India stray cattle elections
In this photograph Indian cow caretakers close the gate of a temporary shelter for cows (File) Image Credit: AFP

A large factor looms over the big fight of the Uttar Pradesh elections in India and it’s not even human. Variously described as “Bada maveshi” (big animal) or “saand”, it is the holy cow.

Herds of feral cattle roam around the villages of rural UP and destroy crops. In places the cow menace is so pervasive that farmers patrol their land all night and keep a watch that cows don’t destroy the sown crop.

Wondering why the situation has come to this pass?

A cow is a valuable economic asset in rural India but, after it stops giving milk, it becomes an economic liability to the farmer who owns it.

The earlier chain of the economy of the dairy animal has been broken with the UP government’s crackdown on abattoirs and the leather industry and a ban on cattle slaughter.

The few “Gau shalas” (cow shelters) are overrun with cattle. Those running them are unable to cope. Old and ill cattle die gruesome deaths every day and even disposing of the carcasses is a huge problem.

An ominous silence

The state governments where this problem exist are aware of the anger and unrest caused by its cow protection crusade and top leaders including Prime Minister, Narendra Modi and UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath have tried to address the issue in public meetings saying that after the cattle stops giving milk, the farmers can benefit in others ways. Every time the issue is addressed by the BJP’s senior leaders, an ominous silence grips the crowd.

Muslims and Dalits who traditionally worked in the leather industries are today helpless — made more so in the hyper Hindutva atmosphere.

The huge herds of cows now have no human fear and roam widely for food — destroying valuable crops.

Spend even a day in rural UP and you will sense what a huge issue the feral cow has become. Even BJP voters are mutinous saying sotto-voce that the BJP government has not thought through the cattle decision.

Says a farmer, “Baba — as Yogi Adityanath is universally addressed — is a holy man. He can worship the cow in his huge palace in Gorakhpur. We are very small people. These cows which roam all over. We also want to protect cows but, not at the cost of children going without food.”

The opposition, primarily Akhilesh Yadav, chief of the Samajwadi Party, has realised the resonance of the cattle menace as an election issue and burnished his Yadav credentials.

Yadavs in Indian mythology took care of cattle. And, Yadav assures voters that he if they pitch for him he will soon solve the problem.

Terrible ripple down effect

The attack on Mohammed Akhlaq, 52, in Dadri in UP in September 2015 — killing him on suspicion of carrying beef — set off a trend of vigilante lynchings that still continues.

After Yogi Adityanath shut down abattoirs on health grounds across UP, they were not allowed to reopen and no new ones were allowed.

This had a terrible ripple down effect on the entire cattle economy. Today being caught in UP with a cow even if you are transporting it could mean a public beating or worse.

Yogi Adityanath has brought in the UP Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act which prohibits the slaughter of cows and their progeny in the state with punishment up to ten years in jail and a fine of ₹ five lakhs. Other BJP ruled states have copied the UP model with similar laws.

So how will the cattle impact the BJP’s electoral fortunes? While the farmers are angry they still feel that the BJP is only doing what it promised and that Yogi Adityanath has a heart felt belief to protect cows. Yogi’s religious credentials impress a very credulous lot.

While Muslims feel estranged, the Dalits who have lost their traditional occupations are somewhat placated with the welfare measures such as free rations done by the government.

Another factor is the Mayawati fade out and her connivance with the BJP. The Dalits feel that Mayawati has abandoned them and are unsure who to turn to.

Normally the SP would benefit but, the Dalits and Yadavs have an adversarial relationship in villages.

UP election results are going to be both complicated and interesting.