Elections 2024: BJP hoping Ram will win in Ravana’s 'sasural'

By many accounts, phase one of voting in the 2024 Lok Sabha election on 19 April has put the BJP on the back foot. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s diversionary brand of politics and an over emphasis on Hindutva seem to have manifested themselves in the low voter turnout.

All eyes are now focused on eight crucial seats in western Uttar Pradesh and another 13 in Rajasthan going to the polls on 26 April, where the INDIA bloc led by the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Congress is determined to make a further dent in the BJP fortunes.

Of the eight constituencies going to the polls in UP — Meerut, Baghpat Amroha, Ghaziabad, Gautam Buddha Nagar, Aligarh, Mathura and Bulandshahr (reserved) — the contest in Meerut is being seen as a litmus test for the Hindutva brigade, primarily because the BJP has parachuted actor Arun Govil, known for his portrayal of Lord Ram in the 1987 television series Ramayana, into the city.

The BJP believed that fielding Govil in Meerut would help them mop up votes in the name of Ram, given that the inauguration of the Ram temple in Ayodhya continues to resonate here. The average Meerut citizen takes pride in how their city was the home of Ram’s arch enemy Ravana’s wife Mandodari, and therefore continues to be regarded as Ravana ka sasural (home of in-laws).

But the gamble seems not to have paid off, largely because Govil is seen as an outsider even within the party rank and file. The BJP’s winner from Meerut in 2014 and 2019, Rajendra Agarwal, has developed strong local connections, and many an average BJP worker, quietly defiant, has refused to campaign for Govil.

The SP-Congress alliance has put up Jatav leader and former mayor Sunita Verma to take on Govil. Verma is also expected to take advantage of the constituency’s sizeable Dalit-Muslim community, comprising nearly 50 per cent of Meerut’s voting population, with a roughly 30-20 split between Muslims and Dalits.

Ahmed Hasan, a shopkeeper in the Sadar Bazaar area, said, “We would have preferred a Muslim candidate but in 2019, Yaqoob bhai (Qureshi) who had been put up by the SP-BSP-RLD alliance, lost by a very narrow margin because Hindu votes consolidated against him. This time, Behenji (BSP leader Mayawati) has put up a Tyagi Brahmin candidate (Devvrat Tyagi), so Muslim voters will vote in favour of the cycle (the SP’s electoral symbol).”

Political analysts believe the BJP is on the backfoot because the caste consolidation is not working in its favour either. There is a strong sentiment in Meerut’s Ambedkar basti that if Modi returns to power with a big majority, he will change the Constitution and bring to a halt all reservations being extended to members of the SC (Scheduled Caste) community.

Ashe Ram, a mason living in Malin Basti with its large Dalit population, said, “Behenji’s core vote bank (Dalit voters) remains intact, but many of the younger generation have moved away from her. In the last elections, we supported Modi, but we are now suspicious of him. Modi is pro-rich and can do anything if he returns to power.”

But Dalits are not the only dominant caste to have turned its back on Modi. Upper-caste Rajputs, Sainis and Tyagis are also dissatisfied with the ruling party. In fact, leaders from all three communities are openly calling for a boycott of the BJP for giving them “lesser representation” in western UP.

Rajput leader Thakur Puran Singh has repeatedly gone public to state that not only is the ruling party distorting the “glorious history” of the Rajputs, but denying equal rights to the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) category.

Uttar Pradesh chief minister and BJP star campaigner Yogi Adityanath has been brought in to attempt to buck this trend, and he has been holding rallies in different parts of the constituency invoking the name of Ram and saying, “Jo Ram ko laaye hain, aap ko unko laana hai (you need to bring in those who brought Ram to you).”

But even though farmers in the region express gratitude for a slew of Central government projects such as the Rapid Rail Project and, more recently, the Ganga Expressway, which have enriched several local farmers, they are in no mood to forgive the government for its perceived stepmotherly treatment of the farming community as a whole.

This is a sentiment shared across several constituencies, including Baghpat, where several Jat farmers are openly critical of RLD (Rashtriya Lok Dal) chief Jayant Chaudhary’s decision to join the BJP, given its anti-farmer stance.

Mukund Ram a farmer with a three acre farm on the main Delhi-Baghpat highway, said, “We are all supporters of Chaudhary Charan Singh, but this is the first time in 47 years that no member of Charan Singh’s family is contesting elections. Jayant lost from Baghpat in 2019, but had he fought this time, he would have won.”

Jayant Chaudhary has chosen to give the Baghpat seat to his close confidante, 68-year-old Raj Kumar Sangwan, who has been associated with the RLD for nearly four decades. Sangwan is pitted against Amarpal Sharma, a Brahmin who had earlier contested the Assembly elections on a BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) ticket from Sahibabad and won.

SP leaders had wanted to play the Jat card, but just a day before nominations were to close, it chose the Brahmin card instead. It is a mystery why Sharma was brought in, though, given his status as an accused in a murder case who is presently out on bail.

Sangwan has been pointing to the humble start to his career. “Parcha baantne ka kaam karta tha, par ab mein parcha bharne ke position par aa gaya hoon (I used to distribute slips, but now, I’m in a position to fill them myself).”

Asked why his party had not entered into an alliance with SP, Sangwan chose a diplomatic reply. “Negotiations broke down because we did not agree with their views on some issues,” though he failed to elaborate what they were.

Like Govil, he has found little support among the BJP rank and file, who are mostly absent at his meetings. And like Govil, he has to look toward Adityanath to boost his campaign. Here too, a mythological connection has been found, with the Mahabharat this time. For Baghpat is believed to be one of the five villages that the Pandavas had requested from Duryodhana to avoid the battle of Kurukshetra, which the latter declined to give up. The symbolism of the story was lost on the crowds gathered to hear Adityanath, but they were happy to know their city enjoyed such ‘historical’ significance.

Whatever its historicity, the Jats of Baghpat remain upset at the “heavy-handed treatment” of the second round of farmers’ protests by the Modi government. “In February this year, when our farmers from Punjab tried to go to Delhi with their demands, they were welcomed by the BJP government in Haryana with teargas shells and bullets,” said Dushyant Pal, a landless farmer who lives in a village near Chhaprauli.

In neighbouring Ghaziabad, known as the gateway to Uttar Pradesh, there is a strong undercurrent of anger against the BJP’s decision to select Bania (trading community) candidate Atul Garg instead of a Rajput leader as per tradition. Union defence minister Rajnath Singh was sent to Ghaziabad twice to defuse this resentment, which continues to simmer.

Garg is pitted against Congress nominee Dolly Sharma, a familiar figure locally. An MBA, Sharma is also a Congress spokesperson who ran her own business before joining politics in 2017. She was fielded by the Congress in 2019, but lost to Gen. V.K. Singh, who has been denied a ticket this time.

In nearby Gautam Buddh Nagar (Noida) there is once again a strong undercurrent against BJP candidate Dr Mahesh Sharma, who won in 2014 and 2019, though villagers say he has never been seen in his constituency in 10 years. As fruit seller Ram Pratap Singh sarcastically puts it, “Every year, Mahesh Sharma starts a new hospital in one place or another, where does he have the time to be with us poor villagers?”

His rival, SP candidate Rahul Awana, is highlighting issues affecting farmers of Noida and Greater Noida, who have allegedly not received adequate compensation for the land they sold. “Youngsters are roaming around jobless, and Noida’s flat buyers are helpless in the face of arbitrary behaviour of builders,” Awana claims.

A large number of voters point out that Awana was brought in at the last minute to replace former Congress leader Mahendra Singh Nagar, whose candidature was announced by SP chief Akhilesh Yadav on 16 March. Nagar had even begun his poll campaign, but the local party cadre had objected to importing a Congress leader, and so his nomination was scratched.

BSP candidate Nandkishor Pundhir, a Rajput, could play spoilsport by splitting the Dalit and Muslim votes even as he succeeds in garnering support from the Rajput community.

In Mathura, former silver screen star Hema Malini, the BJP candidate for the third consecutive term, faces off against the Congress’ Mukesh Dhangar and BSP’s Suresh Singh. But the Bollywood star is not popular in Mathura. As one political observer said, “She enjoys direct access to both PM Modi and Amit Shah, and that is the main reason she has been nominated. Though we all know she is hardly present here and has done little for Mathura and even less for Vrindavan.”

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Jat resentment against the BJP in the Shekhawati belt of Rajasthan — which includes the parliamentary seats of Jhunjhunu, Churu, Sikar, and Nagaur — has intensified and could well spill over into other parts of the state. The powerful Jat lobby accuses the Centre of sidelining them, and not giving them adequate representation in these elections. 

As examples, they point to how, three months before the Assembly polls in November 2023, the BJP appointed Brahmin leader and Chittorgarh MP C.P. Joshi as its party chief, replacing Jat leader Satish Poonia. In December, following the BJP’s win in the Assembly polls, the party appointed RSS man Bhajanlal Sharma as the state’s first Brahmin chief minister since 1990.

Jat leader and two-time Churu MP Rahul Kaswan, a loyalist of senior veteran BJP leader and former chief minister Vijaya Raje Scindia, joined the Congress this year after the BJP refused him an Assembly ticket from his family bastion of Churu.

The second round will see some other key contests too. Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, seeking a third consecutive term from Kota-Bundi, is facing tough opposition from the Congress’ Prahlad Gunjal.

Barmer is witnessing a triangular contest, with independent candidate Ravinder Singh Bhati putting up a stiff fight to the BJP’s sitting MP Kailash Chaudhary and Congress’ Umedha Ram Beniwal, who recently switched from the Rastriya Loktantrik Party to the Congress.

Another battleground is the Banswara (reserved) constituency, where the Congress has thrown its weight behind Rajkumar Roat of the Bhartiya Adivasi Party against the BJP’s Mahendrajeet Singh Malviya.

Union jal shakti minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, also vying for a third consecutive term, faces a formidable challenge in Jodhpur as the Congress has fielded Sachin Pilot loyalist and Rajasthan Pradesh Congress Committee general-secretary Karan Singh Uchiyarda against him. Uchiyarda’s philanthropic activities during the pandemic, including setting up a massive kitchen to provide food, have bolstered his image.

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