Meerut: For the last four years, since deadly communal riots broke out in Muzaffarnagar in 2013, the communal cauldron in western Uttar Pradesh has constantly been kept on the boil.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) seem to have reaped the political dividends of communal polarisation in western UP.
Jats, a significant voting bloc in the region, deserted the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), traditionally seen as a party of Jats, and went in favor of the BJP. Over the years, in the run up to the 2017 Assembly polls, communal tensions were high. From the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri to Kairana MP Hukum Singh claiming 250 "Hindu families" had fled due to “fear of another community", there is no dearth of issues dividing people along religious lines.
The polarisation, however, may not pay off as much as the BJP would have hoped. With just a few hours to go before polls open in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the political dynamics are not the same as 2014.
In the last week of campaigning, BJP sources said they are worried about losing several seats they considered "safe seats" a while ago.
Among the most high-profile seats is Kairana in Shamli district. Hukum Singh, BJP MP from Kairana, held the Assembly segment of Kairana before he was elected to the Lok Sabha. In the byelection that followed, Singh’s nephew Anil Chauhan fought on a BJP ticket and lost to Samajwadi Party candidate Nahid Hassan.
Kairana is a high-stakes seat for the BJP because the top brass of the party, including national president Amit Shah, has lent support to Singh's claim. What followed was bitter infighting and a family feud. The party decided to snub Chauhan and name Hukum Singh's daughter Mriganka Singh as the party candidate. Hukum Singh is known to have aggressively lobbied for his daughter. Chauhan, miffed with the nomination, quit BJP the very next day and managed to get an RLD ticket from the same seat. He has since gone on record to say his uncle's claim of "exodus" was false and accused him of nepotism. Not only is Chauhan likely to split the vote, he is also looking to undercut one of Singh's, and by extension the BJP's, main election plank – exodus. Meanwhile, sitting MLA Nahid Hassan has reportedly been drawing huge support from Muslims, who form the majority in the constituency.
Two of BJP's riot-accused leaders, UP BJP vice-president Suresh Rana and Sardhana MLA Sangeet Som, are reportedly running into trouble with the poll-arithmetic swinging away from them. Rana, who is contesting from Thanabhawan in Shamli district, kept the communal tempo up until the last few days of the campaign. In January, he said that "there would be a curfew" in Deoband and Moradabad, the Muslim-majority towns, if he were elected. He was slapped with an Election Commission notice for making the remark. He is up against Samajwadi Party's Sudhir Panwar, who happens to be a Jat.
According to sources in the SP, Panwar has been cobbling together an alliance of Jats and Muslims by asking them to maintain communal harmony. As two of the biggest voting blocs in the region, this coalition could threaten Rana's chances from Thanabhawan, where he is a sitting MLA.
Som is facing a similar challenge in his seat of Sardhana. He is facing SP’s Atul Pradhan, his long-time rival who lost the 2012 assembly polls to Som. Pradhan is hoping to cash in on his position as a Jat and like Panwar, join their cause with that of Muslims. What could help the BJP in these seats, however, are the BSP candidates. Mayawati has fielded Muslims – Abdul Waris Khan in Thanabhawan and Imran Qureshi in Sardhana – in both seats. The BSP candidates could potentially undercut the SP's support, helping the two BJP rabble-rousers.
A potential loss that would, perhaps, embarrass the BJP most would be the one in Meerut Cantonment, a seat that BJP has not lost for 27 years. The BJP first wrested this seat from the Congress in 1989. In 2002, Satyaprakash Aggarwal won the seat on a BJP ticket and has held it since then. Since last year, however, there has been a silent rebellion in the local BJP unit as younger leaders demanding that the ticket be given to someone other than the 77-year-old Aggarwal. Vineet Sharda, head of the BJP's trader outfit, has been known to lobby for the seat for himself. In the end, however, the party chose to go with the sitting MLA. The infighting in the BJP unit in Meerut Cantonment unit may lead to the BJP surrendering its citadel lock, stock and barrel.
Sources said that the party was also worried about the candidacy of former UP BJP chief Laxmikant Bajpai. In 2012, Bajpai won the seat with just over 6,000 votes against SP candidate Rafiq Ansari. This year, Ansari is looking to consolidate the Muslim vote behind him since he is the only Muslim candidate fielded by a major party.
Sources indicate that in the hinterland, BJP is worried about the Jat vote slipping away from the party and gravitating back towards the RLD. In several seats such as Siwalkhas in Meerut district, Budhana and Khatauli in Muzaffarnagar district, the RLD is looking to script a comeback. In 2014, RLD chief Ajit Singh had lost his seat of Baghpat to the BJP’s Satyapal Singh. RLD is looking to regain support among Jats and retain the Chaprauli seat in Baghpat district, which the party won in 2012. The high concentration of Dalits in Baghpat and Baraut, also in the same district, make it ripe ground for the BSP to win big.
While officially, BJP claims that all is well, BJP leaders admit in private that their gains are slipping away. "RLD will surely do much better this time. The BJP has been privately reaching out to Jat community leaders this time but we think we will do better in eastern UP than in the west," a senior BJP leader, on condition of anonymity, told News18.