“Do you recognise me? I fought nine parliamentary elections, with both wins and losses. But why have I come to Muzaffarnagar to contest election, you tell me?”
The question is directed at an audience of men and boys gathered around a Ravidas temple, a place of worship for Dalits, in Ladwa, a village in western Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district.
There are Dalits, Muslims, Jats, and OBC communities like Kashyaps/Dheevar in the audience, most of whom are seated on neatly arranged red plastic chairs or standing in clusters.
Their eyes are locked at the makeshift stage, dressed in banners of three parties — Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal — where a bespectacled man wearing a white kurta-pyjama is standing holding the microphone.
“I have come to Muzaffarnagar because you are responsible for bringing the BJP to power. You fought with each other and destroyed the bhaichara [brotherhood]. As a result of that you have to bear Modi today,” he says.
Now 80, RLD chief Ajit Singh has had many ups and downs in his political career, but facing a steep downward curve since 2013, perhaps the stakes have never been higher for his party as they are in the 2019 election.
Moving out from his traditional seat of Baghpat, Mr. Singh has played a gamble by deciding to contest from Muzaffarnagar, a constituency which was marred by communal violence in 2013, triggering a communal polarisation which eventually helped the BJP sweep the State.
While he has an uphill task to overturn the deficit from 2014, when the BJP’s Sanjeev Balyan secured a massive 6.53 lakh votes (58.98%), his fight is bolstered by the support of the SP and the BSP. Mr. Singh is going from village to village addressing nukkad sabhas to connect with his new electorate in the sugar belt.
“You want to bear Modi for five more years,” he asks the crowd at Ladwa. Some of them reply: “No, not any more.” Mr. Singh then says: “Maintain your bhaichara, and Modi will disappear. You did that in Kairana, didn’t the BJP lose?”
The 2013 communal violence demolished the RLD’s carefully stitched decades old Jat-Muslim coalition. The results were clear in 2014; Mr. Singh himself stood a humiliating third from his bastion Baghpat.
The Hindu followed Mr. Singh through his nukkad sabhas and found most of his attacks targeted at Prime Minister Narendra Modi, backed by his desire to restore the RLD’s lost social coalition. “Just defeating Modi won’t do. You will have to bury him. You will have to uproot him,” he tells the crowd, his fist smacking the air passionately.
The audience bursts into claps and shouts of “Chaudhary Ajit Singh zindabad” resonating in the open venue. “Modi, your achhe din are gone, our achhe din are coming,” he declares.
The Jat leader also uses witty one-liners to mock Mr. Modi on his persona and track-record, evoking laughter from the rural audience. “Bhaiya, if he [Mr. Modi] goes to Sri Lanka, he would return and say, I killed Ravan.”
Another one-liner which generates a louder response from the audience is: “People say Modi lies a lot. He doesn’t lie, he just never speaks the truth.”
After the sabha is over, Mr. Singh moves into his SUV and is quickly escorted away to a local supporter’s house where fruits have been laid out for his welcome. Saying no to hospitality is not an option in this part of western Uttar Pradesh, even though Mr. Singh is an hour behind schedule.
After a quick interval, the cavalcade drives past sugarcane and wheat fields and reaches the house of a prominent RLD old-timer, a farmer, to pacify him. To secure his win, Mr. Singh would require to revive support of all such disgruntled loyalists and the farmer, despite not being in the best of health, is convinced to address a nukkad sabha for Mr. Singh at the next location, Titavi. Along the way, drum beats, shower of flowers and handshakes welcome the Jat veteran.
At Titavi, Mr. Singh once again presses for communal unity among his core constituencies. He also explains to people the economic downfall caused by the riots and how the local steel rod factories are still shut. “I want to bring Muzaffarnagar back to the same position where it was before the riots,” he says.
With the SP and BSP in alliance with the RLD, Mr. Singh has ensured consolidation of the Jatavs and Muslims, with the latter itself making up for 41% of the district population. That the combined vote of the SP, BSP and RLD in each of the five Assembly segments of Muzaffarnagar in 2017 polls had crossed 50% also presents a hope for him.
However, to ensure a victory and galvanise his party, he faces the challenge of reviving his appeal among the Jats, a section of whom are still inclined towards Mr. Modi and Mr. Balyan, who himself is a local Jat.
To woo them, Mr. Singh focuses on issue of cane dues, menace of stray cattle and joblessness, and accuses the BJP of trying to divide the country in the name of the Army, which also recruits from the Jat community.
The RLD chief strikes a chord with Virendra Singh, a Jat farmer listening patiently in the crowd. Virendra complains that the rate of milk and cattle have fallen under the BJP rule. Another Jat, Rajendra Singh, hits out at Mr. Modi over the unemployment issue, while farmer Soraj Singh, a traditional RLD voter, regrets voting for the BJP in 2014 due to the riots. “All they did was increase the power tariff. Even if the BJP fields a Jat, we will vote for Chaudhary ji. We won’t just vote, we will make him win,” says Soraj.
Raj Kumar, a Jatav, also speaks against the BJP. “We are fed up of BJP. I lost ₹80,000 during demonetisation.”
A few kilometres away in Kutba village, the opinion is, however, split, with many Jats still supporting Mr. Modi and happy to see the back of the previous Muslim MPs from Muzaffarnagar. Current MP Sanjeev Balyan hails from Kutba, which along with its adjoining village Kutbi, witnessed eight deaths during the 2013 violence.
While young Akshay Kumar praises the sitting MP for building metalled roads, widening the canal track and setting up solar panels, Randheer Singh, a farmer, is happy with the ₹2,000 he received under the PM KISAN scheme. They also praise the Balakot air strikes, with one local comparing Mr. Modi to a patriotic king.
As the conversation shifts to the battle between the RLD and the BJP and economic issues, divisions emerge, a sharp contrast from 2013 when Jats rallied heavily behind the BJP amid communal polarisation.
Pushpendra Kumar, a farmer, praises the air strike, but is tilted towards the RLD and regrets voting for the BJP in 2014. He is aggrieved by stray cows which are eating his wheat crop and forcing him to spend money on fencing his 23-bigha field. “Ajit Singh is more sympathetic towards the farmers,” says Pushpendra, blaming Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath for “letting loose the cows.
Parveen Balyan, who works at a local sugar mill, compares the alliance partners to “thieves” ganging up against Mr. Modi. He also questions Mr. Singh for choosing Muzaffarnagar instead of Baghpat. “For 20 years he was a Minister and an MP but what work did he do?” asks Parveen. But he believes that Mr. Singh will give a tough fight this time, and predicts a low victory margin of 20,000 votes for the BJP.
Like a section of Jats, OBC groups like Kashyaps, Dheevars and Julahas, and upper castes are also tilted towards the BJP. “We don’t care about the candidate, we want BJP,” says Sonu, a Julaha, in Dhindhawali village. His namesake, Sonu, a Rohilla Rajput, admits Mr. Singh has the arithmetic to back up a strong fight but still expects the BJP to win. “All I want is a strong government, a BJP government,” he says.