Over lunch at his farm in Daha village in western Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat district, 45-year-old Rashtriya Lok Dal worker Vinesh Rana proudly recounted that former Prime Minister Charan Singh had enjoyed several meals in his home.

Ompal Rana, in his sixties, had an even richer stock of anecdotes about the “aatmik sambandh” – close relations – that Jats shared with Singh, who represented Baghpat in the Lok Sabha for three terms starting from 1977. Both men said that in the upcoming general elections, they will vote for the candidate that Singh’s grandson, Jayant Chaudhary, nominates on the Rashtriya Lok Dal ticket from Baghpat.

The two, however, differ on Chaudhary’s advances to the Bharatiya Janata Party. Though an alliance between the BJP and the Lok Dal has not yet been formally announced, the deal is all but sealed. Baghpat is widely expected to be one of the seats that the Lok Dal will contest.

Vinesh Rana feels that Chaudhary’s decision is justified as the Samajwadi Party – the Lok Dal’s ally since 2019 – unfairly favours Muslims. The Samajwadi Party had also been undermining the Lok Dal’s interests in the alliance, he said.

But Ompal Rana insists that even if that is the case, Chaudhary should not join hands with the BJP. He believes that the Hindutva party is “anti-farmer”.

This divergence of opinion reflects the opposing sentiments of many Jats in the western Uttar Pradesh districts of Baghpat, Shamli and Muzaffarnagar. But these differences will mean little at the ballot box. They all agree that they should rally behind Chaudhary.

Why does Jat support matter in UP?

Jats are a farming community that constitutes only 2% of the 20 crore population of Uttar Pradesh, according to data from the 2011 Census.

However, their population is clustered in the sugarcane-growing districts in the western parts of the state. The concentration of their population, coupled with their dominant social status due to large land holdings, means that Jats can significantly influence election results in western Uttar Pradesh.

Vinesh Rana (extreme right) and Ompal Rana (next to him) at a farm in Daha village of Baghpat.

An example of how Jat support can impact electoral fortunes in the region can be seen in the resurrection of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh.

In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the party had won only three of the eight constituencies in west Uttar Pradesh – Meerut, Ghaziabad and Agra. The Lok Dal had won the five seats of Baghpat, Bijnor, Mathura, Hathras and Amroha. In 2014 and 2019, the BJP swept the region while the Lok Dal drew a blank.

A key factor in this reversal was the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013. It pushed Jats towards the BJP, with 77% of them voting for the party in 2014, according to data from the Centre for Study of Developing Societies.

At the Lok Dal’s office in Muzaffarnagar, party leader Sudhir Bhartiya conceded to having lost “30% of our supporters” to the BJP since the Muzaffarnagar riots. “Now our supporters won't have to vote for any other party,” Bhartiya said, defending the alliance with the BJP.

‘Not an ideological alliance’

Bhartiya admits that the alliance is political in nature, not ideological. He drew this distinction when asked if his party supporters who participated in the farm law protests would be able to reconcile to having the BJP as an ally.

Thousands of farmers from western Uttar Pradesh were among those hunkered down at the Delhi borders for more than a year before the Narendra Modi government withdrew the three contentious laws in November 2021. But many still feel the concessions by the Modi government were not enough to prove its pro-farmer credentials.

Sudhir Bhartiya (extreme right) at the RLD party office in Muzaffarnagar.

Rajender Singh Baliyan, a 56-year-old farmer from Rasoolpur village of Muzaffarnagar, participated in the protests at Delhi’s Ghazipur border for three months in 2021. He said that the manner in which the government handled the protests had exposed its real attitude to farmers. “This is the most anti-farmer government I have ever seen,” he said. “Which other government put up barricades to stop farmers from entering the capital of their own country?”

Baliyan said Chaudhary should not have allied with the BJP but then added a rider. “I understand his compulsions,” he said. “His party would become irrelevant had he not joined the alliance.”

Despite being unhappy with the alliance, Baliyan said that he would stay loyal to the Lok Dal. When asked what he would do if the alliance once again nominated two-time BJP MP to run from Muzaffarnagar, Sanjeev Baliyan, he said: “We will stay with Jayant and hope that he works on our demands after being part of the government.”

Rajender Singh Baliyan (third from right) at a panchayat in Sisauli village of Muzaffarnagar.

Rajender Singh Baliyan was speaking on the sidelines of a panchayat in Sisauli of Muzaffarnagar held on February 17. The paradoxical sentiment he expressed at being unhappy at the Modi government’s agriculture policies but not necessarily voting against it was a common theme among the farmers who had assembled at the panchayat. It was being held to decide whether they should join their comrades from Punjab who were again moving to the Delhi border to launch another agitation.

Even farmer leader Rakesh Tikait, a central figure of the protests against the agriculture laws, urged farm unions across the country to hold demonstrations in solidarity with the Punjab farmers, but he did not not speak against the BJP-Lok Dal alliance.

“This will not weaken the farmers' movement," he told Scroll. "Farmers give votes to all parties, but when it comes to farmers' movement they are with us...They can vote for whoever they want to...the ideology of voting is different from that of the movement."

Bharatiya Kisan Union leader, Rakesh Tikait at a panchayat in Sisauli village of Muzaffarnagar.

Tikait’s stated indifference towards party politics acts as a buffer against backlash from farmers unhappy with the Lok Dal’s alliance with the BJP. In Dangrol village of Shamli district, 40 kilometres away, it is allegiance to the party that serves a similar purpose.

That was evident from conversations with Balbir Singh, 72, and his neighbours in Dangrol village, 24 kilometres from the Shamli district headquarters. They are vocal critics of the Modi dispensation. “What has the government done for the farmers?” Singh asked. “Our incomes are dwindling and investments for farming are going up every year. On top of that, they even took away army jobs by introducing the [short-term recruitment scheme] Agniveer.”

His neighbours joined him in complaining about the Adityanath-led BJP government in the state increasing electricity tariffs and its failure to curb the menace of stray cattle that are eating crops.

Yet, when asked about their choice for the elections, they expressed unanimous support for the Lok Dal. They said their loyalty to the party is based on the fact that Charan Singh won greater rights for Jat farmers in the 1970s and ’80s.

“We are hurt about the alliance, but we will go wherever our leader asks us to,” said a man named Satish Kumar. “After all Chaudharyji turned us from farm labourers to farmers.”

Balbir Singh (on chair, fourth from right) and Satish Kumar (on chair, extreme left) in Dangrol.

About half a kilometre further into the bylanes of Dangrol, 63-year-old Dharampal Singh Jawla voiced support for Chaudhary’s decision with more conviction. His reason, though, was more cynical. “Had he stayed with the Samajwadi Party, we would have voted half-heartedly,” Jawla said. “It would feel like we are voting for Muslims.”

Jawla’s view about the Samajwadi Party was echoed by several Jat voters who believe that as chief minister of the state in 2013, Akhilesh Yadav was responsible for the claimed police tilt towards Muslims during the Muzaffarnagar riots. (Of the 62 people killed in the violence, 40 were Muslim. Tens of thousands of Muslims were displaced.)

By ditching the Samajwadi Party for the BJP, has the Lok Dal undermined its ability to unite Jats and Muslims, who are tied by agrarian class interests? Lok Dal leaders deny this. Instead, they blame the Samajwadi Party for pushing them towards the BJP.

Dharampal Singh Jawla (sitting on floor, extreme right) and other villagers in Dangrol.

What does the alliance entail?

Vishwas Chaudhary, the state spokesperson of the Lok Dal, also claimed that the Samajwadi Party was responsible for the breakup. “They offered us seven seats, but insisted on nominating four of their candidates on our symbol,” Chaudhary said in his office in Baraut, 20 kilometres away from Baghpat. “They called the shots even during candidate selection for the Assembly elections [in 2022], but we compromised then to maintain coalition dharma.”

To many observers, it would seem that the BJP is even more hegemonic than the Samajwadi Party. But Chaudhary expressed confidence that his party would be able to hold its own and safeguard the interests of its supporters.

Sudhir Bhartiya, a Lok Dal leader from Muzaffarnagar, offered a more pragmatic explanation. “The BJP only dominates alliance partners that have a claim to the chief minister’s post,” he said. “That’s the case with Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Uddhav Thackeray in Maharashtra or the Akali Dal in Punjab. But look at Apna Dal in Uttar Pradesh. There is no conflict there. We should not have problems either.”

The Apna Dal (Soneylal) led by Anupriya Patel, has considerable presence among the Kurmi community in Uttar Pradesh, and has been an alliance partner of the BJP since 2017. Patel is currently a minister of state in the Union cabinet.

A hoarding on the Baraut-Baghpat highway put up by a BJP worker thanking Prime Minister Narendra Modi for conferring the Bharat Ratna award on Charan Singh.

Not all Lok Dal supporters are convinced of the wisdom of allying with the BJP, though. Standing in a queue to sell his produce at the Malakhpur sugarcane mill in Baghpat, Rupak Tomar observed that Chaudhary was already showing signs of being under pressure.

“The government announced the Bharat Ratna award for Charan Singh and that’s great,” Tomar said. “But after that Chaudhary compared Modi to his grandfather. We have not received payment for our sugarcane since last February. This would not have happened if Modi was like Charan Singh.”

All photos by Abhik Deb.