After the BJP’s defeat in Phulpur and Gorakhpur bypolls, the victory in Kairana has come as another shot in the arm for a united Opposition. More significantly, it has signalled the return of the RLD in Uttar Pradesh and national politics, after its defeat in the 2014 general elections. Jayant Chaudhary, son of RLD chief Ajit Singh, who was at the centre of the party’s ‘micro-level’ campaign, says the focus on economic distress helped change the narrative in Kairana.
RAVISH TIWARI: In the 2014 general elections, you lost Mathura to the BJP’s Hema Malini. Did you see it coming?
We did. I remember a conversation I had with my father just before the results. He told me, ‘Jayant, tum haar sakte ho (Jayant, you can lose).’ I told him, ‘Aap jeet jayoge (You will win).’ I was up against Hema Malini. In Indian politics, if you have a film star contesting, then you assume that there will at least be 5-10 per cent floating votes which will go in their favour because voters get affected by the personality. We were expecting that to a certain extent. But then, we also thought that we were in government for two years, and land acquisition (Bill) was a big issue. Mathura was also affected by agitations such as Bhatta Parsaul. So, we thought it was enough to go to the public and say, ‘We had riots, we had social disturbances in western UP, but we have been working for you.’ But that did not work.
RAKESH SINHA: Where do you see the BSP in 2019?
The BSP is a cadre-based party. It is different from the other political parties and organisations in Uttar Pradesh. They have very high discipline in their ranks. Mayawati’s communication with her cadres, her workers, her voters, is very strong. Her campaigns aren’t very visible but she can transfer her votes. If you look at the question of Dalit identity in the present national context, then you realise that there is a lot of angst, a lot of anger against the BJP. Her voters are ready, they are committed to take on the BJP and be part of a larger alliance. It is for her and her party now to take a decision on this.
The images from Karnataka have gone far and wide (when Mayawati shared the stage with SP president Akhilesh Yadav and Congress chief Sonia Gandhi at the swearing-in ceremony of Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy). She has shed some of her initial reticence on allying with other parties. That’s a big change. I think it’s pretty reasonable to expect that the BSP will be a part of the story (in 2019).
COOMI KAPOOR: Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati did not campaign for the Kairana bypolls. Was it deliberate?
Yes, it was deliberate. Yogi Adityanath was taunting Akhilesh, urging him to campaign. Perhaps, they sensed our strategy and wanted us to change it. They realised that our strategy was effective. We did a very micro-level campaign. We pitted ourselves against the state government. It has been a year since the BJP swept the state and it was not easy to stand up against that. We didn’t have the money for a high-pitched campaign. (PM Narendra) Modiji had big rallies, a big stage, there was a lot of pomp and show… But our emotional pitch helped us.
RAVISH TIWARI: In 2014, the youth virtually deserted you. Four years later, do you see a change?
That is true for every party. Traditional votebanks got demolished in the last election, not permanently though. I think the BJP ran campaigns at various levels. For the guy who wanted economic development and who could put on blinkers about the (2013 Muzaffarnagar) riots, Modiji represented vikas. The urban, pro-development youths supported him because of that.
When you have an aspirational campaign, and when you are able to use the traditional media and the social media to reach out — which they (the BJP) did successfully — you are going to get traction with the youth. But now, it is evident from the (Kairana) by-election that there has been a turnaround. I think it is the ‘economic story’ that has helped us renew our connection with the youth.
VANDITA MISHRA: Is the Opposition just going to count on the fact that the economy is in a bad shape? Can the Opposition tell a story different from that of the BJP, a bigger story?
It is difficult to tell a bigger story because he (PM Modi) is the real dreamer. He has already spoken about bullet trains and new things which seem very fancy. So, I don’t think we have to go down that road. It (the BJP’s narrative) can be countered by being more real, like we did in Kairana. The tone cannot be completely negative, but the economy should be the biggest reason for people to come out and vote.
LALMANI VERMA: What was the understanding between the SP and RLD to let Tabassum Hassan contest on an RLD ticket?
Her husband was with us, her husband’s father was an MP with us. She was our candidate in Assembly elections earlier. Most of the political families in western UP have been with us. So, there was nothing alien for our workers. The fit and connect were very easy. And it sent such a good message to our people that we (SP and RLD) can work together on winnable candidates.
Such things are tough from an organisational point of view… But for him (Akhilesh Yadav) to say that why don’t you field Tabassum Hassan, and for us to accept it, that is a great sign.
LALMANI VERMA: Was the decision to field Hassan also driven by the intention to bring Jats and Muslims together?
To a great extent. It was tricky but at some point we had to embrace the challenge. There were people who thought we should have a much more calibrated approach. But this constituency (Kairana) has always given representation to Muslims. They can be candidates from any political party today. I am very happy that it played out this way. If we had lost, then we would be thinking differently. But it worked for us and sent out a very important message.
MANOJ C G: For 2019, will the Opposition have a PM candidate or will the decision be taken after the polls?
Politics is the art of the impossible. It would be best for us to come together and have one leader, one agenda, but it is not always possible to do so. Every party will try and maximise its benefits. It is reasonable to expect that (the PM candidate) will be decided after the polls based on numbers. There is enough mutual respect. If there is one party that has significantly large numbers, then that party will obviously be invited to stake claim to leadership. It’s not Modi, the lion, against everyone else. The UPA was a 10-year-long coalition. Political history of the country shows that coalitions have run the government at the Centre- and state-level for a significant number of years.
DAKSH PANWAR: If the RLD does not get enough seats in 2019, will you ally with the BJP?
People voted for the BJP in the last elections and brought them to power. They are also in power in several states. They have that advantage but it’s not sustainable, it is not long-term. I don’t see them promoting other leaders. I want to work for a long period of time and I don’t think it’s possible within the BJP. On a personal level, (alliance with the BJP) is a strict no. It is important for us to stand by the ideological stance that we have taken in the past nine-10 years, especially after the riots. So, there is no way.
RAVISH TIWARI: The Kairana win is proof that the Jats may be coming back to you. That could be a reason for the BJP to woo you now.
I can expect an agency to knock on my door, not them with a bunch of flowers.
LIZ MATHEW: ‘BJP ki poonch nahi, RLD ki mooch bano’; ‘It is not Jinnah but ganna’ — the RLD had very interesting campaign slogans. Is it here to stay?
It’s here to stay. Packaging is very important and we had to adapt. I have got a few creative people in my team and sometimes things just click. Right from the beginning we knew that the only way to beat the BJP in Kairana was to address their failures on certain vital issues, such as agricultural distress. It can bring people together. Kairana was a test case and we saw economic issues being the unifying force and it played out beautifully. We started that slogan and it caught up. I am still hearing stories about it.
DAKSH PANWAR: India has a history of coalitions collapsing. Is there anything different now?
It depends on the push and pull factors at play. You have a coalition government at the Centre and we have had coalition governments earlier too. I think we should look at it from the point of representation. The two major parties — the Congress and BJP — do they really represent the entire country and its diversity? They don’t. Should the regional parties not have a say? I think the voters are very well adjusted to it (coalition governments)… it isn’t really a big question in the voters’ mind.
It won’t matter if it is a single party or there are 10 parties. Today politics is about personalities, rather than manifestos or issues. The BJP’s entire campaign is going to be around one man, and perhaps his partner. So these personalities are going to be promoted. I’m asked whom are we promoting to take that on. That is why this question (of coalition government) is coming up. Otherwise, I don’t see this question having resonance on the ground.
SOWMIYA ASHOK: How did you change the narrative around riots during your Kairana campaign?
It is not something that happened in the last 10-15 days or during the election campaign. The enabling environment was already there and we have run a sustained campaign. We are perhaps the only political party in UP that held ‘Bhaichara Sammelans’. Today, ‘liberal’ is a bad word. In our Bhaichara Sammelans we got maulanas, several people from other faiths… My father campaigned in Baghpat, Muzaffarnagar, Kairana, Bijnor etc. He just met people; there was no campaign pitch. We were not asking for anything.
More than anything it was the state of the economy that brought people together. In villages, from where people had fled (after the riots), there are no craftsmen. Symbiotic relations that existed had got devastated. But after four years people are thinking aise kaam nahin chalega (it won’t work like this). So in that sense an internal process of reconsideration was there. We just gave them the bahana (the excuse).
RAVISH TIWARI: Did the RLD’s silence during the riots cost the party?
When panchayats were being held (before the Muzaffarnagar riots), we were debating whether I should go for them. But the question was if I go and if there is violence, what would we do? I think it was a measured response. Perhaps we underestimated the campaign against us.
Later, I visited every riot-torn village. By then, people were thinking that I should have taken a side, that I should have been with the Hindus or protected the Muslims… Looking back, I think I should have gone and tried to control things.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: Among the young generation of leaders, whom do you find most inspirational?
People have different constituencies which have their own demands. Some people really work hard and are really committed. Tejashwi Yadav has a great personality. I stayed with him in Patna recently. The way he spoke, the connect he has with people, I think that is remarkable at his age. And in UP, of course, you have Akhilesh Yadav. I have also interacted with Rahulji (Gandhi) many times. We have fought elections together. He has got a big responsibility on his shoulders. In the BJP too there are a few young people… Anurag Thakur is very active. His constituency is very demanding. He is always on a roll. Everytime I speak to him, he is on a bus. (CPM MP) M B Rajesh, from Palakkad, is quite vocal. He has the angry young man sort of image.
SHUBHAJIT ROY: You studied at the London School of Economics. How did you make the transition to politics?
Somewhere, in the back of my mind I knew this was my calling. It is a tough line of work. It is not for the faint-hearted or the risk averse. In any job, you ask yourselves after six months if you should quit. I have always had that sort of a mindset. I was not fit for the nine-to-five office work. I have been going to villages since I was 14-15 years of age — giving speeches, playing cricket, giving awards to the winning team.
VANDITA MISHRA: As a young person who is carrying his family’s and party’s politics forward, what do you admire about the BJP machine? What can the Opposition learn from the BJP?
I don’t think we should learn their dirty tricks. During the campaign, they promised the moon. They knew they can’t deliver, but they were so desperate. They wanted to appeal to every constituency and say whatever was needed to win the election. And, subsequently, they have done the same in every state election. Now, there is so much pressure on everyone else.
Also, there is a decline in the language used in elections. You have to be very aggressive. You have got lots of young people who are basically getting paid to sit and influence people online. But we have to survive as a political party. I think, in our case, we have enough people who are ideologically committed and volunteering right now. We are at a very nascent stage, we are very small. We are trying to build our presence on social media. You can’t ignore the medium. Now every young man, even in villages, every voter has a phone. They have stopped reading newspapers. I think television news will die. Eventually, people will go to their mobile phones (for news).
COOMI KAPOOR: In the 2019 Opposition alliance, what role do you see for the Congress?
At the national level, the Congress is still the most viable opposition against the BJP. In several states it is them or the BJP. UP has many parties, so it is a different animal. Given the fact that the Congress is today the largest opposition party, they are definitely going to have a role in whatever emerges in the political landscape.
Some of the smaller regional outfits are perhaps more comfortable dealing with the Congress because of the arrogance of the BJP leadership — the way they communicate, the way they deal with their own allies. No one really wants to ally with them. So, in comparison, the Congress, with its leadership style, is perhaps more attractive.
COOMI KAPOOR: But will the Congress play a lead role?
Respect has to be given to many leaders, who are very strong in their states, who bring strong leadership to the table. I think the Congress has also adjusted. The speed with which they were able to negotiate in Karnataka… It is a signal that they are also in conversation in other states with other parties. I think they have softened their stand. The BJP is the arrogant national party that wants to dominate everyone. So yes, the Congress will have a role in 2019. Now it is for the Congress to decide whether they want to have discussions before elections or they want post-poll conversations.
SHOBHANA SUBRAMANIAN: Who is a potential PM candidate in the Opposition?
I would like to see a younger face.
RAVISH TIWARI: Is Nitish Kumar part of the picture?
Nitish Kumarji was at the helm of a lot of things that were changing and Bihar elections had really set the tone. Later, I think, he miscalculated and indulged in the misadventure (of joining the NDA).