The alliance of nearly all parties against the BJP won both the Uttar Pradesh by-elections in Kairana and Noorpur. The turnout in both seats was tepid (54 per cent), even though the 73 booths that went for repoll in Kairana — after yet another EVM controversy — registered 61 per cent participation, closer to the recent state average. In Noorpur, SP candidate, Naeem-ul-Hasan, obtained 50 per cent of the votes, against 47 per cent for the BJP contender. In Kairana, Tabassum Begum defeated her opponent, Mriganka Singh, by a margin of 44,618 votes.
These two defeats of the BJP follow the loss of Gorakhpur and Phulpur last March, confirming that the BJP is in a position of weakness when challenged by a united opposition. As this column has argued before, bypolls do not have a predictive value for the following state or general election. They do, however, have the value of being a test of the current strength of political parties — particularly the relevance of the SP-BSP alliance — and a symbolic value, in this case, in three distinct ways.
First, Western UP has been in recent years the BJP’s most solid stronghold in Uttar Pradesh, and the laboratory for violent Hindutva politics. These byelections show that while social polarisation strategies have long-term societal impact, their political impact in the short run can be countered by simple electoral arithmetic.
The second symbol lies in the enactment of a broad anti-BJP alliance. This time, the Congress and RLD joined the SP-BSP alliance, the banner under which the campaign was fought in Kairana. Both byelections express the resolve of Opposition parties to make compromises in order to defeat the BJP.
The third symbol is that three of the four main parties’ candidates in both seats were women, an occurrence rare enough to deserve mention, and a testimony to the prevalence of dynastic politics in this part of the state.
But while symbols matter, they do not provide an explanation for the outcome. As in every byelection, local factors played a crucial role, in at least three ways.
First, both bypolls took place in districts where the parties’ organisations are notoriously weak, the local political scene being dominated by a small number of influential political families. In Kairana, the alliance candidate, Tabassum Begum, belongs to the Hasan dynasty, a family that has been part of Kairana politics for three generations. She is the widow of the family’s patriarch, Munawar Hasan, a former Kairana MLA and Muzaffarnagar MP, who died in 2008 in a car accident. Her son, Nahid, is the local MLA, elected first in 2014, again in a by-election. Her opponent, Mriganka Singh, is the daughter of Hukum Singh, seven-time MLA and late incumbent of the Kairana parliamentary seat. Both families have controlled local politics since at least the mid-1980s and their respective members — brothers, sisters and nephews — have contested under every available mainstream party ticket. Apart from state- and national-level politics, both families are also heavily invested in local institutions in Shamli district.
In Noorpur, the BJP fielded first-time contestant, Avani Singh, widow of the late Lokendra Singh, who twice became MLA from this seat. She was opposed by Naeem-ul Hasan, another first-time contestant, former national president of the SP’s youth wing.
Secondly, as always in UP, caste alignments played a determining role. The BJP’s victory in 2014 and 2017 in Western UP was based on the division of a historic Muslim-Jat alliance, consolidated in the 1970s by Chaudhary Charan Singh. The fact that the anti-BJP alliance chose to field a candidate on an RLD ticket, and Ajit Singh and his son Jayant led a relentless village-to-village campaign, helped split the Jat community, which in 2017 had largely stayed with the BJP. Further, the support of local Jat leaders, such as the Congress’ Pankaj Malik, helped the RLD to strengthen its position within its core electoral base.
The alliance garnered the support of various groups that had previously voted disparately. The four-party alliance brought together substantial shares of the votes from Dalits, Muslims, Jats and Kashyaps, as well as some Gujjars in Kairana. Bringing in the Congress helped avoid split-voting between various Muslim candidates, which often clears the way for the BJP. Many prominent local Gujjar families, such as the Chaudharys in Titron, the Chauhans in Jasala, opposed to the domination that Hukum Singh’s family — also Gujjar — has exerted in the community, pledged their support to the alliance. Similarly, Kiranpal Kashyap, a former BSP MLA, mobilised for the alliance among the Jatavs and his own community.
As a result, the BJP seems to be left with a shrinking social base, composed essentially of upper castes (Banias, Rajputs and Brahmins, concentrated in the urban segments of these constituencies), the Gujjars faithful to Hukum Singh’s family and legacy, and some local groups, such as the Sainis, mobilised by Dharam Singh Saini, the BJP MLA from Nakur. Between 2014 and 2018, the BJP lost 1.3 lakh votes (without factoring in the difference in turnout).
The third factor lies in UP being an agrarian economy and the enormous distress in a sub-region that relies on crops such as sugarcane, whose prices are determined by the state. The issue of pending payment of dues on sugarcane weighed heavily on the electoral choices of the landed peasantry.
These local factors played against the national narrative. What seems an ideological battle between the BJP and the rest is in fact an accumulation of local factors in which dynastic politics and elite alignments constitute the cornerstone. Even the BJP cannot escape the trap of local politics in Western UP. While it successfully played the local game in 2014 and 2017, a similar strategy could not contain a united opposition.
Is the script of defeat written for the BJP in 2019 in Uttar Pradesh? Not quite. As in Gorakhpur and Phulpur, local factors preside over these kinds of elections. Basic arithmetic is in favour of the Opposition, but as the 2019 election approaches, national factors will resurface, a space in which the BJP retains a clear advantage over its opponents, who are yet to put programmatic content in the alliance they are forming.