum of assent.
Hukum Singh’s turf is shaky. He has no son, so wangled a ticket for daughter Mriganka (she’s up against another local dynast, Munawwar’s son Nahid Hasan, the sitting SP MLA). But the cadre resents her, and Hukum’s nephew Anil Chauhan has made his own exodus to the RLD in anger. The very fact that figures like Yogi Adityanath still harp on ‘palayan’, comparing it to the Kashmiri Pandit exodus, shows a degree of nervousness. “We must ignore people like Adityanath and Azam Khan. They have the same mentality,” says Ehsaan. The elders believe “the one who rules Kairana rules western UP”. The stakes are high for all.
Kutba-Kutbi, Muzaffarnagar: Two cars cannot cross each other in the narrow lanes of these twin villages, still lined by rows of crumbling, burnt houses that belonged to the Muslims. A mosque too stands, locked and partly burnt. The 2013 riots began in this pocket of the Charthawar constituency, home to Union minister Sanjeev Baliyan, accused of violating prohibitory orders and inciting communal tension. The riots fractured a social mosaic marked by amity till then—Jats and Muslims had lived together for generations, with even inter-community marriages not unheard of. No one is quite sure what triggered it.
Those who left are now just statistics. “There were 900 Muslim votes. Now there are none,” says Chaudhary Kishanpal, an octogenarian, counting 205 Muslim families in all. Satinder Kumar, seated beside him, speaks amid hookah gurgles. Each family got Rs 5 lakh and houses in nearby Basi Pallada, he says. “The Akhilesh government was only bothered about them. Here, five brothers lived in one house; in Basi Pallada, each took a separate house. When Hindus were driven away from Kairana, nobody bothered,” he says, giving voice to the complete polarisation in these parts.
The minister is away campaigning. His father, Surender Baliyan, exudes confidence. “The youth are with Modiji. Even the Dalits are shifting to us, they feel the BSP hasn’t done anything for them,” he says. Another BJP man concedes there may be a fight, with many Jats moving back to RLD.
“Dalits have BSP, all parties woo Muslims, but the BJP has abandoned Banias, who were its spine,” says a factory owner.
Meerut: February 3. It’s the first day on the job for trainee IPS officer Sukriti Madhav, from Jamui in Bihar. He’s excited, but also trying hard not to let the nervousness show on his young, thin frame. Thrown into a tough district at poll time, he says he will learn a lot, and quickly. Circle officer Ranvijay Singh, who in contrast looks tough as nails and as blasé as an old frontier sherrif, is escorting Sukriti as they wait for Amit Shah to arrive at Dilli Chungi for his padayatra. It’s a two-km trek through Meerut’s sensitive areas—nobody’s quite certain about the objective. “Maybe it’s just to test the waters before the PM’s rally,” a local BJP leader surmises. Officially, he’s there to canvass for party candidates Laxmikant Bajpai (Meerut Nagar), Somendra Tomar (Meerut South) and Satyaprakash Agrawal (Meerut Cantonment). Local netas coyly offer the word “consolidate”.
The crowds are thin as Shah arrives and then surprises everyone by cancelling his walk, owing to the murder of a local trader’s son. In a brief speech, he promises to close abattoirs if the BJP is voted to power, and says UP has become India’s “crime capital” under Akhilesh. He also accuses the SP government of bias during riots. Local BJP leaders feel Shah took up the murder issue to appease traders, who appear none-too-happy with demonetisation.
A ceramics factory owner in Khurja, hit by demonetisation
Khurja (Reserved): With a 40 per cent Muslim population, the BJP anyway wasn’t much in the race here—SP-Congress and BSP are slugging it out. But if there’s any doubt about sentiments among traders towards the BJP, it’s removed in Khurja—the town known for its blue pottery and ceramics (besides the sweet khurchan). Demonetisation pretty much broke the vase: eight of the dozen big factories shut down. Smaller ones still limp along. Like Maharaja Industries. Owner Anil Aggarwal, also an advocate, says notebandi cost them a full season. “It was a complete loss. The main season is November to March. People buy ceramics as Diwali gifts and winter sees maximum sale of cups because it’s the tea-drinking time,” explains Aggarwal.
The labour went back home since they could not pay them, adds son Rishu. “Now, when there’s cash, elections have come and then there will be Holi. Labour won’t be back anytime soon,” he says, walking in his factory and pointing to the skeletal staff. He also talks about excessive tax on crockery (14.5 per cent) and is waiting for GST.
There’s no one to look out for Banias anymore, Aggarwal laments. “Dalits have BSP, Muslims have all parties wooing them. But the Banias have been abandoned by the BJP. This when they owe their existence to traders, who were the backbone of the Jana Sangh,” he says. However, on being asked if he may shift loyalties, he shakes his head with a half-smile. “Where else will we go?”
Aligarh: Fifty km ahead lies Aligarh, known for its lock factories, many of which are ironically lying locked. BJP workers are busy prepping for the PM’s rally. The administration is on a high alert. “There’s a large concentration of Muslims (43 per cent) in town. It’s easy to incite communal passions in this atmosphere,” cautions a senior police officer on duty. The BJP is making a serious bid for the seat, which it hasn’t won since 1993. It’s here that the PM invokes notebandi as a tool to rise above religion and caste, and offers his new mantra for UP—ViKaS, or Vidyut (electricity), Kanoon (law and order) and Sadak (roads).
The 69 assembly seats in this region, comprising the heart of UP and crucial to all parties, will vote on February 19. This includes the Yadav belt that’s set to witness a scruffy match between incumbent SP and the BJP, and the Gandhi family boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareli. If Akhilesh bucks anti-incumbency, he will be only the second CM of the state to have done so after Govind Ballabh Pant. Awadh is key to that.
Mayawati needs Muslims to vote BSP; the SP-Congress combo is relying on its youthful leadership to pull them away.
Jaswantnagar: Next door to Saifai, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s native village, this seat is represented by Akhilesh’s estranged uncle Shivpal, who won with a 62 per cent voteshare in 2012. This time, the going seems tough for him. The family feud that saw Akhilesh successfully distancing himself from his uncle and father, and rebranding himself, has left Shivpal a more diminutive man. He literally pleads with the scant crowd at a meeting in Kumhawar village. “Earlier you came in large numbers. What’s happened now?” he asks, almost plaintively. Earlier a star campaigner for the SP, he is now restricted to his seat. After a U-turn on his threat to form another party, he sounds suitably chastened. “I will let people decide. I have no hard feelings for Akhilesh. He is my nephew after all,” he tells Outlook. They say Shivpal is on the verge of losing and that’s why he has mellowed. In Etawah town, tea-seller Ajay Kumar is a Modi fan—unlike other leaders, Modi “thinks and works for India,” he says. “CM ki kursi kisi ke baap ki jaagir nahin (The CM’s chair is not a matter of hereditary right),” he warns.
Lucknow: The 240 km drive from Etawah to Lucknow zips by in barely three hours on the new expressway. All bigwigs are, befittingly, camped in the city of nawabs—strategising, crunching data about voters, seats and candidates based on feedback from the ground. The BJP has unleashed all its big faces. Smriti Irani flies in from Delhi to speak on women’s safety under SP rule. Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad weighs in on triple talaq. Amid talk of nervousness among the leadership about faulty ticket distribution and cadre discontent, a leader says: “If we get Jats and non-Yadav OBCs, things will be much better for us.” Mayawati needs Muslim votes to coalesce in her favour; the SP-Congress combo is relying on its youthful leadership to pull them away.
Children find a niche in an Ayodhya workshop to play cricket
Ayodhya: An Uttar Pradesh narrative is not complete without Ayodhya, the symbol of Hindutva whose name literally means ‘the place which cannot be won in war’. Monkeys chase pilgrims for prasad or anything edible. There’s little buzz about the mandir on these streets. The SP already holds the seat, and many committed BJP voters seem to be drifting towards it. Local BJP netas talk with relish of party MP Lallu Singh and local unit chief Awadhesh Pandey being tied with ropes and held hostage by party workers a few days ago. They were angry about the ticket being given to “outsider” Ved Gupta, a migrant from BSP.
Ravi Kumar Gupta, a sweet-shop owner near Hanumangarhi, says he has always voted saffron. “I was one of the kar sevaks in 1992 when the masjid was demolished. I want the Ram mandir to be made but only when the court allows.” Pujari Dubal Das of Hanumangarhi feels it’s Hindus who are obstacles. “Aren’t Yadavs Hindus? Aren’t Dalits and Jats Hindus? The BSP, SP and Congress represent these Hindus, but pander to Muslims for votes. They will never let the mandir be built.” The customary lines are still there in the manifesto, almost three decades on. At Karsevakpuram nearby, sculptors continue to carve and chisel the stones.