Mounting sugarcane dues are the BJP’s Achilles heel in the Jat-dominated western Uttar Pradesh where its success in consolidating the vote of this farming community and split in Muslim voters had helped it sweep the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2017 State Assembly polls.

But non-payment of sugarcane dues, which stood at a staggering ₹11,845.01 crore as of March 12, has led to strikes, forced closure of sugar mills and a spate of agitations, primarily organised by the Jats who are openly antagonistic towards the BJP and its leaders.

In the first phase, eight seats in western UP will go to polls on April 11. These include Muzaffarnagar, Saharanpur, Kairana, Bijnore, Meerut, Baghpat, Ghaziabad and Gautam Budh Nagar. All these seats were won by the BJP in 2014 Lok Sabha polls with impressive margins, and statistics shows that the Mahagathbandhan — even with its combined vote share — failed to cross the total number of votes cast in the BJP’s favour in the last general elections. For instance, in Muzaffarnagar, the BJP’s Sanjiv Balyan polled 6,53,391 lakh votes, whereas his rivals — the SP with 1,60,810 votes, the BSP with 2,52,241 votes and the Congress with 12,937 votes — together did not cross the victory margin.

By this logic, the BJP should once again clinch the Jat belt, given that it has made significant inroads among the Dalits, weaning away the Valmikis and the Khatigs and leaving only the Jatavs in the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)’s fold. Similarly, the BJP has a significant following among the non-Yadav OBCs such as the Kashyaps and the Sainis who are present in large numbers in these parts.

However, two factors separate this election from the previous Lok Sabha and Assembly polls. One is that the Jats have, by and large, turned against the BJP because of the ruling government’s inefficiency in sugarcane payment and failure to increase the State Advisory Price (SAP) for cane in the last two years. Second, the coming together of the SP, the BSP and RLD consolidates the Muslim vote which is significant in each one of these eight seats but had got scattered because each of them contested independently.

The caste calculus

In Kairana, for instance, of the total 15.5 lakh voters (approximately), there are about 5.26 lakh Muslims, 3 lakh Dalits, 1.40 lakh Jats, 1.25 lakh Gujjars, 1.32 lakh Kashyaps, 1.35 lakh Sainis, 65,000 Brahmins, 60,000 Vaishyas and about 32,000 Thakurs. With the consolidation of Muslims, Dalits (a majority of whom are Jatavs), and Jats, the Mahagathbandhan ’s position becomes strong. And the Jat farmers seem to be determined that this happens.

“We all voted for the BJP last time. I was district president of the BJP’s Kisan Morcha. We all supported Modiji. But in the last two years, they have not increased a single paisa in the SAP. A farmer spends over ₹297 in growing one quintal of sugarcane. The SAP stands at 325. If the BJP was honest about implementing the Swaminathan report, they should be giving us at least ₹450 per quintal. But we are not even getting what is promised to us. In the last four months of this season, when we dropped sugarcane for pressing at the mills daily, we got paid only for 10 days,” said Deshpal Rana, who is leading the Kisan Sangharsh Samiti at the Upper Doab Sugar Mill in Shamli.

According to Kalu Ram Sharma, another farmer, the BJP is trying to divide the farmers on caste and communal lines and imposing a militaristic narrative on them after the Balakot air strikes.

Angry backlash

“They think we are all morons. I’ll tell you who thinks like that – a moron himself. They got our support last time and look what they did to us. We are struggling to pay our children’s fees, having to borrow from the Banias and mortagaging our land. This government will be voted out,” said Kalu Ram Sharma, another farmer. They cite the victory of Tabassum Hasan on an RLD ticket in the 2018 Lok Sabha bypoll from Kairana as an instance of the voter’s mood in these parts.

Tabassum is contesting on an SP ticket this time and the BJP is likely to field the daughter of former MP Hukum Singh, Mriganka Singh from the seat. The local BJP workers believe that the “nationalist” mood after the air strikes on Pakistan has overshadowed all other issues.

Ajay Sangal, a local RSS worker, had invited the fiery Sangeet Som, MLA from Sardhana constituency, to Shamli on March 17 to speak on the Balakot strikes. Som is quoted as telling the locals that the Indian Air Force was just “minutes away from unfurling the national flag in Lahore”. According to Sangal, this narrative has “rejuvenated” the BJP in western UP. “Only the Jats are protesting on sugarcane. It is not an issue. People are excited about re-electing Modiji,” said Sangal.