Kairana bypoll to the Lok Sabha is of great significance for both the BJP and the Opposition as it holds the key to understanding the mood in western UP prior to the 2019 general elections. Held in a highly competitive atmosphere, the election was marred by the malfunctioning of the VVPATs in 73 polling booths, where polling had to be held again on May 30. The SP-BSP-RLD-Congress pre-poll alliance has defeated the BJP by about 50,000 votes. Also, the final tally reveals that the victory of the alliance is more than just an outcome of electoral arithmetic, as in 2014 the combined vote tally of the alliance vote was 47.53 per cent while that of the BJP alone was 50.54 per cent. The victory of the SP in Noorpur adds strength to the victory of the alliance.
Arguably, it is too early to extrapolate from the election results what the success of the four-party alliance means for 2019. But there are some seminal issues that emerge from the results that require discussion. First, the victory of the four-party alliance led by the RLD does not mean that the Jats and Muslims have decided to forget the riots of September 2013 and the hostility they generated; the villages of Lisadh and Lak in Shamli district falling in Kairana constituency formed the epicentre of the killings. Also, the communal outlook among a large section of the younger generation of Jats, and the draw of the BJP’s new Jat leaders like Sanjeev Baliyan remains a social fact, despite a significant section of the community shifting away from the BJP.
Rather, it is the deepening agrarian crisis that is making the RLD and the alliance partners attractive, enabling the shift to ganna (sugarcane) from Jinnah (communal issues). In fact, the RLD, the inheritor of the political legacy of Charan Singh, had in the past lost the support of Muslims and a section of Jats due to Ajit Singh’s shift first towards the BJP and then the Congress, before returning to his parent party. While in 2014 the deepening agrarian crisis had rendered the Jats vulnerable to communal mobilisation, today the Jat, whose primary identity is that of a farmer, is angry over the non-payment of sugarcane arrears by the mills, which have run into crores making it difficult to even pay school fees and cover household expenses.
The BJP manifesto, prior to the assembly elections of 2017, had promised to resolve the arrears immediately on assuming power, but the Yogi Adityanath government has failed to do so. Also, there are many young Jats in jail with the Yogi Adityanath government unable to take back riot cases against them. In return, the Jats are prepared to forget the loans they claim to have given Muslims pursuing petty business who fled their villages during the Muzaffarnagar riots.
Second, the demography of Kairana constituency has favoured the coming together of four parties, which represent different castes/communities that have long had a support-base in the region. The alliance has prevented the division of votes among parties with similar support-bases. The constituency has more than 5 lakh Muslims, 2 lakh Dalits, 1.5 lakh Jats, 1.5 lakh Gujjars and OBCs and others making up about 2.5 to 3 lakh. The Muslims, keen to defeat the BJP, have found the combine of SP-BSP-Congress-RLD, attractive. However, according to our field study, it is the Dalits particularly Jatavs, under Mayawati’s directive, who have united to support the alliance; the chief of the Bhim Army issued a letter supporting the BSP from jail. The RLD candidate, Tabassum Hassan, is a Gujjar and not a Jat Muslim, and has been a BSP MP in the past, which makes her attractive to the Dalits. It is mainly the OBCs, particularly the Sainis and Kashyaps, who have supported the BJP, together with the upper and trading castes.
The BJP’s politics of uniting the Hindus, including the subalterns, does not seem to have worked in this election due to their disillusionment with the BJP’s failure in delivering on developmental promises and atrocities on Dalits in incidents such as in Saharanpur. However, Dalits do not constitute a monolith, and the possibility of the BJP obtaining support of some sections, using their strategy of Hindutva among the non-Jatav sections in the 2019 elections, remains a distinct possibility.
Third, the four-party alliance was modeled on the Gorakhpur/Phulpur alliance, but an important difference is the addition of the Congress party, which decided to support the RLD candidate. Fresh from its improved performance in Gujarat, the Congress had decided to fight the elections in eastern UP alone, but post-Karnataka it has realised that larger Opposition unity is required to counter the BJP. The eastern UP alliance was described by Mayawati as a “limited” alliance though both the SP and BSP had agreed that it would be repeated in future elections.
The formation of the four-party alliance can be viewed as the first step in building a federal, anti-BJP alliance for the 2019 elections. However, this is not an easy task given the ambitions, egos, different ideologies and agendas of various regional parties and their leaders, which have come to the fore already. What, however, does look possible, is a UP-level alliance between the SP, BSP, Congress, RLD and other smaller parties to limit the seats obtained by the BJP in the state. Such an alliance would require political leaders setting aside past differences, forging agreement on joint candidates on all seats in UP, a combined campaign using their cadres and a common minimum programme or agenda to lay before the electorate, which is a difficult, though perhaps not an impossible task.
Meanwhile, the important lesson that regional Opposition parties can take away from the victory in Kairana is that formation of similar, smaller alliances by regional/state parties at the level of individual states/regions might be more possible, and a far more effective method to keep the BJP in check.