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The battle for Jat votes

Prashant Jha
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RLD suffers the most in the polarised climate, crafts a comeback strategy

Rajnish Kori drives around on a motor-cycle with ‘Indian Army’ written on the numberplate. A chemistry lecturer in a college at Shamli, he is the youth wing chief of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) in the district. We are sitting in a car at a petrol pump, as police vans drive past, doing rounds of the town, which witnessed violence through the week.

“Tell us, what can we do? We are in trouble both ways,” says a remarkably candid Mr. Kori. “If we support Jats, Muslims will be angry. If we support Muslims, it will be like betraying our own Jat brothers and sisters. And being with both is not possible in the current situation.”

Nothing sums up the RLD’s dilemmas more starkly. The party has five seats in the Lok Sabha, and eight in the Assembly. But as a force dependent on votes from both communities in western Uttar Pradesh, the polarised mood spells bad news for the party.

Its traditional Jat base, nurtured from the time of Chaudhary Charan Singh, is unhappy. Mr. Kori admits: “Jats think we have been soft, we did not protect them. This is pushing them towards the BJP.”

Rajesh Jain, Meerut-based national secretary of the party, agrees with his younger colleague. “This entire riot has been orchestrated to target the RLD’s vote base. Both the SP and the BJP had a shared interest in driving a wedge between the party and the Jats.”

For the second time this week, RLD chief and Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh was stopped from entering western Uttar Pradesh. Back in Delhi, his son and party MP Jayant Chaudhary says: “The administration did not stop the mahapanchayat that triggered the tensions. But it is trying to stop those who have a stake in bringing about peace, who are trying to take the middle path.”

Damage-control

The party has begun what appears to be a multi-pronged damage control exercise. For one, it will make a fresh push for reservation for the Jats, as part of the OBC quota, in Central government services. An RLD leader says the proposal has the Prime Minister’s consent, and there is a good chance of its getting approved. “If we succeed, Jats will return. This will be the trump card.” At a meeting of the All-India Jat Sabha in June, Mr. Ajit Singh declared that the UPA supported reservation for the Jats and exhorted the community to stage an agitation in Delhi if the plan did not go through.

Second, on the ground, it is asking Jats in villages and towns of western Uttar Pradesh to ponder over why they alone, among Hindus, were at the forefront of the violence. One RLD leader, who insisted on being anonymous, told The Hindu: “Thakurs, Gujjars and other caste leaders were inciting tensions. They told everyone that Muslims must be taught a lesson. But why was it that only Jats died?” There was a growing feeling among the Jats that they were “used.” If Mr. Ajit Singh and his son go back to campaign in villages with this message, district leaders think it could stem, to a certain degree, the community’s shift towards the BJP.

But given Mr. Ajit Singh’s record of constantly shifting allegiances, and possible pressure from the base, is it possible that he himself will tie up with the BJP?

Party leaders reject the possibility and point out that they have already declared they will ally with the Congress. Mr. Kori said: “There could be some benefit in going with the BJP in the Lok Sabha [elections]. But we will be finished in the Assembly. Muslims will never return to the party. There are anyway questions about why we went with BJP last time.” Another RLD leader said that going with the BJP would mean resigning oneself to being a “Hindutva B-team forever.” “We can’t abuse Muslims as much as they can. What is the point?”

Filling the vacuum?

Wajid Chaudhary, State secretary of the party, has been providing assistance to the displaced Muslims. He believes that Mr. Ajit Singh can fill a political vacuum in the region. With the BJP and the SP at opposite ends, and the Congress and the Bhaujan Samaj Party being relatively silent, only RLD could be the bridge between the two communities.

In his biography of Charan Singh, An Indian Political Life , the political scientist Paul Brass wrote: “There is no doubt that Chaudhuri Sahib [as he was usually called], like his political mentor Sardar Patel, believed strongly in the utmost importance of maintaining public peace.” The destruction of that public peace in his home-belt now poses a threat to the political existence of his son’s party and will test the family’s survival skills.


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