Results for elections in 11 assembly constituencies in nine states and four Lok Sabha seats were declared on Thursday, but the most significant outcome is in Kairana in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP lost to a combined Opposition. Overall, the BJP has fared poorly in this round of bypolls, winning just one assembly seat and losing two Lok Sabha seats that it held so far. But the Kairana defeat will resonate, and may have implications beyond the constituency. UP is crucial to the BJP’s plans to retain power in 2019. The loss of Kairana, weeks after losing the Gorakhpur and Phulpur LS seats represented by UP chief minister Adityanath and his deputy, Keshav Prasad Maurya, respectively, sends the BJP a message it cannot afford to ignore or be complacent about: Opposition parties are determined to set aside their differences and animosities and forge a united front against it.
To be sure, a single bypoll result cannot be taken to indicate regional or national voting behaviour. Local factors, the choice of candidate, constituency-specific economic factors, chemistry of allies, alignment and movement of elites etc, influence outcomes. Yet, Kairana may call for closer scrutiny. Unlike in Karnataka, where parties that finished behind the BJP stitched together a post-poll alliance to gain office, the Opposition had carefully charted its strategy ahead of this UP bypoll and ensured that the anti-BJP votes did not splinter. It knew that the stakes are high — a large part of the BJP’s success in 2014 was due to its performance in UP, where it won a record 71 of 80 seats. The Opposition strategy in Kairana was premised on rebuilding a social coalition of two communities, the Jats and Muslims, at the centre of the communal polarisation that has determined electoral politics in western UP since 2013 to the BJP’s advantage — the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), a party identified with the Jats, fielded a Muslim woman as its candidate. The RLD, supported by the SP and the Congress and unopposed by the BSP, also focused on agrarian distress in its campaign. It highlighted the plight of sugarcane farmers, who have demanded better prices and payment of arrears — a sugarcane farmer committed suicide days before polling.
Yet, the Opposition has its task cut out if it wishes to replicate its recent successes in UP at a national level. It still does not have a shared story to tell, to counter the BJP narrative. Prominent regional leaders, for instance, Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal whose Trinamool Congress emphatically won yet another election on Thursday, Naveen Patnaik in Odisha, K Chandrasekhara Rao in Telangana, may also be cautious about endorsing a national Opposition alliance that cannot guarantee their pre-eminence. Kairana shows that it is possible for a united Opposition to blunt the BJP’s edge but it still requires the hard labour of politics.