NEW DELHI: “We will bury the Bharatiya Janata Party in Muzaffarnagar in these elections, the very district it used to create riots to divide voters in western Uttar Pradesh,” asserts Rashtriya Lok Dal chief Ajit Singh at his New Delhi residence. His son Jayant Chaudhary stops by for a quick hello as he is rushing to campaign in the family’s traditional seat Baghpat -- so secured by kisan leader and his grandfather Charan Singh -- from which he is now contesting the parliamentary elections.

Ajit Singh, who has just crossed 80 years, has shifted to Muzaffarnagar, a tricky seat and as he admits a little more so now after Balakot that the BJP is cashing in on. The RLD is in coalition with the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, and has a good relationship with the Congress party as well. But he is certain he will wrest this Lok Sabha seat from the BJP, which came to power in the last Lok Sabha polls for the first time since 1998, following the violence in the district that pitted Jats against Muslims. And broke a combination that had proved almost fatal for the BJP in this belt.

Interestingly, the RLD and Ajit Singh played a major role in cementing fractured ties between the two communities that was evident in the Kairana bypoll where its candidate Tabassum Hasan won with the support of the BSP and SP in what was the first opposition ‘experiment’ in unity. The BJP had won this seat in 2014, with the byelection necessitated by BJP MP Hukum Singh’s death.

Ajit Singh visited ten districts in UP on his 79th birthday before the Kairana bypoll, spending a night or two in each, to persuade the Jats and the Muslims to come together. And not be victim to divisive politics. “Your politics will be finished” he told them, pointing out that they were able to determine the course of events only by voting together. “They listened,” he says, and the results were evident in Kairana.

Muzaffarnagar of course, is different as it bore the brunt of not just violence but an intense campaign of polarisation and hate. Sources said headway had been made in bringing communities together, and more so back onto the RLD platform. But the impact of the Balakot blitz on the Jats in particular is not being ruled out by local politicians. However, this is on the wane and Singh is optimistic that with a consistent campaign this effect will subside further.

In 2009 the Bahujan Samaj Party had secured this seat with almost 37% of the votes. The RLD was second with 34.2% votes. In the 2014 elections, the BJP swept with almost 60% of the vote share, with the BSP a low second with 22.8%. Even so the BSP's Dalit base clearly remained intact and this is expected to boost the grand alliance in the coming polls.

Interestingly Muzaffarnagar in western UP -- which remains a target area for the Yogi Adityanath government, and is thus kept simmering -- was a keen constituency till 2009 for what is now the opposition grand alliance. Together the BSP, RLD, SP and Congress had accounted for almost the entire vote. But from 2013 onwards communal violence managed to shift a good chunk -- 58.98% to be exact -- of the vote share to the BJP.

The Jat vote thus, remains crucial for Ajit Singh and the grand alliance. A lot will depend on the extent to which the RLD leader, who still has a hold on sections of this vote, is able to convince the community to vote for issues concerning their livelihood and well being. Joblessness and agrarian distress had come to dominate the rural hinterland, but the consolidation of the Jat community is again being impacted by Pulwama and Balakot. “We have to go back and campaign on the issues,” RLD leaders said, “and convince the voters that Balakot will not feed their families.”

Sugarcane prices, and the destruction of fields by stray cattle that has grown to enormous proportions in the past few years continue to disturb the Jats, the dominant farming community in western UP. “The cows will eat the BJP in western UP,” Singh said.

However on the flip side, Muzaffarnagar’s largest khap is of the Balyan community and the BJP’s sitting MP is Dr Sanjeev Kumar Balyan from the same. The RLD is not particularly worried about this, looking at a consolidation of the earlier fractured Opposition votes as the possibly winning combination. More so if the Dalits, Yadavs and Muslims respond to the respective leaders and join the Jats to vote for Ajit Singh.

Apart from Muzaffarnagar and Baghpat, the third seat allocated to the RLD is Mathura where the BJP has been hyper active. The RLD has still not decided on a candidate with the search on for a person who can cut into the formidable 50%-plus upper caste vote in this Lok Sabha constituency, and yet attract the Jats and other communities.

For the BJP Mathura is a prestigious seat won by Hema Malini who defeated sitting RLD MP Jayant Chaudhary in 2014, securing 53.3% of the votes. The RLD secured 22.6% of the votes, as against its 52.3% vote share in the 2009 parliamentary elections. At that time the BJP was not even in the reckoning, having last won Mathura in 1999.