Western UP’s Meerut sees an electoral battle between contesting caste loyalties

“Modiji ka bol zordar hai par Meerut mein bua-bhatija ke saath tight fight hai”, says Harish Chaubey, a 29-year-old BJP pracharak. Standing on the sidelines of PM Narendra Modi’s rally in Meerut, Chaubey offers his opinion on the chances of the incumbent BJP MP who is fighting to secure a third term from Meerut, “Rajendra Agrawal ji is very popular here but the gathbandhan is building an alliance of Dalits and Muslims.”

Chaubey’s words hark to what drives politics in India’s largest state – caste equations. While Modi pitches the BJP’s three point agenda of strident nationalism, pro-poor welfare and anti-opposition rhetoric, locally parties compete for caste loyalties. Chaubey says that the Meerut parliamentary constituency has a sizeable Dalit and Muslim population which will not align itself with the BJP. It is precisely this Dalit-Muslim combine that the BSP candidate Haji Mohammad Yaqub, a local meat exporter, hopes to target.

Completing the caste equation is the Congress candidate Harendra Agrawal who comes from the same community as the incumbent BJP MP. Commentators have pointed out that his upper caste status and Priyanka Vadra Gandhi’s recent campaign efforts are likely to help Yaqub by weakening the BJP’s hold over upper castes.

It remains to be seen whether the incumbent Agrawal will be able to retain his seat. In 2014, Rajendra Agrawal received nearly 5.36 lakh votes, merely 1.85% more than the combined vote share of the second and third placed candidates of the BSP and SP. While this difference of 24,000 votes between the BJP and SP-BSP may appear easily surmountable, Rakesh Singh, a businessman from Meerut, suggests -, “The Dalit-Muslim combine is causing a consolidation of upper castes in favour of BJP”.

It is unsure whether the Congress candidate can fracture this consolidation. Commenting on the Congress’ chances in the seat, Singh says, “Only those who watch TV while sitting in Delhi think that Priyanka Gandhi will have an impact. It’s a straight fight between the BJP and BSP.” However, merely countering an upper caste consolidation may not be enough as the SP needs to ensure that Muslim and OBC voters loyal to the party effectively transfer their votes to BSP’s Yaqub. In 2017 Assembly elections, BSP had unsuccessfully tried to stitch a Dalit-Muslim combine in the 2017 Assembly Elections. In fact, BSP’s Yaqub had lost to the BJP by 35,000 votes in the Meerut South Assembly Constituency.

The fight in Meerut is going to be played out on many levels. The mahagathbandhan stitching together a Dalit-Muslim combine, the BJP hoping to surf on consolidation of upper caste votes, and the Congress hoping to split the vote with its own Agrawal candidate. It remains to be seen which strategy will be successful in this landscape of fractured caste sentimentalities.