Seema Tomar set out from home in Aligarh district’s Karswa village at around 11 am on Tuesday for the two-kilometre trek. The harsh September midday sun, she said, wasn’t going to be a hurdle in her quest to see the men who had improved her life: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath.

“From free cylinder to free ration to free books for the children, we have got everything,” said the Bharatiya Janata Party supporter.

Narendra Modi had flown to Aligarh’s Lodha block to lay the foundation stone for a new university and the Aligarh node of an industrial corridor meant to boost defence manufacturing capacity.

Although the event was organised by the Uttar Pradesh government’s Information and Public Relation Department, it was widely expected to double up as Modi’s first election meeting in the state ahead of the 2022 Assembly polls.

Modi lived up to those expectations by delivering an acutely political speech. He complimented Adityanath’s government for purportedly bringing down crime and ushering in development in the state by working in tandem with the Centre.

Modi ran down the previous regime (and characteristically also recounted a childhood story with an Aligarh connection) – another of the many instances he has where used an official government event as a BJP campaign rally.

Seema Tomar and her husband Sunil Tomar

A massive gathering of unmasked people

It is difficult to put a number to the crowd but it was a massive gathering. There were at least 100,000 (mostly unmasked) people.

While Tomar and her husband Sunil came from an adjacent village, participants had come from far and wide. For travellers from Delhi, the moment they exited the Yamuna Expressway at Jewar to get on the Palwal-Aligarh road that led to the venue, they knew there was something big happening in the vicinity.

Banquets had been set up by the side of the road every few kilometres. Men and boys (and the occasional woman) who had been ferried in by dozens and dozens of buses dipped into the puri-sabji served in the middle of the road – complimentary brunch, supplied by the local leaders of the BJP, before they went to listen to Modi speak.

Adityanath’s fact and fiction

But before Modi spoke, it was Adityanath’s turn. He began by thanking Modi for the Covid-19 vaccines that he claimed were free and his leadership in general which, the chief minister claimed, had helped India tide over the crisis.

“We want to thank you for saving our lives,” Adityanath said.

However, when the second wave of the pandemic struck India earlier this year, the country had witnessed apocalyptic scenes. Some of the most wrenching visuals had emerged from Uttar Pradesh where crematoriums were overworked, resulting in corpses being burned in public parks and dumped in the Ganga.

When images of this appeared on social media, the Adityanath government hastily installed tin sheets at one of Lucknow’s busiest crematoriums to block it from public view.

Official data dug out by researchers and journalists suggest that India’s official Covid-19 toll is likely to be only a fraction of the real numbers, with the multiplying factor even higher in Uttar Pradesh.

Then Adityanath went on to speak about how the BJP government had been able to create many new jobs, giving employment to lakhs of people in Uttar Pradesh.

Yet again, his claim belied data which shows that unemployment has significantly risen since 2017 when the BJP came to power.

Invoking a Jat icon

As Modi took the stage just after midday, he got down to business immediately, invoking freedom fighter, social reformer and local hero, Mahendra Pratap Singh, who died in 1979.

The university Modi had come to lay the foundation stone of is being named after Singh, a Jat icon – a move that political observers say is aimed at placating Western Uttar Pradesh’s Jat farmers who have been up in arms against the BJP over the new farm laws. They contend that the laws open the way to the corporate takeover of agriculture and will destroy their livelihoods.

Modi spoke warmly of Singh. The prime minister slipped in a Gujarat connection, the state he comes from, and chided previous governments for not doing enough to honour national heroes like Singh.

But Modi did not make any direct references to the protesting Jat farmers or even the contentious farm laws. While he did say that concerns of sugarcane growers were being addressed (a major cause of friction between the region’s farmers and the government), what he really emphasised were the steps his government had taken for small and marginal farmers.

Eighty percent of Indian farmers, he added, owned less than two hectares of land.

A subtle message?

While that may seem like a very standard thing to say at a pre-election rally, it likely carried a deeper subtext: that only a small section of large land-owning farmers are upset about the new farm laws, Western Uttar Pradesh’s Jats being among them. But smaller farmers were well looked-after and happy, Modi implied.

BJP leaders in the region say that they are not worried about the Jat peasants’ apparent anger with the party over the farm laws because the community just does not have the numbers to make any significant difference at the polling booth.

What matters are the other communities, they say, pointing to survey data that indicates a consolidation in their favour of members of the backward castes, most of whom own very little land.

At an event publicised by the press as an attempt to assuage Jat sentiment – but attended mostly by non-Jats – Modi may have been subtly hinting at the same thing and reaching out to the people who the BJP believed really mattered electorally for them.