“Ajit Singh ko beizzat kia hai har party ne. Jat samaj is se aahat hai” (Jats are offended by the humiliation of Ajit Singh by all political parties). This remark by a group of villagers at Iglas village in Aligarh encapsulates the prevailing sentiment in Jat-dominated western UP.
The Jats rose to economic and political ascendency in the 1960s reaping dividends from land reforms and the Green Revolution. During those decades, it pinned its faith in Chaudhry Charan Singh and then his successor Ajit Singh, even tolerating the latter’s political opportunism. However, that allegiance ended with the Muzaffarnagar 2013 Jat-Muslim riots when the Jats deserted Ajit Singh and his RLD for maintaining political neutrality rather than supporting them against the Muslims. They shifted en masse to the BJP and humbled Ajit Singh, his son Jayant Chaudhary and other RLD candidates in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. A community that had blindly supported Charan Singh turned its back on his son because it expected unconditional support from him in their fight against the Muslims.
However, with the perceived humiliation of Ajit Singh by his political contemporaries, the wheel has come a full circle. In western UP, comprising the Braj and Upper Doab regions and districts like Agra, Mathura, Aligarh, Bulandshahr, Meerut, Baghpat, Shamli, Muzaffarnagar, there is a clear pattern of Jats articulating an enthusiastic case for the RLD. The enthusiasm informs elders and youths alike. In 2014, the Jats had privileged their Hinduness over their trademark peasant identity and flirted with the BJP. Now their accent is back on peasantness again.
This makes them hostile not only to the SP-Congress alliance but the BJP too. In fact, a group of Jats I met at Lilon village in riot-affected Shamli district took exception to me comparing the BJP’s Sanjeev Baliyan, a Jat, with Ajit Singh. Their enchantment with Narendra Modi has significantly dissipated and they are vocal in blaming the BJP for selling them false dreams. This Jats’ reassertion of their caste-based peasant identity was revealed in the clichéd remark by a father-son duo at Timakhiya village in Shival Assembly constituency in Meerut district: “BJP kisaan virodhi hai kyunki ye baniyo ki party hai” (BJP is an anti-farmer party and a party of the Baniyas).
This sense of alienation from the BJP is manifesting in the emergence of the Jat demand for reservation. Jats, who have OBC status in Delhi, Rajasthan and UP, want to be included in the central OBC list and have been agitating under the banner of the Akhil Bharatiya Arakshan Sangharsh Samiti led by its national president Yashpal Malik, who has unfolded a vicious anti-BJP campaign in western UP.
Ironically, the humiliation of Ajit Singh by not including the RLD in the SP-Congress alliance is hurting BJP the most. The Jats’ shift to the RLD in significant numbers will have a negative bearing upon the electoral prospects of the saffron party: its core support base is narrow, and the loss of Jat support makes a repeat of the 2014 success improbable.
This seemingly sudden shift of the Jats from the BJP to the RLD and the internal bickerings within the BJP support base was evident in the response of a Baniya voter in Muzaffarnagar: “The Jats supported the BJP in 2014 out of compulsion rather than love as no other party was supporting them in riot-related cases. They were about to desert the BJP in the February 2016 Muzaffarnagar byelection itself, but Sanjeev Baliyan somehow persuaded them to stay,” he said.
(The authour is a Ph.D from Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He is associated with People’s Pulse, a Hyderabad-based research organisation in field-work based political and electoral studies).