For several hours on Monday, as Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah anxiously watched a Bihar-like grand alliance beginning to take shape ahead of the Uttar Pradesh elections, he desperately tried to win over the Rashtriya Lok Dal, a party that threatens to lure crucial Jat voters away from the saffron outfit.

While Shah tried to persuade Rashtriya Lok Dal leader Jayant Chaudhary to effect a tie-up ahead of the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP’s general secretary in charge of the state, Om Mathur, attempted to make a deal with its president Ajit Singh.

This, they hoped, would dent the prospects of an anti-saffron alliance in Uttar Pradesh, of the kind that propelled the Janata Dal (United), the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress to victory in the 2015 Bihar elections. In the crucial Uttar Pradesh elections, due in February, the ruling Samajwadi Party and the Congress are set to tie up and are said to be in talks with the Rashtriya Lok Dal too.

However, Singh and Chaudhary refused to take the bait, leaving the BJP with no option but to release its list of 149 candidates for western Uttar Pradesh, a crucial Jat belt, on Monday evening.

In fact, it was this last-minute effort to win over the Rashtriya Lok Dal that led the BJP delay the release of its first list by a day – the party was scheduled to announce it on Sunday. The list covers the seats that will go to the polls in the first two phases, on February 11 and February 15. In all, with a mammoth 403 Assembly seats, polling in Uttar Pradesh will be held in seven phases, concluding on March 8.

Losing favour

In 2014 Lok Sabha election, Jats are said to have voted overwhelmingly in favour of the BJP and were crucial to the party’s clean sweep in the western part of the state. The community’s shift to BJP had, in fact, decimated the Rashtriya Lok Dal, which has traditionally been its votebank in the state.

The BJP, however, fears that a substantial section of Jats may go back to the Rashtriya Lok Dal, especially if it looks formidable by joining a grand alliance led by Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav.

The BJP’s fears are not baseless. On January 8, leaders of around 35 khaps (the traditional panchayats of Jats) had gathered at Kharad in Muzaffarnagar and declared the community would not vote for the BJP this time. The rally was attended by thousands of Jats from Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, including a large number of Muslim Jats, and the speeches denounced the BJP for spreading communal hatred in the region.

Apart from the lack of development work in the region, which is represented by the BJP, the Jats at the meeting complained about the plight of farmers, who have had to grapple with the low support price for crops, rising debt and the additional brunt caused by the demonetisation move announced on November 8, ahead of the rabi sowing season. They also complained that the party had not yet granted reservations in educational institutions and government jobs to Jats, which they had promised after the widespread agitation by the community in North India, particularly Haryana, in February 2016.

If the Jats move away from the BJP, it will be a major blow to party at the very beginning of the polls and could take the wind away from its campaign in the rest of the state.

Palpable anxiety

In private conversations with party leaders too, the nervousness about a grand alliance is palpable. Until recently, the BJP had put up a brave face and seemed confident of wresting control of Uttar Pradesh. However, some leaders now concede that the prospects of the Samajwadi Party emerging as the single largest party in Uttar Pradesh appear bright, particularly in light of recent developments.

Over the past few months, Akhilesh Yadav has emerged as the stronger and more popular leader as the party split into rival factions, one lead by the chief minister and the other by his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav. On Monday, the Election Commission ruled that the party’s cycle election symbol would go to Akhilesh Yadav’s camp, as it enjoyed majority support in the party. This has boosted the chief minister’s image ahead of the polls and set the grand alliance on the fast track.

Many BJP leaders believe that this is what made Sahibabad sitting MLA Amarpal Sharma, who was about to join the saffron outfit, switch to the Congress at the last minute on Tuesday. Sharma was expelled from the Bahujan Samaj Party for alleged anti-party activities on Monday and was widely expected to join the BJP, so much so that the party had put on hold its decision on Sahibabad seat while releasing the first list of candidates.