COLUMN: The Lone Ranger from badlands of western UP

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As campaigning ends on February 9 in western Uttar Pradesh for the first round of polling in seven-phase assembly election in the state, it has come down to traditional factors of community, caste, polarisation and promises as being the factors that may decide the outcome. Regardless of the rhetoric about backwardness or development claims, voters in this region -- and for that matter in the entire state -- prefer to choose their representative on the basis of more proximal factors.

The Lone Ranger from badlands of western UP

Of the 73 assembly constituencies in western UP that will witness polling on February 11, some are contiguous to and others are close to Delhi and National Capital Region. These include Noida, Ghaziabad, Meerut, Baghpat, Bulandshahar, Hapur, Muzaffarnagar, Mathura, Agra, Firozabad and Etah districts. These areas have in different elections appeared as being strongholds of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party for different reasons.

The matrix of party support may change with every election, but the reasons for people's support to particular candidates hardly changes. Winners of the 2012 assembly election included 24 for the SP, 23 for BSP, 12 for BJP, nine for Rashtriya Janata Dal and five for the Congress.

Among the prominent candidates in the fray in this round are Pankaj Singh, son of Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, BJP leaders Sangit Som, Suresh Rana, former BJP state president Laxmikant Bajpai, Sandeep Singh, son of former UP Chief Minister Kalyan Singh, Rahul Yadav, son-in-law of Bihar leader Lalu Prasad and 11 contestants of the Asaduddin Owaisi's All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen.

The region's population comprises Muslims, Jats, Dalits and OBCs, spread in varying proportions. It is largely dominated by agriculture and small industries, and even the proximity to Delhi has failed to give them an urban environment and attitude. In fact residents of most of the cities and small towns in the constituency take pride in being 'so different' from Delhi. They may like and copy the consumer behaviour of the NCR region, but always remember that people of their region dominate Delhi's socio-economic ethos.

The riots in Muzaffarnagar in September 2013 had their anticipated impact in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The BJP has been trying hard to capitalise on the post-riot sentiment, but public memory is short. Now, the more relevant issues are demand for reservation to Jats and sops for farmers. In both cases, people in general feel that both the BJP and the state's ruling Samajwadi Party have failed to deliver. The option, in many cases, could be the RLD headed by Ajit Singh.

Even though the RLD is not expected to form the government in the state or even be part of any ruling alliance, but people seem to have a faith in Ajit Singh that he would raise their cause and do something about it.

It is interesting to note that Ajit Singh has, in the past, been part of the alliances headed by both the Congress and the BJP, has partnered with both BSP and SP, and reports of his party seeking an alliance with the SP were doing the rounds till recently. The fact that the RLD, contesting 59 seats in this round, has emerged as a big favourite is despite the fact that the party has only Ajit Singh and his son Jayant Chaudhary as its campaigners.

One might wonder what is it that people of this region see in Ajit Singh to continue supporting his party despite his track record. Other than the fact that he is the son of the late Jat leader and former Prime Minister Charan Singh, there is little by way of political or other milestones to his credit.

But he has always been content when described as a Jat leader, thus reinforcing his regional appeal. Then, because of having partnered with all major parties in the past, he perhaps keeps the hope alive among his supporters that he might again become a part of a winning combination should the numbers so require.

And most importantly, he always remains the preferred alternative if people in general are not interested in the SP-Congress, BSP and BJP. Some kind of anti-incumbency will always burden these parties, but the RLD will never have any of it.

Also to be noted is the fact that recently Ajit Singh has specifically gone on record to say that he and his party will never support the BJP. But he has not given a similar categorical statement about either the SP-Congress or the BSP.

Therein may lie the calculations of this Jat leader.

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