The stage is still being set in Deoband. The roof has been built, the barricades completed, and chairs laid out. But it is the cutouts that draw the most attention on a field just a few kilometres from the prestigious Islamic seminary Darul Uloom.
On the eve of the SP-BSP-RLD alliance’s first joint rally in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur Lok Sabha constituency, nothing seemed more important on Saturday than the display of unity. The venue was already abuzz as party workers checked microphones and air-conditioners on the stage, from where party chiefs, Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati and Ajit Singh, respectively, will address the public on Sunday.
Local leaders from the three parties streamed in and out of the venue on Saturday to double-, and triple-check, the arrangements. And they all made a beeline for the cutouts of the three leaders which will greet people at the entrance to the venue.
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“This is the most important part — all the cutouts have to be of the same size,” an SP leader at the venue said. “They have to have the right slogans, and no single leader can have more display than the others. This will prove the unity of the gathbandhan (alliance).”
The rally is aimed at sending a message to voters in eight western UP constituencies — Muzaffarnagar, Bijnor, Baghpat, Kairana, Saharanpur, Meerut, Ghaziabad and Gautam Buddh Nagar — which go to the polls in the first phase on April 11.
Every few minutes, the cutouts were inspected, photos taken on mobile phones and instructions issued to the team of at least 10 carpenters at the site. Besides the three leaders, there are cutouts of SP patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav, former PM and Lok Dal leader Chowdhary Charan Singh, and Kanshi Ram, the founder of BSP.
According to senior party leaders, Deoband was chosen as the venue for the first joint rally after much thought. “This is quite central to four constituencies and Deoband area includes the four main communities that are part of the gathbandhan — Muslims, Dalits, Jats and OBCs,” the SP leader said.
Deoband is also in Saharanpur, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally on Friday, drawing a huge crowd. For local BJP leaders, Sunday’s rally does not exactly come as a worry. “Prime Minister Modi has gone to Meerut too and Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has addressed a couple of rallies; more are slated in the next few days,” a BJP functionary said.
But there is cause for concern at Kutba village, the home of Muzaffarnagar BJP candidate and Jat leader Sanjiv Baliyan. Devraj Baliyan, a Jat farmer from Kutba, told The Sunday Express that several Jats have decided to attend the gathbandhan rally. “The whole village voted for Baliyan in 2014. It was the year after the Muzaffarnagar riots, and the election was polarised. Now, all Muslims have left the village and at least 52 Jat men are out on bail. Our cane dues have not been paid and the government has not fulfilled its promises to farmers,” Devraj said.
A neighbour, Arun Kumar, agreed: “Ajit Singh is a leader of Jats and many want to know what he will say. Maybe this will help us decide our choice on April 11.”