“This time the issue isn’t [the 2013] riots [in Muzaffarnagar] but sugarcane,” said farmer Vinay Mallik. The temperature was 45 degrees Celsius and Mallik had braved the fierce May sun to sell his sugarcane crop to a mill in Western Uttar Pradesh’s Shamli town. “Earlier was different,” he said, referring to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the 2017 Assembly polls. “At that time Hindu-Muslim happened. That is why so many Jats voted for the BJP. Now 80% Jats will vote for the Rashtriya Lok Dal.”

On Monday, the Kairana Lok Sabha constituency in western Uttar Pradesh will vote for a new representative in Parliament. Hukum Singh, the Bharatiya Janata Party MP from this Lok Sabha seat, died in February.

As a heat wave makes temperatures rise across North India, western Uttar Pradesh is seeing its coolest election since the 2013 riots. Communal tensions are low and most voter engagement seems to be centred around bread and butter issues: sugarcane – the region’s largest crop, and the rising cost of electricity. Add to this an alliance of all the Opposition parties in the region – the Rashtriya Lok Dal, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party – and the dice seems loaded against the ruling BJP.

A win for the Opposition in Kairana would provide a template for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections: A united Opposition that focuses on economic issues and deflects the BJP’s attempts to bring in a communal angle.

It is the economy, stupid

Anant Choudhary, 28, is a Jat farmer from Un town in Shamli district who feels betrayed by the BJP. He explained why he was switching back to the Rashtriya Lok Dal, the region’s Jat-led party, after supporting the BJP for the past few years. “[Narendra] Modi and Yogi [Adityanath] said that we will ensure sugarcane payments in 14 days,” he said. “But the last payment we got was in December. Not only that, electricity rates have gone up and now we have more power cuts.”

Late payments by sugarcane mills is a near universal complaint across the constituency.

In the Sir Shaadi Lal Mill in Shamli, Khuldeep Pilania, general manager (cane), said that the mill had made payments to farmers till January 11. “The entire system of sugarcane is broken here,” Pilania said, shrugging. “We are going at a loss.”

To add to farmer distress, the BJP state government sharply hiked rural power rates soon after taking office last year.

Vinay Mallik, a Jat farmer, feels that the main issues in this election is the sugarcane crop.

Fatigue with communal issues

On May 11, Rashtriya Lok Dal leader Jayant Chaudhary tweeted out a poll in which he asked which issue would dominate the Kairana bye-poll. The two options he provided were: “Jinnah” or “ganna” (sugarcane). Earlier in May, the BJP and other Hindutva groups had launched a campaign to remove a portrait of Pakistan founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah from Aligarh Muslim University. With his tweet, Chaudhary indicated that the Kairana campaign would be fought solely on economic issues and that the BJP’s attempts to introduce a communal angle to this election would be attacked.

This strategy has percolated to the Rashtriya Lok Dal on the ground. At the party office in Shamli town, Rajkumar Sangwan, the party’s organisation secretary for the state explained: “BJP comes to the farmer and says Hindu this, Muslim that. The farmer listens patiently. Only in the end does he ask: ‘Brother, what happened to the sugarcane payment?’”

Five years after the region erupted in riots in which 62 people were killed and around 50,000 people, mostly Muslims, were displaced, the Rashtriya Lok Dal has tapped into a significant amount of fatigue local residents feel with communal issues in the region.

In Bhainswal village, Shamli, there is irritation at the BJP’s continued use of the riots even in this election. “First they called it a Jat-Muslim riot and did not help us when fake cases were filed,” said Sandeep Kumar Khaiwal, a 32-year-old Jat farmer. “But everytime an election comes, it becomes a Hindu-Muslim riot. If no one cares for us, why shouldn’t we look after ourselves? RLD [Rashtriya Lok Dal] is a Jat party, that is why we will vote for it.”

But the BJP is hopeful of keeping the communal issue alive. On Thursday, speaking at a rally in Shamli town, Chief Minister Adityanath raised the issue of the Jat men who were killed in 2013, which is said to have sparked the riots. He also reiterated: “Sugarcane is an issue but we will also not allow Jinnah’s portrait”.

Publicity material featuring all the alliance partners in the Kairana bye-poll.

United Opposition

The shifting narrative isn’t the only point of concern for the BJP. The numbers on the ground as a result of the Opposition alliance are another concern. Of the approximately 16 lakh voters in the constituency, the three largest groups – 5 lakh Muslims, 2.5 lakh Dalits and 1.5 lakh Jats – are expected to vote mostly for the alliance.

Of the three groups, Muslims are almost faced with Hobson’s choice, given the community’s past history of not voting for the BJP. Even the Lok Dal, a small party whose candidate was related to the Rashtriya Lok Dal nominee, has dropped out from the race, announcing its support for the alliance.

Akram Akhtar Chaudhary, a social activist from Kandhla town, is mostly pleased with the alliance but cautions against its unintended effects. “Now no party cares about Muslims,” he complained. “They [non-BJP parties] all know Muslims have to vote for them. Where else will they go?”

Life and death for the RLD

Even as the communalisation of western Uttar Pradesh helped the BJP to grow in the region over the past few years, it nearly wiped out the Rashtriya Lok Dal. “After the riots, Jats shifted to the BJP because of the communal divide and subscribed to the Hindutva propagated by BJP,” explained Sudhir Panwar, a member of the Samajwadi Party and a professor at Lucknow University. Only one Rashtriya Lok Dal MLA was elected in the 2017 Assembly elections and even he soon defected to the BJP.

'RLD is a Jat party, that is why we will vote for it,' said Sandeep Kumar Khainwal, a Jat farmer.

Larger social currents also played a role. Young and urban Jats have a higher propensity to vote for the BJP, while older Jats or those still connected to rural, farming life tilt towards the Rashtriya Lok Dal.

Sanjay Singh, a lawyer from the Jat community in the Kairana tehsil court, leans towards the BJP. “The young Jat gets his news from WhatsApp, he is on social media,” said Singh. “He is not interested in the RLD [Rashtriya Lok Dal.”

Singh spun his iPhone in his hand as he talked. “The RLD showed people a dream: that Jats could have a party,” he said. “But that was possible earlier, when there was thappebazi [booth capturing] and Jat landlords dictated to their dependents. Now how can it be done? You will have to vote for a Muslim in this election”.

The Rashtriya Lok Dal candidate in Kairana is Tabassum Hasan, who was formerly with the Samajwadi Party. However, Rashtriya Lok Dal supporters claim that this is not a factor for them. “BJP says don’t bother about the candidate, vote for Modi,” said Sandeep Kumar Khainwal, setting up his analogy. “So we are voting for [RLD chief] Ajit Singh not Tabassum.”

Which view prevails amongst the Jats of western UP – Sanjay Singh’s or Sandeep Kumar Khainwal’s – will decide whether the Rashtriya Lok Dal will be able to recover its Jat base from the BJP. This, in turn, will fix whether the Jat party will be a part of the Opposition alliance in 2019.

All photographs by Shoaib Daniyal.