The slow ebb of the BJP in an area it believed was impregnable is evident even in a whistle-stop trip through the constituencies of the four leading figures of the post-Muzaffarnagar politics of polarization: MLAs Sangeet Som and Suresh Rana, and MPs Sanjeev Balyan and Hukum Singh. All four are facing an unforeseen backlash from unhappy voters with a litany of complaints.
While the anger cuts across caste groups, what should worry the BJP most is the ire of the Jats who scripted the saffron sweep in Western UP by voting lock, stock and barrel for Narendra Modi. Jats are an estimated 17 percent of the population in the region and can swing results in around 50 of the 77 assembly seats where polls will be held on Saturday in the first of UP's seven phases.
"This time 90% of the Jats, particularly in the rural areas, will vote for Ajit Singh's RLD,'' declared a resident of a Jat colony in Muzaffarnagar where Sanjeev Balyan lives. It's a stinging comment on the BJP's fortunes, coming as it does from a person who has been a loyal supporter and worker of the saffron party for many years. He cannot be identified for obvious reasons, but he had an interesting tale to tell. He claims he captured nine booths in the area for the BJP in the 2014 election to help boost its vote tally. "This time,'' he confided, "I'll vote for the BJP, because I have to as a worker. But I am not going to mobilize votes like I did the last time. I just don't feel like putting in the effort. I will go, cast my vote and then come straight home.''
I ask him why he's so angry. He lists three reasons. One, he says, the BJP has been in power at the centre for two and a half years but has done nothing to alleviate the distress of Jat sugarcane farmers. They are owed money by private sugar mills but the centre has not helped them to recover their dues. Secondly, the community is upset over the police firing on Jats by the BJP government in Haryana during last year's reservation agitation. According to him, Jats in UP are waiting to vote against the BJP on February 11, and then will go to Haryana to join their caste brethren who have resumed the reservation agitation. Thirdly, he says, Jats have not forgiven the Modi government for insulting the memory of their biggest leader, former Prime Minister Charan Singh, when it denied Ajit Singh's request to turn his Lutyens' Delhi bungalow into a memorial for his father.
"They threw Ajit Singh's belongings out on the road and turned him out of the house in which Charan Singh lived for so many years,'' he lamented. Jats, he says, have sworn vengeance.
Tempers are running high in Sangeet Som's assembly constituency of Sardhana in Meerut for other reasons. Voters say he hasn't done a stitch of work in the constituency in the past five years. They have complaints about the state of the roads, water, electricity, etc. The only one always available to listen to their woes, they say, is the Samajwadi Party candidate Atul Pradhan, whose wife is the zilla panchayat sarpanch.
This is the same Som who was conferred an array of awards by Hindu organizations after the riots. Yet, just last month, when he was arrested for trying to stoke communal fires by showing clips of the 2013 riots in a documentary film, hardly anyone in his constituency came forward in his support. "We are too busy trying to survive to get sucked into his brand of politics again,'' confessed auto driver Vikas. "Demonetization has hit us hard. Business is bad. We spend most of our working hours lining up outside the bank to get money.'' He pointed to a group of youths lounging around in the distance. "They are all jobless", he said. "They were working in Delhi but because of demonetization, they were thrown out and forced to return to their village."
Suresh Rana, who represents the Thana Bhawan assembly seat in Shamli, is under fire from various caste groups that have supported the BJP in recent times. The main reason, say voters in the area, is that being a Thakur, he only helps those from own his own caste. The Sainis, an OBC group that the BJP is banking on heavily, are upset, they say, because Rana bailed out a Thakur who had knocked down a Saini in a road accident some time ago. Another voter chimed in to say that Brahmins too are upset with Rana because in a fight over land with some Thakurs, the MLA backed his caste folk. Economic troubles brought on by demonetization have only sharpened the anger.
Hukum Singh has run into a family feud that has disrupted his plans in the Kairana assembly constituency. His daughter Mriganka is pitted against his nephew Anil Chauhan who is fighting on an RLD ticket. "We are confused,'' disclosed Suresh Chand Saini, who owns a small electrical workshop. "How do we choose between two family members of our MP?''
Hukum Singh had made an issue about a Hindu "exodus'' from Kairana which he claimed was set off by Muslim terror. The area is Muslim-dominated, but several Hindus said the exodus tale was nonsense. Most of those who left Kairana, they said, had gone some years ago in search of greener pastures.
"Our businesses were badly hit first by the riots and now by demonetization,'' said Anil, a sweet shop owner. "We want peace. We want financial recovery.'' A short distance away from his shop, a long queue waited outside the iron gates of bank in the hope of getting cash in a time of vanishing notes.
Muslims in the region are watching silently as the BJP's Hindu vote base shows signs of crumbling. There is a little buzz about Akhilesh Yadav and his teaming up with Rahul Gandhi. But for the most part, they are reluctant to reveal their voting preference even as Mayawati strains to get a Dalit-Muslim alliance off the ground in this area where Jatavs and Muslims dominate in at least 60 constituencies.
As one Muslim in Muzaffarnagar said, "It's nothing to do with us. If the BJP loses, it will be defeated by those who made the party win in 2014.'' This is the irony that haunts the BJP in its western UP fortress.
(Arati R Jerath is a senior journalist and commentator.)