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Ajit Singh struggling to retain Muslim vote

By Gargi Parsai

BAGHPAT Feb. 12. Despite enjoying the traditional support of the farmer Jat community in this prosperous western U.P. belt, the biggest challenge before the Union Agriculture Minister, Ajit Singh (Rashtriya Lok Dal), is to retain the Muslim vote, which will be the deciding factor in most of the 37 seats his party is contesting in alliance with the BJP.

Mr. Singh's tie-up with the BJP has eroded his traditional Muslim support, although after addressing a public meeting in Shyamli segment, he told The Hindu that the RLD Muslim voters were with him. He also expects the upper caste voters of the BJP to support him, which will take care of the dent in the Muslim votes. But caste calculations are not that simple and the Muslim presence in western U.P. is said to be about 34 per cent, as against the seven-odd per cent of upper castes.

The Jat and Muslim community together have been loyal supporters of the Charan Singh family. To this day, Charan Singh enjoys such immense loyalty amongst the forceful Jats that even the RLD's opponents are using the late leader's photos in their campaign material and seeking votes. Being his son, Mr. Ajit Singh has inherited his legacy. As such, the issue here is ``loyalty'' to Ajit Singh, even though a drive through Baghpat and Muzaffarnagar showed lack of development, be it roads, schools, hospitals, water, electricity and so on. However, some of the educated, younger Jats have begun to question the unchallenged loyalty to Mr. Singh and this is reflected in the entry of rebel candidates in some seats, including the Jat leader's home Assembly segment of Chaprauli.

Broadly, the caste equations here are no different from other parts of the State. While the Jat vote is intact with Mr. Singh, the Dalits will go with Mayawati (BSP) and the Muslims vote may be divided between Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party and the RLD. The Congress has no visible presence. Women have no independent voice here. They go along with the male head of the family.

Mr. Singh had lost his Baghpat Parliamentary seat to the Planning Commission member, Som Pal, in 1998, but wrested it back in the 1999 mid-term elections. Mr. Som Pal, who was close to V.P. Singh once, had been enticed by the BJP after much persuasion on the (his) condition that the party will have no truck with the RLD. Political compulsions made the BJP go back on that assurance and it forged an alliance with Mr. Singh. The result is that Mr. Som Pal is sitting in the wings on the plea that being a Planning Commission member he cannot campaign.

The other factor is the entry of the Haryana Chief Minister, Om Prakash Chautala, in U.P. politics. Mr. Chautala has fielded 115 candidates and is focussing on Mr Ajit Singh's citadel. Asked about this, Mr. Singh said, "He is no force here. He is playing negative politics''.

In his election speeches, Mr. Singh raises the demand for "Harit Pradesh'' (Green State) _ a separate State of western U.P. But for the sugarcane farmers, the issue is Mr. Singh. If all castes come out to vote, then the RLD may just about retain its tally of 11 Assembly seats or even lose a few. But if the infamous Jat hegemony prevails on the polling day, then Mr. Singh will improve his position.

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