On July 3, Veerpal Narwal was elected chairperson of Muzaffarnagar’s district council. The road to the chair was a tough one for the Bharatiya Janata Party politician. In May, Narwal had almost lost the zila panchayat elections from his ward – it is the winners of these direct elections who can stand for and vote for the position of the district council’s chairperson. It was only after a controversial recount in May that Narwal, a medical doctor by training, was declared the winner by a margin of 59 votes in the ward of over 40,000 voters.

His opponent, Prabhat Kumar, has moved the court seeking a stay on the results. “The ARO [assistant returning officer] had initially declared me as the winner by 159 votes,” he said. “Then suddenly at two in the night, I got to know that they were recounting the votes.”

Veerpal Narwal, the new district council chief of Muzaffarngar, had to contend with several obstacles. on the path to vitcory

His contentious slim victory aside, only 12 other of Narwal’s fellow party members had managed to win the zila panchayat polls in Muzaffarnagar. This meant BJP-backed candidates had won only 13 of the 43 zila panchayat wards in the district – way short of a majority. The numbers, therefore, were heavily stacked against Narwal as he sought to be elected chairperson of the district council. Yet, Narwal won, courtesy unexpected support from some of the independent Muslim members of the zila panchayat.

Narwal’s opponents claim that many of the members who voted for him were coerced into it through a mix of bribes and intimidation. Some even allege that they were physically restrained from voting. “Our car was stopped on the way to the polling centre,” said Salim Choudhury, whose wife Noorjahan was one of the nine members who did not cast their votes. “There was heavy police bandobast and we were kept waiting for hours around two kilometres from the polling booth. We returned when we saw on social media that Narwal had already been declared as the winner.”

Salim Choudhury claimed his wife Noorjahan, a zila panchayat member from Muzaffarnagar, was not allowed to vote in the district council elections.

Two polls, different results

This appears to be a pattern across Uttar Pradesh.

In the zila panchayat polls where the public votes directly, two-thirds of the candidates backed by the BJP lost. The party’s primary opposition in the state, the Samajwadi Party, performed better than it.

Yet, in as many as 66 of the 75 district councils in the state, the chairperson’s post is now occupied by members backed by the BJP. In 22 districts, the party’s candidates won unopposed.

Ditto for the block pramukh elections, where members of the block panchayats vote to elect the chief of each block. Over 75% of the state’s 825 posts of block chiefs in the state were bagged by the BJP, amid allegations of intimidation and use of money and force. More than half of them won unopposed.

“We did not use the administration to prevent anyone from filing nominations,” said Satyender Tomar, who heads BJP in Shamli district where the party won four of the five block pramukh seats, two of them unopposed. “What we did was get some zimmedar [responsible] people to persuade some candidates to not file nominations against us.”

Stretching the limits of an old practice

To be sure, none of this is particularly novel. District council and block chiefs, more often than not, belong to the party in power in the state – even though it may not theoretically have the numbers for it.

In the previous elections in 2015, Samajwadi Party-backed zila panchayat members were elected to the position of the chairperson in 60 of the districts despite the Bahujan Samaj Party having a comparable number of zila panchayat members. The same allegations of misuse of state power that the Samajwadi Party has levelled against the BJP this time were hurled at them by the Bahujan Samaj Party then.

Yet, the larger consensus among political observers in this part of Uttar Pradesh seems to be that the BJP took things a bit too far this time. As a local journalist from Muzaffarnagar put it: “Poora nanga naach kar diya iss baar.” It was a naked display of power this time.

In a particularly audacious episode that is perhaps telling of the general atmosphere in which the elections took place, a person impersonating the Rashtriya Lok Dal’s chairperson contender in Baghpat, Mamta Kishore, allegedly submitted a forged affidavit stating that Kishore was withdrawing her candidature. Kishore, that day, was in a resort in Rajasthan’s Bharatpur – the RLD had taken candidates it was backing there so as to prevent any poaching attempt by the BJP.

“We got to know when some journalist friends sent us a photo of the woman going inside the district magistrate’s office,” claimed her husband, Jai Kishore. “I can’t understand why she was even entertained because it should have been clear to anyone who could see that she is not the real Mamta – our Mamta is 90 kg, that other Mamta was not even 45 kg.”

The affidavit was ultimately not accepted following a protest by RLD workers. Kishore comfortably won the election.

The Baghpat BJP unit’s president Suraj Pal Singh admitted that such a thing happened but blamed it on the Samajwadi Party. The RLD and Samajwadi Party, though, are allies.

Jai Kishore claimed the BJP tried to cancel the candidature of his wife Mamta Kishore for the position of Baghpat's district council chairperson.

A ‘semi-final’?

Beyond these allegations of manipulation and rigging, what do the results of the panchayat elections really indicate?

They have been dubbed by many in the media as the semi-final before the all-important assembly elections in the state in 2022. The BJP has played up its “sweep” in the indirect district council elections, while its opponents have sought to draw attention to the party’s lukewarm performance in the panchayat elections where the people voted directly.

But how much should one read into them, if at all?

Scroll.in travelled through three districts in western Uttar Pradesh that contribute 12 MLAs to the assembly. The Jats, a landholding, largely Hindu, agrarian community, are the most powerful here. Across these three districts, they account for around one-fourth of the total population, according to local estimates.

Since 2014, these districts have been a strong-hold of the BJP. In the 2017 assembly elections, all legislators the region elected were from the BJP, save two. However, the area has also been in ferment over the Centre’s new farm laws that have put a large number of farmers in North India at loggerheads with the BJP government. Farmers from these three districts have led Uttar Pradesh’s resistance against these new legislations.

Conversations with a range of people across communities and political parties pointed at a fairly fluid situation – but the discontentment against the government was hard to miss. Even the BJP’s local leaders concede that it would be near impossible for the party to repeat its performances in the last three major elections since 2014 if the current mood prevailed.

The police barricade a road leading to a polling centre during the block pramukh elections in Shamli.

Anger and discontent

The most formidable dissent against the BJP comes from the region’s Jat sugarcane farmers – angry over the Centre’s new farm laws and the Uttar Pradesh government’s failure to ensure they received the state-advised price within 14 days of delivering their produce to mills as promised earlier.

“We voted for BJP because we thought they would do badhiya (well),” said Jaidev Khaiwal, a Jat sugarcane farmer in Shamli’s Tana village. “But this year the sugarcane season started on October 29 and so far we have only got payment only for the month of November. We don’t know about the city but in the village, no one will vote for the BJP.”

In Baghpat, Brijpal Singh, a sugarcane farmer, echoed Khaiwal. “It’s simple: we will make that party win which speaks for farmers,” he said. “It is abundantly clear that BJP is not that party.” What makes Singh’s view more important is the fact that he is a senior Khap leader. Khaps are community organisations in north-western India, mostly prevalent among Jats, that govern certain aspects of social life in rural areas.

Even those sympathetic to the BJP are having second thoughts in the wake of the farm protests. Virender Singh, a large land-holding farmer in Muzaffarnagar’s Kakrauli, for instance, said he was fairly happy with the Adityanath government’s performance. “There is a problem with payment of our sugarcane but at least crime has ended,” he said. “And nothing matters more than safety.”

But Singh said the government’s seeming apathy to farmers was off-putting. “Ultimately it’s people from our biradri (community) who have been sitting at the Delhi border for so long,” he said.

The farm protests seem to have had another effect: it has helped repair relationships between the Hindu and Muslims Jats, which had been battered by a bloody bout of communal violence in 2013. “The andolan has to a large extent ended the Jat-Muslim animosity,” said Ravi Gautam, who teaches journalism and mass communication in Muzaffarnagar’s Sri Ram College.

Observers say that the BJP’s meteoric rise in western Uttar Pradesh was to a large extent fuelled by this communal violence which tore apart the area. As Tomar, the BJP leader from Shamli himself admitted, “It led to a consolidation of Hindu votes.”

Leaders of the Rashtriya Lok Dal and the Samajwadi Party emphasise that the rekindled solidarity between Hindu and Muslim Jats – and by extension between Hindus and Muslims in general – was driving the supposed change in the region’s political narrative. The results of the panchayat elections, they say, are testament to it. “Hindus have understood that the BJP can do nothing apart from making people fight to win elections,” said Rakesh Sharma, a Samajwadi Party leader from Muzaffarnagar.

But that may be too dramatic a takeaway from the panchayat elections. While it is true that there is anger across the board in the region, possibly contributing to the BJP’s below-par performance in the recent polls, it is hardly all-pervasive. Some communities are more upset than others. Still others continue to hold on to their whole-hearted allegiance to the BJP despite their economic hardships under this regime.

Brijpal Singh, a senior Khap leader from Baghpat, said the Jat community would actively work towards defeating BJP in the 2022 assembly polls.

Caste before economic prosperity

In Shamli’s Badhev village, for instance, several men belonging to the Dalit Chamar community, spoke of how “mehengai” (inflation) and “berozgari” (unemployment) had made their lives unbearably hard. “We voted for them in 2017 and 2019,” said Monu Singh, a 28-year-old who was till recently employed at an aviation company in Singapore. “But our problems persist, our lives have remained the same – as bad as always.”

Udham Singh, a Chamar farmer from the village, was even more emphatic: “If the elections are free, BJP’s chapter in western UP is over.”

A group of men belonging to the Dalit Chamar caste in Shamli's Badhev village said they would not vote for the BJP in 2022.

But in the adjoining village of Malandi village, the Valmikis, also a Scheduled Caste group, were more forgiving of the BJP even though they expressed similar grievances. “The Samajwadi people will take care of the Mohammedans and the RLD of the Jats, so whom do we go to for protection?” asked Dharmavir Valmiki, an elderly Valmiki man, referring to the two largest communities in the region. “The public is troubled by berozgaari, but ultimately you vote on the basis of caste only and the BJP will only take care of our jaati (community)”.

The Kashyaps, a sizable backward caste group in the region, also seemed to be willing to overlook the economic distress in the favour of political patronage. A Kashyap youth from Muzaffarnagar spelled out a similar rationale: that they viewed BJP as a reliable protectorate against a possible Muslim-Jat consolidation.

Dharamvir Valmiki (left) said caste was the most important thing when it came to deciding whom to vote.

Making sense of an election

This is why many observers caution against reading too much into the BJP’s slide in the panchayat polls. As Ashvani Singh, a social worker and trade unionist who lives in Shamli’s Kandhla town, said: “It may seem that the BJP has become weak, but one has to remember that the BJP’s not the strongest in rural areas where these elections were held. It is the cities that they are really strong in.”

Besides, the contenders did not contest on the party’s ticket in the panchayat polls, pointed out Singh. They were merely backed by the parties. “In these elections the face value of the candidate is more important – that is why more independents won,” he said.

More importantly, claims about a shift in the political climate of the region needed to be examined more closely. While the farm protests may have brought about a sense of brotherhood among Hindu and Muslim Jats, the BJP’s more bankable vote banks may have remained more or less intact. “This may be Jatland, but the Jat factor has been made almost irrelevant by the BJP which has completely co-opted the SCs,” said Danish Khan, who runs a school for underprivileged children in Shamli.

Making up lost ground

Indeed, the BJP’s calculations seem to be hinged around that.

Tomar, the Shamli BJP leader, said while the party was set to lose a section of the rural Jat vote, there was no reason for alarm yet. “Our main vote banks are the Kashyaps, Sainis, and Prajapati,” he said, referring to the three major backward caste groups in the region. “We could not consolidate that in the panchayat elections because the candidates did not contest on a party ticket.”

Tomar’s thesis is reflective of the BJP’s larger approach in Uttar Pradesh. It has carefully cultivated smaller groups that were resentful of the dominant backward caste groups such as the Yadavs and the Jats. The electoral dividends of the method have been for all to see.

Besides, Tomar said he believed the Jat Hindu-Muslim solidarity to be ephemeral. “How can people who clashed with each other so violently in the not so distant past become allies for good,” he said. “As the elections approach closer, we hope to bring back the Hindu Jats to our fold.”

The math apart, the party seemed to be cognisant that there is fairly widespread discontent against its government. “But the population control Act that we are bringing will change things in our favour soon,” said Suraj Pal Singh, its Baghpat chief.

Suraj Pal Singh, BJP's Baghpat chief, is hopeful that the Centre would introduce the Uniform Civil Code before the assembly elections in UP.

On July 10, the Uttar Pradesh State Law Commission released a draft of the proposed population control bill that seeks to debar people with more than two children from availing government benefits. It draws upon a long-running – and debunked – Hindutva trope of a demographic threat posed by higher Muslim fertility rates.

There have been several other developments in the last couple of weeks that seem to be geared towards raising the communal temperature in the state ahead of the elections. For instance, the Uttar Pradesh police recently charged two people for running a “conversion racket” but the case against the accused seemed to be riddled with inconsistencies. Then last week, the state’s anti-terror police claimed to have uncovered a terror module linked to Al-Qaeda. Yet again, the police’s actions have come under scrutiny for being allegedly politically motivated.

These moves only underline Singh’s assessment that the party needs a fillip from somewhere to reverse the setbacks it has suffered of late. “What will really help, though, is if the Saman Nagarik Sanhita is introduced before the elections,” he said. “Same law for everyone.”

Singh was speaking about the Uniform Civil Code, a pet cause for Hindu nationalists that seeks to do away with religion-based personal laws, for they believe they offer special concessions to Muslims.