The UP Story: Farmers' Movement, Youth Unrest and Defence of the Constitution
outh Unrest and Defence of the Constitution

by Nakul Singh Sawhney

Since Narendra Modi ascended to power in 2014, and perhaps even before that, the General elections have always been a loud and boisterous affair in Uttar Pradesh. This time, however, election campaigns lacked the usual fanfare and were relatively lowkey.

Another striking difference between the 2019 and 2024 Lok Sabha elections, was the lack of a wave, be it a Modi wave, NDA wave, INDIA wave or even a Mandir wave. With the heightened hyper-nationalist fervour in 2019 after the Pulwama blasts and Balakot air strikes, most voters overlooked their candidate and their vote for BJP was a direct vote to Modi. This time, a reverse undercurrent on a variety of socio-economic issues, if not a wave, was visible.

The ChalChitra Abhiyaan team travelled to 21 Lok Sabha constituencies across the state. The seats we covered include Ghaziabad, Meerut, Bijnor, Nagina, Saharanpur, Kairana, Muzaffarnagar, Etawah, Kheri, Dhaurahra, Kannauj, Badaun, Mainpuri, Hathras, Allahabad, Phulpur, Azamgarh, Ambedkar Nagar, Ghosi, Ballia and Ghazipur. As a rule, we identified numerically influential castes and communities in each constituency. We picked out villages and townships where these communities have a strong presence to understand how voters are thinking, the issues determining their votes and if and why their voting preferences have changed since 2019. On average, we covered at least two Vidhan Sabhas in each of the 21 Lok Sabha constituencies.

One thing to be noted across constituencies was an underlying fear among voters in several constituencies. Several voters often chose to remain silent and were discreet about the party or candidate of their choice. The term tanashahi or the notion of a dictatorial attitude of the BJP government was a big concern among several voters in UP, particularly among Dalit and OBC voters. The arrests of Arvind Kejriwal, the Chief Minister of Delhi and Hemant Soren, the Chief Minister of Jharkhand  further cemented this idea. One farmer in Kannauj said, “Leaders like Kejriwal who worked for people have been put behind bars.”

This was visible in Lakhimpur Kheri too where fear among the voters was prominently visible. On October 3, 2022, a convoy of Ashish Teni, son of Union Minister Ajay Mishra Teni, allegedly ran over protesting farmers mowing down four farmers and one journalist. Ajay Mishra Teni had once again been fielded as the BJP candidate from the area. In the Sikh majority Mirchiyan village in Kheri, an important part of the farmers’ protest, people consistently said, that they will vote to change the government, but maintained an eerie silence on Teni’s candidature owing to the lack of justice in the case. SP had fielded an OBC Kurmi candidate Utkarsh Verma ‘Madhur’ for this seat. Even in several Kurmi majority villages, people refused to open up about their voting preferences. A small dhaba owner told us off camera that people are generally scared of BJP’s candidate and added, “If Teni has been fielded even after the entire country watched the video of what his son did to farmers, then why won’t people be scared? People want to vote him out but worry about the consequences. On the day of polling, if voters can overcome their fear, Teni will certainly lose.” Teni lost to SP’s Utkarsh Verma by over 34,000 votes.

Another prominent issue that dotted the varied landscape of UP was the agrarian crisis. Ironically, even Brahmin farmers who seemed to be strongly mobilized in favour of the BJP spoke of the agrarian crisis with anger. One of the specific and grave issues all farmers in these constituencies faced was the menace of the stray cattle that destroyed crops in the fields. With the Yogi government’s increased restrictions on slaughterhouses and the fear of cow vigilantes, many farmers are left in the lurch. They are clueless about how to deal with their male cattle, essentially an economic burden on farmers who are anyway dealing with growing financial distress. These policies have robbed farmers of an additional source of income, and they are now forced to abandon their male cattle and also older cows and buffaloes who can no longer produce milk. The Yogi government has unsuccessfully attempted to build cow sheds to keep the cattle in one place. The stray cattle are running havoc across UP and are keeping farmers awake all night to guard their crops.

Prashant from Rasoolpur village in Muzaffarnagar says, “Instead of getting a chance to study, I have been pulled into farming. Each time I go to the coaching class, I get calls to take care of the stray cattle that have barged into the fields and destroyed the crops.” The stray cattle run over crops, graze on them and destroy them completely. The losses incurred by stray cattle are substantially higher than the quarterly cash transfer of Rs. 2000 (Rs. 500 a month) from the central government as part of the much-hyped ‘Kisan Samman Nidhi’. Add to this the decrease in the weight of urea sacks (from 50 kg to 45 kg) with the price remaining at a constant Rs 242 and with a very nominal increase of roughly Rs 45 per quintal in State Advised Price for sugarcane in the last seven years when compared to previous UP state governments, the disillusionment of farmers is evident. This has resulted in the drifting away of several non-Yadav and non-Jat agrarian OBC castes from the BJP in West UP. This includes castes like Lodhi Rajputs, Kurmis, Kushwahas, Sainis who are essentially marginal and small farmers.

In Etawah, many poor voters expressed concern over the free ration claim by the Central government. Instead of wheat and rice, Bajra and corn are being distributed. These cannot be consumed in the scorching summer heat. During the 2022 UP Assembly elections, Jayant Chaudhary, chief of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), when asked about his possible alliance with BJP said, “We are not a ‘chavanni’ (25 paise coin) who will change.” Two years later, on March 2, 2024, Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), a party with a significant Jat following in Western UP, joined the BJP-led NDA alliance. It was in the hope of consolidating Jat voters for NDA. But in many seats like Kairana, Muzaffarnagar, Aligarh, Agra etc, Jat voters haven’t shifted to NDA to the extent that they had hoped for after this RLD leader Jayant Chaudhary’s turncoat moment.

The ripple effects of the historic thirteen-month-long farmers’ movement of 2020-21 continue to impact the Jat voters of the region and they remain suspicious of the newly formed alliance. Jagmehar Singh, a Jat farmer from Phugana village of Muzaffarnagar constituency said, “The file on farm laws has been strategically kept away for now. Soon after the elections, it will bring the three laws back if they are elected. Farmers will go back to Delhi to protest.”

In many constituencies like Kairana, Meerut, and Muzaffarnagar, it was also observed that the low voting turnouts are a result of core BJP communities voting in fewer numbers. For example, in the first three phases, one factor that hurt the BJP was the massive Rajput panchayats held in Meerut, Kairana and Muzaffarnagar constituencies against the party. This was in response to a couple of speeches made allegedly against the community by BJP leaders. On March 22, 2024, Parshottan Rupala, a BJP candidate from Rajkot in Gujarat said, “Even kings and royals bowed down to the British…but not Rukhi samaj (a Dalit community).” He was seen to praise Dalits at the expense of Rajputs and Kshatriyas whom he accused of entering “roti-beti” (breaking bread and entering into marital relations) with the British.

Many also accused the BJP of ‘keeping silent’ when the caste name Gurjar was inscribed on the statue of Mihir Bhoj who they claim is a Rajput. Some also expressed apprehension that the Thakur leader Yogi may not get prominence in the upcoming elections. In Ghaziabad, a relatively safe seat for the BJP, there was growing resentment against the party. The fact that Atul Garg, a Baniya candidate was fielded by the party instead of a Rajput split the roughly five lakh Rajput votes in the area.

In the absence of a larger national narrative, the anger among the Rajput community couldn’t be quelled and many in the community boycotted the elections. As a result, in several constituencies in West UP voter turnout in Rajput-dominant villages was far lower than the average in their constituencies and significantly lower than the community’s polling in 2019. This too, hurt the BJP’s chances on several seats in West UP.

While there was disillusionment with the ruling party, even the opposition INDIA bloc was not able to win over their confidence. As a result, voter enthusiasm was minimal and many chose not to vote. What was also evident was a simmering anger against the ruling dispensation among large sections of the rural and semi-urban poor and even middle classes. Issues of inflation and unemployment were oft-repeated by voters.

In Meerut, many voters talked about how BJP’s key campaign points like the scrapping of Article 370 in Kashmir had no impact on their lives. One of them said, “We are not buying land there!” With growing unemployment, anger among the youth was further fueled when the Uttar Pradesh Constable Recruitment and Promotion 2024 examination was cancelled. The exam was held on February 17 and 18 this year and over 48 lakh aspirants took the exam for 60,244 posts. It was later revealed that the examination papers had leaked. The examination was declared null and void, and the state government announced that the exam would be held again after the Lok Sabha elections. Repeated incidents of paper leaks in the Yogi government have only increased the despondency among young voters who eye government jobs.

Subhash who passed Class 12th in 2021 in Kunwarpur village in Hathras appeared for the UP police exams recently. He says, “Despite Yogi saying that he is very strict, the paper was leaked yet again. Apart from the cancellation of the exam, we also ended up wasting money on the form, and conveyance to the exam centre once again. No one in my village has got any government job in the last three years.” Moreover, youth from across large parts of rural UP have always eyed a job in the army. The recent Agniveer scheme has proven to be yet another wet blanket. Ajay in Palia Kalan, who completed Class 12 a few years back, from Lakhimpur Kheri Lok Sabha added, “Many of us did not manage to get married, we are way past the age because we are unemployed.”  Ajay belongs to the Dalit community in the area.

Apart from the anger on similar issues of unemployment and inflation evident in the Dalit communities across UP, there is another concern. On March 25, 2024, BJP Anant Kumar Hegde from Karnataka called for the ‘rewriting’ of the Indian Constitution which is not possible without winning 400 of the 543 seats. At least, three other BJP candidates openly stated the same intentions. The videos of their statements have gone viral. The BJP’s campaign slogan ‘abki baar, 400 paar,’ thus caused a growing insecurity among various SC voters. Rajpal Singh Jatav, from Bisoli in Badaun, says, “Anant Hegde says if we get 400 seats, we will change the Indian Constitution. The Constitution is the soul of all the oppressed, exploited, marginalized people in the country. If the BJP comes into power, our soul perishes, our basic fundamental rights will also perish.”

The party’s alleged intention to change the Constitution and scrap reservations made many wary in the various SC communities in the state. This includes non-Jatav SC communities, large sections of which have in the past few years been voting for the BJP. This departure from the previous trends was visible across the state. Bhaga, a daily wage, Dalit labourer from Palia Kalan said, “ As far as vote is concerned, I am illiterate, but Babasaheb has written in the Constitution that every five years, our political representative must change, so will vote to change.”

Another factor that should have worked in BJP’s favour, but is proving to be their biggest dampener is that BSP and SP couldn’t finally ally. In several constituencies like Meerut, Saharanpur, Nagina, Kairana, Etawah, Lakhimpur Kheri, Mainpuri etc, there was a visible shift of Dalit voters from BSP to INDIA alliance candidates essentially looking to vote for the strongest candidate against BJP. But, a large majority of those who didn’t feel comfortable shifting to the INDIA alliance have been retained by BSP and the shift to BJP has been minimal. In 2019, because of the SP-BSP alliance, on many seats that didn’t have a BSP candidate, one also witnessed a shift of a substantial number of Dalit votes to BJP. With BSP retaining such voters in 2024, the BJP’s vote share was adversely affected.

On the other hand in East UP seats like Azamgarh, Ambedkar Nagar, Ghazipur and Ballia many Dalit voters continued to strongly stand with BSP, but small fractures were visible here too. On Ghazipur seat Reena Devi, a Dalit woman voter said, “Our children are unemployed. Inflation is going through the roof. We got gas cylinders but can’t afford to refill them. The men are doing private jobs where they earn only Rs. 5,000-Rs.7,000 a month. How can we survive on that money? Last time we voted for Modi, but this time we will vote for the INDIA alliance.”

While the Muslim community largely rallied behind INDIA alliance candidates, exceptions were visible here too. For example, in the Nagina constituency, there was a strong consolidation of both Muslims and Dalits in favour of Chandrashekhar Azad from the Azad Samaj Party. This is because Muslims were looking for an alternative candidate owing to SP’s silence on many issues related to the Muslim community. Mohammad Zeeshan a young voter from Nagina said, “Chandrashekhar is young leader. He raises issues ranging from sports stadiums, and the condition of hospitals to his opposition of NRC, standing with farmers and our women wrestlers (who alleged sexual assault by BJP leader Brij Bhushan Singh). He has even been attacked and jailed.” On the other hand, many voters felt dismayed by SP’s glaring silence on these issues.

As one moved further away from West UP, it seems Akhilesh Yadav’s PDA (P' for Pichade (backward classes), 'D' for Dalits and 'A' for Alpsankhyak or minorities) slogan has penetrated successfully among the people. Across the state, the women rural voters we spoke to were particularly upset with the lack of allocation of houses under the PM Awaas Yojana. Village after village, they were keen to show their abysmal living conditions to our cameras.

What is also noteworthy, is that the two seats that were most adversely affected by the 2013 communal violence, Muzaffarnagar and Kairana, have both been lost by the BJP. Even more heartening is the fact that Kairana elected a Muslim woman as their MP. Overall, a narrative of social justice coupled with the demand for economic justice was able to permeate among voters of UP, which immensely damaged the BJP.

Finally, it is encouraging to note that the three youngest MP’s from UP include a Dalit man, Pushpendra Saroj, MP from Kaushambi, a Dalit woman, Priya Saroj from Macchlishahr constituency and Iqra Hasan, an OBC Muslim woman from Kairana constituency. At the same time, a young assertive Dalit leader like Chandrashekhar also secured a very convincing victory from Nagina.

It will be important to see how these leaders raise people’s issues over the next five years. However, given how marginalised communities have seen myriad assaults in the last ten years, their victory does indicate a positive shift in the state. 

Nakul Singh Sawhney is an independent documentary filmmaker and founder of Chalchitra Abhiyaan, a film and media collective in West UP.