Hope springs in Mathura at the mention of Narendra Modi. Eyes brighten, smiles break out on young and old faces. The groundswell of support for the Bharatiya Janata Party's Prime Ministerial candidate in this Lok Sabha seat in western Uttar Pradesh is not good news for Jayant Chaudhary, the sitting Member of Parliament from Rashtriya Lok Dal. Lack of development in the broken and ancient city of Mathura is adding to his woes. To compound matters, the "glamour" of Hema Malini, the BJP candidate, may add some extra shine to her party's vote share.
The RLD and its ally Congress are pinning their hope on caste arithmetic, which they claim will see them through, especially the backing of the Jat community, which has a formidable presence in this constituency. It is because of the Jat factor that local journalists predict a tight race between the BJP and RLD, although they talk of rumblings among the Jats against Congress and RLD.
To start with, one has to hunt for a Jayant Chaudhary supporter in Mathura city and even in some of the villages. In contrast, the Narendra Modi fan is ubiquitous.
At Barsana village, 40 km from Mathura city, a crowd gathers as soon as conversation starts at a teashop. The tea-seller, Rohtas Baghel has put up Modi posters on the walls of his tiny, dilapidated shack. A young man named Bhagwat shows his mobile phone, from where he has been dialling up a BJP number to listen to Modi's speeches. A Brahmin, Bhagwat talks about a jhanki (float) featuring Narendra Modi that was taken out by 12 Brahmin-Thakur villages on the occasion of Basant Panchami, the day that marks the beginning of Holi festivities in these parts.
Two housewives, Maya and Mira talk of back-breaking price rise from inside their ghunghat, when asked why they are supporting Modi. They are both Brahmins. The wife of a small shopkeeper, a Yaduvanshi, gurgles in laughter when asked about Modi.
A young man waiting inside a shared auto-rickshaw at a Barsana roundabout, however, sounds a note of caution: "Modi to hai, lekin idhar jaat-paat bahut chalta hai (Modi matters, but caste matters as well)."
As if on cue, a few youngsters declare their support for Mayawati. They are all Jatavs, the caste that the Bahujan Samaj Party leader belongs to.
CASTE IN STONE?
Back in Mathura city, the local MLA and Congress' Legislative Party leader in UP, Pradeep Mathur talks caste. "We have the support of 4.5 lakh Jats, 2.5 lakh Gujars and 1 lakh Muslims; so we have a captive vote share of 8 lakh," he tells this newspaper. Later, he repeats this claim to party workers who had gathered at the Congress' city office in congested Tilak Dwar for a coordination meeting with Jayant Chaudhary. He claims Jat reservation will help Congress-RLD sweep the seat.
Ask the residents of Ajitpur, a Jat dominated village of about 3,000-people near NH2, about this, and they scoff. "Young men do not get jobs even when they pay money, we need change," says Mukhtiyar Singh, a farmer.
Two Jat men from Nandgaon, an RLD bastion, who are chatting with Nawab, the Muslim owner of a tyre treading shop in Kosi Kalan, are unanimous that there is a hawa in BJP's favour. It is only the much older Hari Singh who declares that caste matters to him and he would not desert Ajit Singh and his son.
There is talk in the air that some Jat villages in the Kosi Kalan area, which were with the RLD, have "defected" to the BJP.
BJP too is doing its caste arithmetic. There is speculation that the party gave a ticket to Jat leader Chaudhary Babulal from neighbouring Fatehpur Sikri because of his influence over 80 villages in Mathura constituency. These villages primarily have Nauhwar Jats, a Jat khap. Babulal, who joined the BJP from RLD, apparently had wanted a ticket from Mathura, but was denied. The chairman of the Vrindavan municipality, Mukesh Gautam of the BJP claims that his party has 40% Jat support.
THE DECENT MAN
Voter disaffection with the young Jayant Chaudhary is high. They complain that he was an absentee MP. BJP voters are unhappy that the RLD, which was in alliance with their party in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, defected to the Congress. Worse, Chaudhary fought the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections in 2012 from Mant constituency, but gave up that seat. The Jats say that Chaudhary did not help them after the Kosi Kalan riots of 2012.
Congress' Pradeep Mathur tells the 100-odd party workers how to handle the voters: "Remind them that your MP is a decent man, he is not corrupt, he will not steal your land; remind them of his family, of his grandfather Chaudhary Charan Singh. Tell the public that it is not the MP's job to fix roads."
Jayant Chaudhary himself talks of the private member's bill he tried to push in Parliament to clean the Yamuna. "I admit mistakes have been committed. But I made 100% efforts. Mere taraf se aap maafi maang le." He also insists that no personal attacks should be made against Hema Malini. "I am certain all voters have grievances against their sitting MPs, but I have worked" he tells this newspaper.
In the quieter part of Mathura, Hema Malini is ensconced in an air-conditioned hotel room, meeting party leaders and workers. "She travelled in an Audi, she did not get down at Giriraj temple, the doors of Dwarkadhish temple stayed open for her," complain Congress workers. They call her inaccessible.
Hema Malini does not like it when told about this. With a slight frown she admits to this newspaper that campaigning will be "a little tough" for her. "But I will do it. That is why I am here. Wait and see what I do before asking me whether I will be able to connect with the people."
Most voters, however, are not willing to listen to Congress complaints. They tell you that the actress is a regular visitor to Vridavan, that her heart beats for Radha-Krishna, that she has a goshala here.
As pointed out by Nawab, the owner of the tyre treading shop in Kosi Kalan: "Kuch Musalman bhi uski surat dekh ke vote dega."