Farmer Protests and Elections in the Jat Heartland of Western UP

What is worrying the ruling BJP is the indication of growing resentment among the farmers of western UP.

Uttar Pradesh has been the stronghold of BJP under the current Ajay Singh Bisht aka Yogi Adityanath government. They have been so impressive that Congress is nothing but invisible in the largest state (in terms of population) of the country. However, the controversial farm laws and the mighty agitation might be just what the doctor ordered for both, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RJD) and the Congress. The farmers’ agitation against the agricultural reform laws seems to have given a chance to these Opposition parties to revive their political fortunes in the ‘Jatland’ of western Uttar Pradesh.

What is worrying the ruling BJP is the indication of growing resentment among the farmers of western UP. The strategists believe that if this was not nipped in the bud, it will assume an alarming proportion by the time the state goes to the polls. The ruling BJP’s priority is to see that the agitation does not affect its poll prospects adversely in UP where it does not see any challenge as of now.

The BJP, with its Ram Mandir movement, was able to effectively fracture the famous “Majgar” alliance of Muslims, Ahirs, Jats, Gujjars and Rajputs, assiduously put together by the state’s tallest Jat from the region, the late prime minister, Chaudhary Charan Singh. While the BJP cannot take things for granted, it is far too early to predict the outcome of the polls. There are many factors which will come into play. Poll issues, candidates, the strengths and weakness of the Opposition will all count. The BJP has a year to woo back those who have been alienated.

There are several reasons why things could change.

  • One, west UP farmers, while demanding a repeal of the three farm laws, have not directly attacked either Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi or chief minister (CM) Yogi Adityanath. The latter has not taken any coercive action against the farmers so far. In fact, he is using various persuasive means to convince Rakesh Tikait to budge from his all-or-nothing position.
  • Two, the communal divide, which seems papered over for now, could still play a role in the elections. The agitation may have revived the fortunes of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) chief Chaudhary Ajit Singh and his son Jayant Chaudhary, but their hopes of a Muslim-Jat reconciliation are unlikely to materialize.
  • Three, the PM may work out a solution to the farm protest soon as he is under pressure from influential Jat leaders in the region. In addition, leaders such as the Defense Minister and former UP Chief Minister Rajnath Singh can be deployed for damage control because of his relationship with many Jat leaders, including Tikait.
  • Four, Ajit Singh could well play a mediatory role. The RLD has been a part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Before the elections, Singh might weigh all his options. Despite the RLD’s alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), both father and son lost their seats in their own pocket boroughs of Muzaffarnagar and Baghpat in 2019. As of now, farmers, irrespective of caste or community, are angry with the government. But will this last after a year? Could RLD’s calculations change?
  • And finally, the BJP has other issues which could win it support. One is the promise of development and the other is to cash in on an issue which has evoked much ferment in western UP, and indeed across the state — that of “love jihad”. Irrespective of one’s personal view about it, stories of Muslim men enticing Hindu women into marriage and converting them to Islam have found much traction among Hindus of all castes. There is also much support for the CM’s signature anti-cow slaughter measures.

On February 16, 2021, the BJP President J.P. Nadda and Union home minister Amit Shah met top leaders of the party from these regions dominated by the Jat community, to come up with a plan to control possible damages in the future. The BJP believes that the farmers’ protests may affect the party’s chances in at least 40 seats in north India.

While the farmers’ unions have already stated that they won’t settle for anything less than a repeal of all three laws, the Union government has refused to blink, despite agreeing to make multiple amendments to the legislations. But the most imminent worry staring at the ruling BJP is the way several decidedly anti-government, anti-BJP Kisan Mahapanchayats in Haryana, western UP and Rajasthan have seen the participation of all communities in recent weeks. On the 24th of February, Bharatiya Kisan Union president Rakesh Tikait attended a Kisan Mahapanchayat in Kirawali block of Agra district, which falls under the constituency of BJP Kisan Morcha President and MP Rajkumar Chahar. At the Mahapanchayat, Tikait warned the farmers of the Braj region against being misled by Rajkumar Chahar and the Modi government over the farm laws.

“The Modi government is the enemy of farmers. The farmers should be ready to continue agitating against the farm laws till they are repealed,” said Tikait, who has emerged as the face of the movement. Tikait, however, made it clear that his outfit was not involved in any politics.

What Might BJP’s Election Campaign in UP Look Like

A senior party leader from the state told The Wire that as pointed out by Union agriculture minister Narendra Singh Tomar too, the opposition while terming the three laws as “black laws” completely failed to disclose how they were so. “So, we have decided to reach out to all our leaders in Haryana, as also in other states, with information on the issues at stake,” he said.

The saffron party is likely to come out with its own ‘toolkit’ or complete guide on how its party leaders in the state should answer questions pertaining to the three farm laws. “No timeline has been decided as yet but we will be providing literature to all our MPs, MLAs, district council members and other representatives in the state to apprise them of the exact situation as also to equip them to answer all the queries posed to them by people in their areas in a better way.”

With the opposition parties making good use of the Khaps or rural councils to strengthen the farmers’ protests and drawing huge crowds, the BJP has also decided to approach these Khaps directly with the answers to their concerns.

It may be noted that the Khaps have played a huge role in organizing farmers’ agitations and have helped spread the protests outside Delhi, in rural belts. Clearly, the idea behind the campaign is to ensure that the opposition parties, which are participating in these Mahapanchayats actively, do not gain at the cost of the BJP in the long run.

In Haryana, several BJP leaders have also participated in the Mahapanchayats. The Mahapanchayat in Jind was in fact led by a BJP leader, Chaudhary Tek Ram, who is also the head of the Kandela Khap. When asked why he organized the meet against the three laws brought in by his own party, he had declared that the issue at stake did not concern a particular party but that it was a fight for the rights of the farmers.

Aware of the fact that Bhartiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait, who has become the prominent face of the farmers’ agitation and who himself heads the Baliyan Khap, has been using these Mahapanchayats to build a movement against the three laws, the BJP has also galvanized its leaders from rural backgrounds, especially from the Jat community, to reach out to the aggrieved and concerned groups with their own messages.

The saffron party also wants to rid its local leaders of the problems they are facing in the form of direct protests by farmers near their place of residence. The farmers have also protested near the residence of BJP’s ally Jannayak Janata Party leader and deputy chief minister Dushyant Chautala. Though Chautala has supported the three laws and vowed to ensure that the farmers would be paid the promised minimum support price, this has done little to address the larger concerns.

The state has also witnessed strong protests by farmers against public meetings planned by the BJP and JJP to put across their point of view – including the one in Karnal on January 10, which could not be attended by chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar due to the protests. The party now wants to address fears which it believes have been thrust into the minds of the farmers due to the ongoing protests. As former Haryana BJP president Subhash Barala, who is also a Jat leader, was quoted as saying, “The fear has been nursed in their minds.”

“The larger point of the campaign is to show that the opposition is misleading the farmers,” a mid-level BJP leader from western UP said, adding that if they begin such a campaign now, the party will be able to neutralize the resentment against it by the time elections are held.

The fortunes of the BJP in 2022, therefore, rest on several factors. Will Rakesh Tikait’s impassioned performance in the farm protest wash away communal animosity and reunite the Jats and Muslims against the party? Can the farm movement revive the RLD? Will agrarian distress change the politics of the region decisively? Will 2022 be a vote on emotional lines or will economics play a major role?

As of now, the BJP still has time to work out many of these issues.

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