Despite multiple players in fray, the electoral battle in Uttar Pradesh is turning out to be a direct contest between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Yogi Adityanath and the Samajwadi Party-Rashtriya Lok Dal alliance as its primary challenger. Having assumed charge as party president following the demise of his father and former Union minister Ajit Singh in May last year, Jayant Chaudhary faces a twin challenge. On one hand is the responsibility to take forward the legacy of his family of stalwarts like his father and grandfather, Chaudhary Charan Singh, the fifth Prime Minister of India. On the other, he needs to spearhead a revival for the RLD which currently has no representation in the Lok Sabha or the state legislative assembly.
Speaking exclusively to FinancialExpress.com, Jayant Chaudhary says past performance is not an indicator of this election which he believes is important not just for the RLD, but for national polity – to send a message to governments at various levels that citizens can organise themselves and make an impact. While Jayant dismisses speculation of any bad blood between the SP and RLD as they near a seat-sharing arrangement, he did advise restraint by leaders while speaking on sensitive issues after Akhilesh Yadav’s comments on Jinnah and Pakistan gave BJP ground to accuse the alliance of religious polarisation, a charge that the Opposition has used persistently to target the saffron party. With polls just days away, Jayant says he is taking the real issues of the people to them and is confident that people have already made up their minds to bring the SP-RLD alliance to power this time.
Edited excerpts of the interview:
The upcoming elections will be a litmus test for you, given the legacy of your father and grandfather. In 2002, the RLD contested UP polls in alliance with the BJP and won 14 seats, but since then your party’s seat share has been plummeting. How do you plan to make a comeback?
I am a very positive person. I feel that you must take every day as it comes, every election is different. This election is important, not just for us, it’s important for the national polity. It’s important that we send a message to governments at various levels that citizens can organise themselves and that traditional vote banks cannot face the onslaught of real issues when they come.
The real issues of Uttar Pradesh must be heard – unemployment, agrarian distress, issues relating to governance which have deep impact on people’s everyday lives. So, I think it’s very important for me to take these issues to the people and I am very, very hopeful. Past performance is not an indicator of this election.
The electoral history of Uttar Pradesh shows that caste equations have trumped issues like unemployment, job crisis, inflation and now adding to the list is agrarian distress. How do you plan to overcome the BJP’s caste arithmetic?
See, on unemployment, I will agree with you that issue has not been able to make its mark politically because the fact is that the unemployed are not able to organise. If you don’t have a job, you don’t knock on someone else’s door and say – ‘You don’t have a job, I don’t have a job, let’s organise’.
But farmers do organise, and the way farmers’ unity has been a great positive for the nation, the way they organised themselves, the way a national movement was sustained and people from UP had a large role to play. You know, farmer identity has been very important in our politics and it is a strong political identity. Now it is beginning to reassert itself.
So unemployment is also an issue, youth anger is definitely an issue, economic distress is definitely an issue, but I feel at the crux of it, it will be the farmers and that identity that will help sustain and build a platform for all of these elements to come together and ask some hard questions of the BJP, of the incumbent government, and maybe pose some challenges for us as well.
Farmers’ protest initially began for a cause but soon took a political overtone. Some of the farm union leaders floated their own party in Punjab. Even in UP, the Tikait brothers have been involved in discussions with political parties lately. Don’t you think this digressed the movement from its real cause?
I don’t know why we shun politics. Politics should not be a bad word; politics is about guiding the nation, it’s about deciding the issues about how we, as a society, want to govern ourselves. Everyone must engage – either you vote or you participate or you take part is a social movement, you track your contemporary issues, or you a student of political history, or you fight elections. Whatever the case maybe, we are all engaged with each other politically. So there is no such thing as an apolitical movement.
I think that was a strategy, and it was a wise strategy because right now, we have a government who just don’t want to listen and it is very very arrogant, it cracks down, and it uses all of this parallel institutionalised setup that they have created, an ecosystem where they can use very conveniently these institutions, which are actually pillars of democracy, for their own party’s interests.
So, they can could have easily labelled this as anti-Modi forces, but they were not able to do so because they were simple farmers sitting on the streets, and they said listen ‘we may vote differently, but here we are together’. So, as a strategy it was clever, but you cannot stop anyone from asserting their political choice. They may want to organise, they may want to fight elections, they may want to just vote, that’s their choice.
Rashtriya Lok Dal’s alliance with Samajwadi Party was announced days ago, but the seat-sharing formula is yet to be disclosed. Is there any bone of contention between the two parties?
No, there was not any bone of contention. It’s just that these things need to assessed, reassessed, tinkered with till the last moment. And you know that parties declare candidates and then change them at the last moment. Our goal is to win and we have great understanding between ourselves. There are no ego issues. Yes, of course, he is representing his organisation and I am responsible for political workers affiliated to my organisation.
There may be areas where I want to grow, there may be people who are deserving who are not able to contest these elections, but we have to take everyone along. So, I am trying my best to convince my cadre that look at the larger goal, and they are very very willing, they understand. So, there is no pressure on me and I don’t feel there is any pressure on Akhilesh Ji too to move away from this, and in fact we want to work together. We even discussed issues, there have been times when we have not even spoken about seats, but about issues, and that is the most important thing.
How are we going to change the face of Uttar Pradesh? How are are going to tackle the developmental deficits that our state is facing? We are still a ‘bimaru’ state – you look at poverty, you look at malnutrition, you look at governance. Any metric you use, we are the worst performing state in the country. So, whether it’s our symbol, whether it’s SP’s symbol, doesn’t matter; 403 seats – we are working together and we want to win.
Samajwadi Party has been welcoming rebels from all the other parties, especially the BJP. If the SP-RLD alliance comes to power, how do you plan to give representation to so many leaders?
It’s a challenge always! People who are in the system, they don’t want outsiders to come in, but political organisations have to be open organisations. This is not a close-door secret society, or a trust for anyone’s benefit that we have created. It’s an open platform, people should be free to come and join and take responsibility and share responsibility and contribute.
Therefore, there is no hard-and-fast rule that we will not take anyone from outside the party, that we will not give them a chance, we will not give them a ticket, or we will not give them a share of the government, we cannot do that. There are people with great grassroots presence, they may not be in our party, but looking at our issues, our campaign, the on-ground sentiments, they may want to join.
You have been quite vocal about Mandal politics. Do you think Ram Mandir was never an electoral issue because that is believed to have driven politics in the state for several decades and also the reason for regional parties to have been pushed to the brink?
I think that is post analysis of an election where we try and attribute one or two issues. In fact, voting decision is a very complex decision, there are many things that lead to it. Why BJP won with a landslide, there could have been a case that BJP has won in UP for a long time, there was a newness to that party. Modi Ji had just come in with a landslide in the central government, so they may have sensed that lets align ourselves with the central government, we may get some benefits to accrue.
So, that sense might have already been present in the voters and then you had that trauma of the riots which disrupted the normal way of thinking – people got angry, aggressive, they voted in anger and spite. So I think the last election was because of that.
On your question whether Mandir is relevant, I would like to believe it’s not politically relevant. I feel for a country that has so many issues, real issues – poverty, malnutrition, unemployment, state of the economy, social tensions, I feel we must have faith in our voters that they will take the right decision. I don’t think the voter is sitting there and saying – ‘Chalo, the Mandir has been made that’s why I don’t want electricity, I don’t want water, I don’t want health, I don’t want education for my children or jobs, I will vote for Mandir’.
I don’t think that voter really exists. He may exist in a narrative being created in some media studios or in the BJP’s toolkit, but I don’t think that voter really exists. Therefore, I question whether Mandir is a political issue at all.
You blame the BJP of polarising society on religious lines for electoral benefits. On the other hand, BJP has targetted Akhilesh Yadav over his remarks on Jinnah and Pakistan. Do you think this has caused you any damage?
It’s a strange time we live in. Elections are won and lost on a single statement nowadays. So leaders have to be very very careful and your public persona is more important than any deep understanding or issue. That’s unfortunate, but I believe in politics of real world issues, therefore these things are at the periphery.
Polarisation, definitely, that is the BJP’s only tactic. That is their only strategy, that’s the only thing they have, to divert from the fact that people of Uttar Pradesh have gained nothing in the last five years. They have spoken about Aurangzeb, their campaign starts at Kairana where the Home Minister of this country is going and meeting these mythical people who had left and have come back because supposedly UP is safer.
In Meerapur, in Muzaffarnagar, a BJP candidate is giving speech in a village and saying ‘We are Hindu party and Samajwadi Muslim party, therefore I am a Hindu, you are a Hindu, so you must vote for us.’ So, this is rampant. The Election Commission must step in, these institutions must stick by their mandate because we will come and go, but I think we will create wrong tradition if we are going to continue down this path. It’s very dangerous for the democracy.
The Yogi Adityanath government claims to have dealt with the second COVID wave in an effective manner with the largest number of vaccinations in the country. How do you see the government’s handling of the pandemic so far?
If UP was a country, it would have been the fifth largest country in the world. So, we will have the largest everything; largest vaccination doesn’t mean anything. We have one of the highest rate of vaccination wastage and we also know cases where people are not vaccinated and they are getting a message that ‘you have received your second dose’. So there are problems with that system, proper audit must be done.
We also had a case where litigants had to fight in the courts because the government was refusing to give any benefits to COVID affected families who had lost members to the disease. We saw the images of Ganga… the bodies… people were so afraid that they were not able to take care of their own relatives and loved ones, they were just leaving dead bodies. They were not able to cremate them, not able to conduct last rites, hospitals were flooded.
I ran a campaign on Twitter. We created this team of party volunteers and workers who were on ground and assisting people. I would get a tweet saying ‘we need an oxygen cylinder in Ghaziabad, their oximeter reading is so and so’. By the time I conveyed that, several cases I saw where they said ‘sorry I lost my loved one’. The government was not prepared. I will say even now the government is not prepared if this third wave of Omicron really creates a stress on the hospital system, on the health system in Uttar Pradesh, we may again see those images. We need to be very very careful.
You see the way they are campaigning, Amit Shah was not wearing a mask and in his cavalcade, you could barely spot any masks. So we must create the right example. Yogi Ji said that there are no potholes in UP roads, but thousand people died in 2019, according to central government data because of road accidents, because of potholes, which is the highest number of deaths. So we can’t take whatever Yogi Ji says as the gospel truth.
Yogi Adityanath is contesting the polls from Gorakhpur while Akhilesh Yadav will fight from Karhal. Being a party chief, don’t you think that your decision to not contest the elections might create a negative perception among your support base?
No, I have a different vision to that. I want to grow the base of our party, I feel that farmers need to organise themselves politically, and this is not just an issue restricted to Uttar Pradesh. Therefore, I feel that there is a vacuum at the national level as well. And it is with that roadmap in my mind that I am staying away from the assembly elections in UP.
It may also be that Chaudhary Sahab’s passing, there is a lot of responsibility I need to share, I need to create an effective second rung of leadership, I need to delegate… create a proper team, structures of organisation within our party. I am focused that, my goal is to increase our winnability in the election, to make sure we are able to campaign effectively on ground and to convert every seat so that this is a new beginning for our party.
Now that farm laws have been repealed by the government, do you think your party would still be able to capitalise on farmers’ angst against the BJP?
I believe people have made up their minds. But right now we are not able to campaign, we were having massive meetings, massive turnouts. We were not prepared for the number of people who were turning up. For tens of kilometres, people are just walking, they are not able to get to the rally venue. So that was level of their excitement, I think people have already made up their mind.
As far as farm laws are concerned, people know that this was not a case where the government, out of its sense of commitment to farmers, has taken this decision (to withdraw the laws). It is only because of a 13-month-long sustained agitation and the way we were able to pressurise the government, and the fact that elections were coming, I think that is what created this atmosphere that finally Modi Ji had to step back. No one is giving him credit, in fact there is accountability. We must ask questions on why Teni is still a minister. Why did 700 people have to die? We actually lost a year. All those families who were camping on the borders, the fact they had left their villages, economic activity in their hometown must have gone down; there was a loss to the economy. Who is answerable for that? We basically rolled back, we lost a year and we gained nothing. That is the sense that farmers have, so they will definitely punish the BJP in these elections.
RLD’s main support base lies in western UP. Your party had famously brought together the Jat-Muslim voters together in your favor. But in the last elections, the BJP won 51 out of 73 seats in the region. Why did you this happened and how do you plan to bring back this winning equation in your corner again?
In 2017 polls, there is a reason for why we were not able to perform. Because we were to be a part of an alliance which didn’t work out at the last minute. Therefore, our entire pitch had to change… that’s why I think voters who wanted to vote for RLD may have ended up voting for BJP, some of them may have gone for Samajwadi-Congress alliance because we were not there in the fray.
So it was a polarised election last time also, we saw Congress and SP aligning and then BJP which came into power. Therefore the last election, like I said, is not going to be an indicator of what’s going to happen this time. This time, we are part of a credible alliance which is the only strong alternative to BJP.
How many seats are you hopeful of winning in these elections?
Enough to make a government! You can’t have figure, you can’t have those sort of goals , we leave it to the people, we will do our best, finally it is the voters that will decide.