Of the three assembly constituencies in Uttar Pradesh going to the polls on February 13, Muzaffarnagar is getting maximum national attention due to the constant communal tension there since the September 2013 riots in the district. Not a month has passed since the riots without some incident that political parties and organisations have been quick to give communal overtones to.
The seat was held by an SP MLA, whose death has caused the by-election. The main parties in the fray are the Congress, BJP, SP and RLD; the BSP has not put up a candidate and the AIMIM withdrew even before the nominations started. The constituency falls in the urban part of the district. Hence, the dynamics are different from those of the rural constituencies where the riots mainly took place. A constituency visit showed that while the communal issue is important, caste and political economy are also crucial factors in the election. Apart from the BJP, all parties, both in their posters and rallies, are appealing for votes on the plank of development. Muslims constitute roughly over a third of the electorate, followed by Banias and Brahmins. The other significant castes are Pal, Jat, Thakur and Tyagi. There is also a large number of Dalits.
The dominant perception in the constituency is that the main contest is between the SP and the BJP, with Ajit Singh’s RLD trying to play spoiler for the saffron party. The desperation of the BJP to win is evident from its attempts to stoke the existing communal divide. It has invoked “the embers that spread” from the violence of 2013 that “made Narendra Modi the prime minister” and brought in leaders to campaign, such as Sanjeev Baliyan, Hukum Singh, Suresh Rana and Sangeet Som, all of whom were named in cases related to the Muzaffarnagar riots, and some Central ministers. The BJP’s posters ask for votes for saving the honour of “bahu-beti” and there have been threats of holding a panchayat over two cases of “rape” in the region. However, some local workers of the BJP are not happy; they feel that the riots destroyed farming, business, small industry and Hindu-Muslim relations. Moreover, the fact that the candidates of both the BJP and SP are Banias — the latter is the son of the late MLA Chitranjan Swaroop — has split the community vote between the two parties. Equally important, members of the business community seem somewhat disillusioned with PM Narendra Modi and feel achhe din have not come. They point to the lawlessness prevailing under the SP but also blame the BJP for making false promises and not doing anything for local business, resulting in the “slump in the market”. Mayawati is remembered for maintaining strict law and order and many would have preferred the absent BSP. Thus, apart from caste solidarity, economic concerns and law and order seem to be important concerns in shaping the voting decisions of the trading community.
While the upper castes are supportive of the BJP, a survey of the Jat colonies in the city indicates that a substantial number could move towards the RLD. They feel neglected and want to send a message to the BJP that they should not be taken for granted. But there are two more important reasons that suggest that socio-economic concerns rather than Hindutva are shaping their voting preferences. There is a desire to revive the RLD under their “own” leader, Jayant Chaudhary, son of Ajit Singh, and bring the once-powerful farmer community, which has become marginalised, back into politics rather than support a party in which they could never occupy important positions. Second, most feel that under Modi, both kisan and kashtkar are suffering, which indicates their unhappiness that the Central government is paying little attention to agriculture. At the same time, the RLD has fielded a candidate from the Pal community, which is generally perceived as being pro-BJP. This has divided the Pals and it is expected that their support would be equally split between the BJP and RLD, something that has worried local BJP leaders. In the absence of the BSP, the Dalit vote remains fluid and the community is being wooed by all parties. But they do not seem to be keen to support the SP.
Muslims are not keen to support the Peace Party despite it fielding a Qureshi, a section that constitutes the majority among Muslims here, and raising the issue of Muslim backwardness. Nor do they seem inclined towards the Congress, whose candidate, Salman Sayeed, was accused of inciting communal passions during the riots. A majority of Muslims, who constitute the biggest single voting bloc in the assembly constituency, appeared to prefer the SP, which would ensure security from communal forces, and were not concerned about the caste/ community of the candidate. The BJP is hoping that the Muslim vote will split between the Congress and SP — it remains to be seen if this happens but it does not seem likely. The withdrawal of Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM candidate signifies the marginal position of Muslim parties in communally charged areas, where the issue of insecurity combines with development.
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The campaign on the ground provides a number of significant insights: That there are strategic limits to communally charged Hindutva politics without development, which explains the desperation of the BJP; that Muslims prefer a party that provides security, which might help the SP retain the seat. Equally important is the new electoral equation among the Jats, which is significantly different from that during the communally charged atmosphere of 2014 due to the re-emergence of their economic and political interests. The RLD’s focus on kisan and kashtkar hints at an attempt to create a broader caste alliance of the Jats with other OBC and Dalit castes, significant in light of the attempt by the JD(U) to form a grand alliance in UP. In sum, the bypoll result may create fresh equations of importance for the 2017 elections.