When the Rashtriya Lok Dal joined hands with the Bahujan Samaj Party to contest elections in Uttar Pradesh as part of an alliance also comprising Samajwadi Party, a major concern among the leaders and backers of gathbandhan in the region was the so-called rift between the core voter base of the RLD and BSP- Jaats and Jatavs.
“Never it has ever happened during voting here that a Jaat voter presses the elephant symbol (BSP’s election logo). The caste lines in villages are pretty clear,” explains an Aligarh-based journalist from Hindi daily Dainik Jagran.
Things, however, may be different this time around, he adds.
In fact, as polling for phase two of the elections get underway, encouraging signs are coming out from western Uttar Pradesh- considered as the Jaat heartland and a region that played a big role in bolstering BJP’s fortunes in 2014.
“This time, I am definitely going to vote for haathi,” said Om Singh, a young Jaat voter in Bulandshahr after attending the gathbandhan rally in the city.
Both Mayawati and Jayant Chaudhary addressed a full-house rally in Bulandshahr on April 13 and attitudes seem to be shifting in the Jaat community.
Aware of the challenge he had been facing, RLD leader Jayant Chaudhary had been visiting Jaat-dominated villages in the region to solicit support for “haathi,” as locals put it.
A day after voting in Baghpat concluded during the first phase of Lok Sabha polls on April 11, Chaudhary made a dash to the constituency of Aligarh to meet members of the Jaat community, a sizeable and a politically influential community in Aligarh and neighbouring seats.
“Jayantji is visiting us tomorrow. He has a significant following in the predominantly Jaat villages here. He will be campaigning for Baliyan (Ajit Balyan, the Bahujan Samaj Party candidate from Aligarh). He can easily sway 30,000-40,000 voters in gathbandhan’s favour,” says Ramvir Singh Tevatia, a sugarcane farmer and a resident of Jattari village in Aligarh.
In fact, the RLD leader has been campaigning extensively in the constituencies of Aligarh and Bulandhshahr, both considered as BJP strongholds in western Uttar Pradesh. His main aim is to consolidate the Jaat vote in the region behind the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) candidates who have been fielded from both the seats.
Besides, Jaats have also a considerable presence in Mathura. However, the choice of gathbandhan to field an RLD candidate from the seat has made things somehwat easier for the alliance on this seat, from where actor-turned-MP Hema Malini is seeking re-election.
Says Onkar Singh, a Bulandhshar-based lawyer who hails from the Jatav community. “Most of us are aware of the internal differences in the voting behaviour of gathbandhan candidates from the three parties. An RLD candidate from these seats would have gotten gathbandhan better numbers,” he says.
“Jaats more easily recognise the hand pump symbol than the elephant, since they have been criticised by Mayawati’s supporters in the past for perpetrating the caste system that Bahujan voters in the region oppose,” says Onkar.
Singh, however, predicts that an increasing number of Jaat voters may put aside their differences and go with the gathbandhan candidate.
While the fact that the gathbandhan candidate from Aligarh, BSP’s Ajeet Balyan, is a Jaat himself which could ultimately tip the scales in his favour in what many in Aligarh say would be a two-cornered contest between the BJP and the gathbandhan, that’s not the case in neighbouring Bulandhshahr due to the seat being reserved for members of Scheduled Caste community.
Contesting the election for gathbandhan from the reserved seat of Bulandshahr is the BSP’s Yogesh Verma, pitted against sitting BJP MP Bhola Singh, who has an SC background and is said to have the backing of former UP CM Kalyan Singh, who in turn has traditionally been supported by voters of the Lodh community. The Lodh community, comprising subcastes such as Koli, Mahar and Lodh Rajputs, are viewed as a major factor in closely fought elections on at least three seats - Aligarh, Bulandhshar and Etah.
Jaats, however, can make or break an election in Bulandhshahr as well, a fact not lost on the RLD and the gathbandhan. In fact, a heavy concentration of Jaats in the region and voting on caste lines tilts the election in favour of the gathbandhan.
Most of the villagers, workers from different parties as well as local journalists agree that Jaats in western UP were instrumental in sending BJP MPs to Parliament in 2014, as all were swayed by the Modi wave.
“Things will be different this time around. Jaats seem to be shedding their age-old aversion towards the BSP,” says Aligarh-based teacher Bahadev Sharma.
The resentment against sitting MPs from both Bulandshahr (Bhola Singh) and Aligarh (Satish Gautam) has been an open secret in the region. Aware of their shortcomings and resentment in the voters, both the MPs have turned to Modi as they seek re-election.
In a video that has surfaced online, BJP workers in Aligarh can be heard shouting slogans against local MP Satish Gautam in his face, even as they chanted slogans praising Modi in the same breadth.
“I beg you for you votes. You are not voting for me, but for Modiji,” Gautam told a crowd of BJP supporters gathered for PM Modi’s speech in Aligarh, minutes ahead of his arrival.
A BJP worker who travelled from Bulandhshahr to Aligarh to attend PM Modi’s rally says, “We haven’t seen Bhola Singh even once in the last five years. He has done nothing for us.”
With local factors not working in BJP candidates’ favour and no Modi wave visible so far, things may not turn out to be as rosy for the BJP as they did in 2014.