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West UP moving towards paradigm shift

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By Sidharth Mishra

The sun and shadows have been playing games with the weather in western Uttar Pradesh for the past fortnight, keeping the majority farming community more concerned about the agricultural produce than the political harvest. Just 100 kilometres away from the national Capital, Khatauli in Muzzafarnagar district is more famous as a favorite watering hole for tourists on way to Uttarakhand; but agriculturally, too, it is an important grain mandi (wholesale market).
With lush green fields, washed with the recent rains, the farmers here are looking forward to a bumper sugarcane and wheat crop this season. Though initially, there were issues regarding late sowing of the crops on account of demonetisation, the same has been overcome thanks to centuries-long existing farmer-trader network in the region. It is this network, which forms both economic and political axis of the region.
 The big and dominant farmers in the area are largely Jats and Muslims, whereas the traders are Baniyas. For ages former Prime Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh and later his son Ajit Singh played an important role in the region by keeping the Jats and the Muslims together, and in the process, creating a very potent political combination.
However, the Muzzafarnagar riots a few years back changed equations with Jats joining hands with their economic adversaries (the Banias) to give the BJP a thumbs up in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. BJP's cause was also helped as the other dominant OBC community - the Gujjars - joined hands with the saffron party. The sharp Hindu-Muslim divide in 2014 probably for the first time saw the coming together of the Jats and Gujjars, the two intermediary castes not known to plough the fields together. BJP is working on the same premise to reap political harvest once again. However, the issue of demonetisation may cause a crack in the social structure of its vote bank with the Baniya community 'suffering' immensely by the November 8 announcement of the Narendra Modi government. But does the Baniya community have an option in the region? The option has certainly been provided with the emergence of the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance. The combine has fielded a Brahmin and a Baniya on the Congress ticket from the two politically significant constituencies of Sahibabad and Muradnagar. The rise of this combine, however, would be more at the cost of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which in the past elections has fared well on the basis of the Dalit-Muslim-Brahmin combination, a social alliance which was once promoted by the Congress at all-India level.
BSP leader Mayawati herself belongs to the region and in addition to Dalit-Muslim-Brahmin, she also for long managed to keep the nouveau rich Gujjar community within her fold. However, during the last Lok Sabha polls, the Gujjars, too, stood weaned away by the BJP and that's one community whose shift to either the BJP or the BSP would make or mar the chances of several candidates in the region. Does that mean that western UP, the most prosperous region of Uttar Pradesh is going to vote on the basis of identity and not issues of development on February 11? It may sound ironical but it is true to a great extent. Despite having witnessed large scale development and urbanisation, the region continues to be dominated a by regressive social dictums. Despite having tonnes of money, the erstwhile landholding community of the region presents a very medieval mindset.
The marriage processions in the region today create extraordinary sound pollution with blaring out music from huge DJ sound boxes mounted on trucks. Women also join the celebrations and dance to the beats in their saris with their 'ghunghat' pulled down to cover their faces. The area is dotted with several private universities and engineering colleges but there are not enough government colleges to facilitate education for girls in the region.
It would, however, be incorrect to say that urbanisation would have no impact in the region. It will certainly have, and the biggest beneficiary would be Samajwadi Party-Congress combine, with Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav emerging as a 'charming' personality for certain. His 'clash' with the family elders to "free himself from the shackles" of the old and mighty has won him a soft corner. He delivered on the last poll promise to give laptops to all such students, with certain economic criteria, who passed the intermediate examination.
This time around he has promised smartphones. The general appeal of technology among the youth has shown the ability to cut across the community barriers. Will a Dalit youth not want to possess a smartphone? It may not matter to him even if he has to vote for Akhilesh Yadav and dump Mayawati to get hold of the smartphone. BJP's recent attempt to revive "Ram Lalla" as the face of the party clearly shows that lack of a Chief Ministerial candidate is proving to be counterproductive. In Akhilesh Yadav, voters in Western UP, which is not a traditional Samajwadi Party turf, has found a face to engage with, as is also the case with the BSP. However, the absence of such an arrangement within the BJP could confuse the voter especially when there are enough indications of polls being triangular and keenly contested on most of the seats. The name of Ram has brought them rich dividends from the region in the past. The rising communal passions had fetched BJP votes in hordes in 2014. But will the politics of generating votes fuelled by passion hold ground this time around too, or would there be a paradigm shift? The voters in western UP would let it be known only on March 11, when the ballot will be counted.
(Sidharth Mishra is Consulting Editor, Millennium Post.)

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