Amid fields of ripening wheat and tractor trolleys carting loads of freshly-cut sugar cane to the mills, the road to Muzaffarnagar 120 km northeast of Delhi is a smooth highway drive, presenting a picture of peace and plenty. Just under the surface, though, there is a political churn taking place in 10 constituencies, the prosperous Jat heartland of western Uttar Pradesh, that go to the polls on Thursday.
The after-effects of last September’s communal conflagration that left 60 dead, the majority of them Muslims, and about 27,000 displaced from their homes to makeshift camps, has intensified the Jat-Muslim divide. It has deepened the Hindu-Muslim chasm to upturn conventional caste loyalties and party affiliations. If there is a 'Modi wave' anywhere in UP, it is strongly visible here.
Muzaffarnagar's district magistrate Kaushal Raj Sharma, is taking no chances. He has ordered 40 companies of paramilitary troops and organised 300 mobile polling booths for the 12,000 remaining Muslims in camps.
The most sought-after figure in Muzaffarnagar is Sanjeev Baliyan, a 42-year-old Jat with a PhD in veterinary anatomy, who makes his political debut as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate. His cavalcade of SUVs and trolleys, brimming with supporters wearing 'Vote for Modi' caps, is mobbed as it steams into the market town of Shahpur, where some of the worst violence took place.
Baliyan was one of the 350 arrested by Akhilesh Yadav's Samajwadi Party government for allegedly stoking the fires; today, he denies any part in it.
"There is no ill-feeling among Hindus and Muslims," he asserts, dwelling instead on the hardships faced by sugar cane farmers: low prices set by government, delayed payments, severe power shortages and crumbling roads.
Others on Shahpur's main street are in a less conciliatory mood. Pramod Kumar, ex-pradhan of Garhi Bahadurpur village, says there are three factors that dominate this election - Jat, Hindu and Modi.
"Hum nahin bhool sakte ke hamari behenon aur betiyon ki izzat ka sawal hai. (We cannot forget that it’s a question of preserving the honour of our sisters and daughters.)"
Sanjay Aggarwal, a retailer whose shop is stacked high with washing machines, refrigerators and TV sets, has other complaints: Sales are poor because no one has ready cash. "What do you expect if mills don't pay sugar cane farmers for a year? We hope Modi will save us."
In a bleak stretch of no-man's-land between the market and lush fields, ironically known as 'Islamabad', are about 1,500 Muslims huddled in tents of canvas and plastic sheets, with no running water or sewage. Anger is being vented loudly. They are too scared to return to their homes in Kakra and Kutba villages.
"Will we go back to have our heads cut off?" asks Salim, a college student. "They have looted our possessions and ransacked our homes."
Yes, admits Islam, a farm labourer, they did receive Rs 5 lakh as compensation per family but it wasn't enough. "Yeh sarkar naalaiq hai, hamari hafeez nahin hai. (This government is useless and not our protector)."
Asked who they will vote for, Abbas, an elderly cleric who runs the madrasa, diplomatically says they are awaiting orders from the hazrat of Deoband.
About 33 per cent of Muzaffarnagar's population is Muslim, the rest divided equally among Jats, Banias and Dalits. The only Muslim contestant is the Bahujan Samaj Party's Qadir Rana, a wealthy but media-shy steel factory owner who is the sitting MP.
In a deeply polarised constituency - whose rippling effect is likely to percolate to neighbouring districts of Meerut, Saharanpur, Bijnor and Kairana - the tremors are felt 50 km southwest in Baghpat, the Jat family pocketborough of Union aviation minister Ajit Singh.
The juiciest story in town is that when his daughter-in-law Charu went there to campaign, the women showered her with currency notes. "Bahu, take this for muh-dikhayi (blessings) but don't ask us who we'll vote for."
Muzaffarnagar's simmering cauldron has dramatically shifted alliances of caste and community. Teg Bahadur Saini, the Congress' district head, sums it up aptly: "People now think if your cow doesn't give milk, all you need is to utter the magic mantra of Modi."