Jawli village in Ghaziabad district is about 34 km to the east of Delhi and Khanupur in Muzaffarnagar district is 133 km away. The distance is a signifier at least in one aspect: closer to Delhi, the inhabitants of the rural pockets had the “national” picture in mind when they discussed elections. Pulwama, the air strikes and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘valour’ occupied the mind space. Further away from the National Capital Region (NCR), the issues were basic, impinging on people’s livelihoods and quotidian concerns. Although both the districts -- Jat-dominated Muzaffarnagar more so -- have families with historical links to the military and one or more members working in the armed forces, the perceptions about the India-Pakistan conflicts varied.
If Jawli celebrated Modi’s “courage”, at Shahpur Badoli, nearly 50 kms away, the students of Baghpat colleges asked tough questions. Amit Tomar, a 21-year Commerce student, said, “Till today, the government has not showed proof that 300 persons were killed by our Air Force in Pakistan. I have two brothers in the military, one in Srinagar and the other on the Punjab border so nobody can accuse me of being anti-national.”
Gyanendra Kumar and Bijendra Kasana are farmers from the Gujjar backward caste, owned land and a small dairy business in Jawli. “Note ‘bandi’ has finished off the once prosperous real estate business in these parts. Everything is done in white (money) so nobody wants to buy or sell property. Didn’t you see hundreds of unoccupied apartments in Ghaziabad?” asked Kasana.
Yet none of them blamed the Modi government for the market stagnancy. “We are looking only at Modi. Demonetisation was good because it eliminated the fly by night operators and dubious dealers. They thrived in our region, living in huge mansions with a fleet of SUVs. Where did the money come from? Modi wiped it out. It gives people like me who earn modestly, a good feeling,” said Sardar Singh, a Jawli diary farmer.
VK Singh, the former Army chief, is the Ghaziabad MP. Yet nobody here had a kind word to say about him. “He never showed his face. But he doesn’t matter because it’s all about Modi. Modi ordered our air force to bomb Pakistan, not the former general. It’s important to vote back Modi. Only he can keep our borders secure,” said Gyanendra Kumar.
But 21 km away, at Hasanpur-Mussoorie, a little town in Baghpat district that’s glutted with private academic institutes, including a sports college, the first voice of dissent against the BJP-led central government was audible. Onkar Yadav owns the Devas Public School. “I am a Samajwadi Party (SP) sympathiser but my family revolted against me (in 2014) and voted BJP. My sons were taken in by the ‘achche din’ (good days) slogan. They were upset with the SP’s minority appeasement agenda. Nearly 60 percent of the Yadav votes in Baghpat Lok Sabha constituency went to Modi,” said Yadav.
Five years down the line, Yadav and his sons’ main worry was that the Yogi Adityanath government only ‘pandered’ to the upper castes, especially the Rajputs. “My daughter wants to enter the MBBS course in the general category. She doesn’t stand a chance against the upper castes because of her surname. She will be automatically pushed into the quota slot that has a limited number of seats. There’s not a single Yadav minister in the Modi government, except for Hansraj Ahir and he’s a junior minister at that. We have no high ups to go to with our problems,” said Yadav.
His regret was that the backward castes were not “as united” as they were in 1991 when the Janata Dal rode the Mandal wave. Sarorpur-Kala, a village of the Saini backward caste, corroborated Yadav’s observation. “We would rather be with the high castes than the Jats and Yadavs because these castes oppress us all the time. Modi is like us, from a poor backward caste and we identify with him. We like the PM-Kisan scheme. The rich farmers grumble about getting only Rs 6000 (in three instalments) but for us the amount is enough to get our tractors and tools repaired,” said Rajkumar Singh.
Talk to a relatively better-off farmer in Khanupur and the contempt for PM-Kisan is evident. “Rs 2000? Even a small farmer won’t touch this amount,” said Bhupendra, the village pradhan who is a Jat. “Each season, the government hikes the procurement price of sugarcane by Rs 325. This year we have got nothing, not even a 20 rupee rise. Our running costs have gone up. What do we do?”
In West UP, the devil lay in the details that spilled out with each passing day.