How caste-based social engineering can help BJP win Muzaffarnagar panchayat elections

People wait to cast their votes during the panchayat elections in Kunvarpur village in Uttar Pradesh on 15 April 2021. The 2021 Uttar Pradesh panchayat elections can set the tone for the 2022 assembly elections. Rajesh Kumar Singh / AP Photo
18 April, 2021

Muzaffarnagar is among 20 districts of Uttar Pradesh that will go to polls on 19 April as a part of the ongoing panchayat elections in the state. The Bharatiya Janata Party has been electorally successful in Muzaffarnagar for a few years—its members represent the district in the parliament and the assembly, and even the incumbent zila, or district, panchayat president is from the party. However, of late, Muzaffarnagar has been in the news for widespread resentment towards the BJP in the wake of the 2020 farm laws and the central government’s heavy-handed attempts to quash the massive protests against the laws. As a result, Jat and Muslim communities—which form a significant population of Muzaffarnagar—appear to have put their weight behind the Rashtriya Lok Dal, the BJP’s main competitor in the district. But residents of Muzaffarnagar told me that due to the BJP’s skilful caste-based social engineering, it is unlikely that this resentment would translate into the party’s loss in the panchayat election.

The Uttar Pradesh panchayat elections can set the tone for the 2022 assembly elections. They are being held in four phases—on 15 April, 19 April, 26 April and 29 April. Results will be declared on 2 May. More than 17 lakh voters of the Muzaffarnagar will elect members of their gram panchayat, block panchayat and zila panchayat on 19 April. Over 700 candidates are reportedly contesting for 43 seats in the district’s zila panchayat. The elected 43 members would select the zila panchayat’s president—the state election commission has announced that the president has to be from the Other Backward Classes community this year. Of the 43 zila panchayat seats, 17 are for the general category, seven for women from the general category, seven for the OBC category, four seats for women from the OBC category, four seats for the Scheduled Caste category and three seats are for women from the Scheduled Caste category.

The RLD is supporting more candidates from the Jat community than any other community for the zila panchayat polls. Meanwhile, Vijay Shukla, the BJP’s district chief, told a Youtube channel called Muzaffarnagar Bulletin that the party is supporting candidates from as many castes as possible in these elections. “Fifteen castes—we tried for maximum castes to be adjusted,” he said.

Sachin Kumar, who lives in the Dholra village, told me, “In this election, caste is the most important factor. And people vote according to their caste only. If there is no candidate of their caste, then they vote for the party of their choice.” Udham Singh, a farmer leader who resides in Kisan Majra village, also agreed with this sentiment. “Caste is a big factor in these elections—most people vote for the candidate of their caste only,” he said. Udham told me that both BJP and RLD are supporting Jat candidates in his ward. “This time the Jats will stay with the RLD. But other backward castes will stand with the BJP,” he told me.

Nakul Singh Sawhney, a journalist from the media collective ChalChitra Abhiyan, who has been working in Muzaffarnagar for years, echoed this comment. He told me why many backward-caste groups may support the BJP. “It is believed that RLD is a party of Jats and Muslims only,” he said. “Yadavs are primarily with the Samajwadi Party, Chamars with the Bahujan Samaj Party, and Jats with the RLD. These parties are not doing much for other backward castes.” According to Sawhney, because of this, many backward castes look for representation in the BJP. “We see more of BJP’s social engineering—it barely gives any tickets to Muslims. It has more space to bring other backward castes along with them,” he said. “In Muzaffarnagar, all such castes like Saini, Kumhar, Pal, Kashyap, Nai, Lohar are standing with the BJP, and the reason is that other political parties are not working with these castes.”

Sudhir Panwar, a professor at Lucknow University and political analyst who hails from the neighbouring Shamli district, pointed out an advantage for the BJP in these elections. “The election of the district panchayat is considered to be the election of the government—most people who are elected are from the party that is ruling the state government,” he said. In the 2015 panchayat elections, the then ruling Samajwadi Party won 6o of 74 zila panchayat posts. The BJP won five, including Muzaffarnagar.

The main challenge for the BJP appears to be the backlash it received due to its 2020 farm laws. A crucial event that spurred an anti-BJP sentiment among farmers in Muzaffarnagar occurred on 28 January, when Rakesh Tikait gave a tearful speech in response to the government’s efforts to clear a sit-in against the farm laws at Ghazipur, on the Delhi–Uttar Pradesh border. Tikait is a Jat farmer leader from the Bhartiya Kisan Union (Arajnaitik) who hails from Muzaffarnagar. The district saw a lot of outrage after Tikait’s appeal. The next day, Naresh Tikait, the BKU (A) chief and Rakesh’s brother, led a mahapanchayat, or town-hall meeting, in Muzaffarnagar against the farm laws. Even with just a few hours of notice, thousands of farmers attended it.

This was the first of the many mahapanchayat that have been held against the farm laws in north India. As I reported in February, the mahapanchayat was notable for another reason:

It saw the participation of Naresh, the Rashtriya Lok Dal’s vice president Jayant Chaudhary, and Ghulam Mohammad Jaula, an elderly farmer leader from Muzaffarnagar who was once an aid of Mahender Singh Tikait, the father of the Tikait brothers and a legend among the farming community in north India. After the Tikait brothers were accused in the Muzaffarnagar violence, Jaula had denounced them. Vishal Kumar, a journalist from the media collective ChalChitra Abhiyan who has been covering the mahapanchayats, told me that on 29 January, “Naresh Tikait, Ghulam Mohammad Jaula, Jayant Chaudhary, all three were seen hugging each other on a stage for the first time after the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots.” Kumar took this as a sign of Jat–Muslim unity. “Not just the leaders, even their workers are meeting each other,” he added. 

Around the same time, posters were put up outside a couple of villages in Muzaffarnagar saying that BJP leaders were barred from entering. In February, clashes erupted between BJP and RLD supporters in Muzaffarnagar when Sanjeev Balyan, Muzaffarnagar’s member of parliament from the BJP, was visiting the area. 

But residents said they thought that the farmers’ protests would not be the primary issue for the district’s voters. “These elections are fought on local issues,” Gulfam Shah, a journalist from Muzaffarnagar, said. “The politics of the village dominates them. I don’t think the farmers’ movement affects it.” Udham thought that issues faced by farmers, the prevailing unemployment, and the lack of development were pertinent in villages. But he added, “BJP talks about temples and Hindus—they confuse people by saying these things. Religion is such an issue that it overshadows everything else for people.”

This did not mean that the protests did not affect the BJP. Panwar said that the campaigns by senior leaders, legislators and state ministers for the BJP showed that the farmers’ protest had made an impact. He told me that the BJP wanted the protests to look like it was “limited to the Jat community for these elections.” According to him, appealing to non-Jat castes could also help the BJP cushion the backlash it had received due to the farm laws. “The BJP was being opposed in each village, and this election is from the village,” he said. “It was not allowed to enter some villages. The BJP wants to gain entry into the villages by supporting candidates from other backward castes. It wants this benefit too—if anyone opposes the BJP or its leaders, then people from these castes will all stand with the party. For this to happen, they have chosen to support backward castes candidates.”