Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) chief and civilaviation minister Ajit Singh has lost just one election in his 28-year-old political career, which he embarked upon in 1986 after returning from the United States where he worked for a decade and ahalf.
But the echoes of 1998 are haunting the74-year-old former computer engineer, who is perhaps facing his toughest electoral challenge in his fiefdom of Baghpat in western Uttar Pradesh; Baghpat will go to polls on April 10, kicking off the first phase of voting in Uttar Pradesh.
The Jat leader is in a catch-22 situation as his committed Jat-Muslim vote bank stands divided due tothe Muzaffarnagar riots. Jats and Muslims make up the bulk of Baghpat's population. The Jat-Muslim combination was first evolved byAjit's father, former prime minister late Chaudhry Charan Singh, atowering socialist leader known as the "farmers' messiah". The Union minister failed to visit Muzaffarnagar nor did he speak on the issue for a long time after the west UP riots in September last year,which claimed 43 lives. Farmers in western UP are also disgruntledover sugarcane price arrears of over Rs 2,000 crore, an issue that farmers feel Ajit and the RLD should have done more about than justissuing political statements.
Besides, he is in for a stiff fight against the BJP candidate Satyapal Singh, also a Jat. After abrilliant career in the police, the 58-year-old former Mumbai police commissioner too is after the Jat-Muslim vote bank. "Where was Ajit Singh when Jats and Muslims were dying in the riots in Muzaffarnagar," the Meerut native keeps asking at public meetings and rallies.
"What has he (Ajit Singh) done? Baghpat is the most undeveloped part of NCR. Roads are bad. There isno industry and hardly any employment opportunities. The area has become insecure and unsafe," Satyapal told dna. "I am a cop. Ilike challenges. This is the place where I was born and brought upin. It is in a bad shape now. It's a cop's job to create order out of chaos. I am here to do that. I will win," he said.
Ajit responded tersely to Satyapal's remarks. "The Samajwadi Party and the BJP engineered the riots inwest UP to reap an electoral harvest. The timing of the riot just before the election makes their intentions very clear. The SP and the BJP want to polarise the election on Hindu-Muslim lines. But the irshenanigans will never succeed here. Jats and Muslims have always lived like brothers in this region. They have seen through the conspiracy."
Political analysts feel that Satyapal's campaign, which banks completely on the much-hyped "NaMo wave",may steer Ajit to another electoral success as the Modi chant coulddrive the Muslims towards the RLD leader. They say that ultimately even Jats may vote en masse for "Chaudhry ka beta" (CharanSingh's son).
Senior journalist Pradeep Kapoor pointsout another factor that could work in Ajit's favour. "Ajit Singhcan rightfully claim all the credit for getting reservation for Jatsas OBCs. This will benefit not only Hindu, but also Muslim Jats,"said Kapoor.
Besides, to Ajit also goes the credit for putting forth the idea of a 'Harit Pradesh' which involvescarving out a separate state of 22 western UP districts. Though this movement only reflected Ajit's chief ministerial ambitions, his critics cannot deny the role he has played in giving west UP anidentity of its own.
Ajit has been a crucial player in UP politics. His astuteness is apparent by the fact he has rarely shiedfrom allying with parties on opposite extremes as long as thealliance serves his interest. For instance, RLD has supported the BSP regime as well as the latter's staunch rival, SP's government in thestate, and later withdrawn support from both.
He began his political journey as Lok Dal president, then merged his party with the Janata Party and becameits president in 1988. He then merged this party with the Congress.Singh formed the RLD in 1999.
Ajit first held a cabinet berth justthree years after joining politics, when he served as industry minister in the VP Singh government in 1989. In 1995, he got the food portfolio in prime minister Narasimha Rao's cabinet. His third stintas cabinet minister was in the BJP-led NDA government when he becamethe agriculture minister in July 2001.
Know your neta
Ajit Singh is an IIT-Kharagpur alumnus
After IIT, he went to IllinoisInstitute of Technology, Chicago
He worked for 15 years as a compute rengineer in the US
Ajit returned to India in 1986 to join politics
He has won the Lok Sabha elections six times, the first one in 1989
Jats: 4 lakh
Muslims: 3.5 lakh
Dalits: 2 lakh
Brahmins: 1.25 lakh