"Chunav mein mazaa aa raha hai. Humne sab ki khaat khadi kar di hai (I'm enjoying these elections. We've put everyone in a spot of bother)."
This is what Jayant Chaudhary, the young general secretary of the Rashtriya Lok Dal, tells an impressive crowd which has gathered to listen to him in Chandpur, Bijnor, a constituency which falls in the sugarcane belt of western UP.
The region has a sizeable population of the Jats, which form the core vote bank of the RLD.
Traditionally, the party would manage to win a few seats in this region. But in 2014, it drew a blank in the Lok Sabha elections, which were swept by the BJP especially after the Muzaffarnagar riots, which broke the way the region was known to vote.
However, with the Modi wave fading, Jayant is confident that the traditional voters are coming back to the RLD's fold.
Catch observed him on the campaign trail in Bareilly, Pilibhit and Bijnor on 11 February, the day of the first phase of the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. The first two districts are not known to have a sizeable RLD presence. But the party has still fielded candidates here and in other many other constituencies. "It will add to the confidence of our workers," Jayant says.
He claims the results of the first phase, in particular, will throw up a big surprise for all those who had written off the RLD. Excerpts from the conversation:
This is being seen as a make-or-break election for you. How do you think you'll fare?
It is an important election for the state. We need to give it a new direction. It is a laggard state today on all developmental indices. Any social development statistic you look at, UP is among the last three or four states in the country, so that makes it an important election.
It's also important because the way communal hatred was foisted on our people before the last Lok Sabha elections. This is also a test to see how far people have come from that.
My sense is that people are ready to forgive and forget and move on, and I think the results will show that.
After the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance left you out, there were rumours that BJP did the same, even asking you to merge with it. There was speculation that your party may draw a blank...
First, we never approached the BJP for an alliance. We have been the most vocal critic of BJP's anti-farmer policies and its communal agenda.
In fact, both the SP and the BSP may not speak with the same honesty and courage on these issues as we have.
And the reason is perhaps Yadav Singh and several such files and cases pending with the Central agencies against both these parties, the corrupt practices of the leaders of these outfits.
We, on the other hand, have no baggage, and have been openly talking on these issues.
The BJP was never a question. Yes, we have been making attempts to forge a opposition unity at a national level against the moves of the Central government. We got people together on several platforms. It was presumed by the media that we were part of the SP-Congress alliance negotiations.
What are you trying to imply?
For an alliance, you need to have a meeting of minds, to talk about issues and not just seats. We were not looking at an electoral adjustment. What SP-Congress have at the moment looks more like an electoral seat adjustment rather than an alliance.
Because the conversation between the SP and us never progressed to that level, it was not likely that we could have participated together in the elections.
Was CM Akhilesh Yadav not keen on it?
The conversation never got to that point.
There are reports that the Jats are coming back to the RLD. Are you also seeing this on the ground?
I am not a voice for the Jats, but my sense is that all farmer communities are angry with the BJP. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, BJP got the youth vote, the women vote, the farmer vote, every political constituency was ravaged. Every traditional vote bank was diminished.
This time, you will see that the RLD's traditional vote bank has come back in large numbers.
How far is demonetisation responsible for this anger?
It is because people were expecting some direct relief. People were very patient for those two months after they lost everything, especially small farmers, who were growing horticulture crops - you can't just tell them to let go of one of their crops. For many families, it led to the waste of one whole year of work.
The lack of liquidity has affected small traders, it has affected entrepreneurs, small businesses that are a vital part of the rural ecosystem. So, people were expecting some direct relief after such a drastic step.
The Budget failed to deliver on that promise. The PM said things will come back to normal after 50 days. We are nearing 100 days now, and there is still no liquidity in the system.
By direct relief, are you suggesting a farm loan waiver?
We were principal votaries for some sort of a farm loan waiver scheme for farmers after the note ban. In December, we called the Opposition parties together and staged a protest at Jantar Mantar, where farmers demanded a loan waiver. The Central government has not taken that seriously.
Finally, how do you look at the BJP's promise of a Chaudhary Charan Singh Ganna Kisan Bhugtan Yojna?
It is a ridiculous plan. It shows how there is complete lack of application of mind on these issues, how far away the BJP is from the ground, and how little it understands farmers.
What it is proposing is that the state government will bear the interest payment if the payment is delayed by the sugar mill owners. There is already a law that after 14 days, if the mill fails to pay, the interest is due to the farmers.
So, the BJP is offering nothing new, and by saying that the state government exchequer will pay the interest, it is planning to give relief to the mill owners, and not to the farmers. It will incentivise mill owners to not pay within the stipulated 14-day time period.