Ajit Singh makes crafty moves

Last September, after the Muzaffarnagar riots, political pundits were busy predicting a rough road ahead for Ajit Singh and his Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) in his stronghold -- the sugar belt of western Uttar Pradesh.

The Lok Sabha elections were seven months away but his relationship with Jats and Muslims, a combine whom his father Charan Singh had craftily woven, were in shatters. Muslims felt Ajit Singh did nothing to rein in Jats. Jats felt the same - he did nothing for the community. For political experts, Ajit has no option but to bite the dust in the Lok Sabha elections. The gainers, they believed, were BJP and BSP with saffron party mobilising Jat votes and a Hindu consolidation and Mayawati herding Muslim votes to her party.

But the 75-year-old Singh, who was pushed into the hurly burly of Janata politics in the mid-1980s after his father fell ill, seems to have outwitted his opponents, at least on paper by signing in Rakesh Tikait, the influential Jat leader and son of late farmers’ leader Mahendra Singh Tikait, to fight elections on RLD ticket. Ajit Singh managed to convince the Jr Tikait to spurn advances of BJP, which believes is riding the Modi wave to oust UPA in Delhi. He also accepted Amar Singh, a man for all political seasons, and his colleague and filmstar Jayaprada to fight the polls.

Ajit had been struggling hard to keep his party's relevance in his stronghold, which was built by Charan Singh through deft electoral combination. Though Muslims drifted away from Ajit, the Jats had been loyal to the RLD leader. But the riots appeared to have changed the electoral arithmetic with angry Jats openly voicing support for BJP. Muslims, who were staunch supporters of Mulayam Singh Yadav, were angry at the way the Samajwadi Party government handled the situation. The view was that Muslims might go with Congress or BSP.

Tikait's candidature under RLD ticket is very much important for him as it sends a message to the community where their leader stands. It will unambiguously send a message that the Jat leadership is not in truck with the BJP. Tikait has been critical of RLD post-riots and had supported BJP. The BJP leaders had used the 'Mahapanchayat' organised by Tikait, which led to further problems in Muzaffarnagar. With Tikait now aligning with RLD and contesting from Amroha, the RLD believes that they have minimised the vote loss.

The move of Tikait has come as a surprise for BJP, which was aiming to further its chances in Uttar Pradesh, which holds key to form the next government. But BJP leaders believe that Jats would not forget UP and central government's response to the riots and will not desert it. With Tikait in and UPA clearing reservation for Jats in government jobs, Ajit Singh believes that he could remain a force to reckon with. The clearance of Jat reservation is learnt to have played a role in Tikait firming up his decision to join RLD.

Also, Tikait's elder brother Naresh Tikait is the head of Baliyan khap, influential in western UP, and his support could make a big difference to RLD.

If Tikait was an unexpected masterstroke by Singh, the RLD chief helped Amar Singh and his confidante Jayaprada end their political wilderness by admitting them in the party and offering seats to them in the Lok Sabha seats. How could  Amar Singh manage to do that when Congress was hesitant in admitting him in? How did he convince a Congress ally to admit him?

The answer may lie in the utility of Amar Singh as a political networker. The former SP leader has never allowed himself to be pushed to oblivion though he did not have a platform. He always tried to remain relevant despite his failing health. With Muzaffarnagar riots opening up a front against his party, Ajit Singh chose to embrace Amar and Tikait. Ajit Singh may get very less seats but his political acumen will help him remain relevant during the formation of next government.

WARNING: In September last year, when everybody was keen to write the political obituary of RLD, a senior magazine journalist warned: “Lok Sabha elections are seven months ago and do not dare to write off Ajit Singh. Wait for his next move and see how he tries to lure Muslim votes.” Six months later, Ajit Singh has made a positive headway at least on paper. 

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