Message from Kairana bypoll: Opposition unity works but social harmony may still be a far cry | Analysis

The Kairana election has brought back the RLD and given it some political space. The party will remain limited to its west UP pockets.
Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) candidate Tabassum Hasan with her supporters after winning the Kairana Lok Sabha by-elections, in Kairana on May 31, 2018. Hasan was also supported by the Congress, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party.(PTI)
Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) candidate Tabassum Hasan with her supporters after winning the Kairana Lok Sabha by-elections, in Kairana on May 31, 2018. Hasan was also supported by the Congress, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party.(PTI)
Updated on May 31, 2018 11:16 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By

With the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) winning the Kairana Lok Sabha by-election in Uttar Pradesh, the politics of the region may finally be entering a post-Muzaffarnagar phase.

To understand the meaning of the bypoll, it is crucial to go back five years.

As the Muzaffarnagar riots broke out in August-September 2013, there was a sense of shock in the then Civil Aviation Minister and RLD chief Ajit Singh’s house on Tughlak Road. As Jat villagers crowded around his lawns, the feedback Singh and his son, Jayant Chaudhary, were getting suggested the challenge that lay in store for the elections in 2014. It was becoming clear that Jats would never vote with Muslims; that the RLD had not stood up for Jat ‘honour’; and that there was a surge in support for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The riots, engendered by rumours, misunderstanding, sustained communal propaganda, and a lax administration perceived to be partisan, had generated a deep trust deficit between the communities of the region.

The subsequent results across western Uttar Pradesh reflected the mood. The RLD, a predominantly Jat party which relied on a social coalition of Jats and Muslims, was wiped out. The BJP began its resounding march in UP from the west, which is where elections were held first.

In 2017, as Chaudhary campaigned across the wide stretch of west UP, his challenge was the same: to get Jats back from the BJP to the RLD and to re-stitch a wider social coalition.

He campaigned against Narendra Modi’s failure to deliver on his promise; the injustice meted out to his grandfather, the former PM, Chaudhary Charan Singh, considered a political legend by Jats; and played on pride. He told Jats to recognise their own, and the party’s unofficial slogan was ‘instead of becoming the BJP’s poonch (tail), it is better to become the RLD’s moonch (pride)’.

There was an increase in RLD votes, but contrary to pre-poll reports, for the large part, Jats stayed with the BJP. The 2017 result was a replica of the 2014 outcome.

The RLD was now facing a real crisis to stay relevant. It was out of power at both the centre and the state. It had lost in both Lok Sabha and assembly elections. The father-son duo had lost its house in central Delhi — always a barometer of power and prestige in political circles. Their social base of Jats seemed to have moved away to the BJP. The party’s other constituency, Muslims, saw the RLD as a Jat party and preferred to stick to the Samajwadi Party (SP) or, in some cases, even go to the Bhaujan Samaj Party (BSP).

And that is why stepping into the Kairana bypolls of 2018, the stakes could not have been higher for the party.

The reversal

The Kairana elections were happening soon after the Gorakhpur and Phulpur bypolls in which the SP, backed by the BSP, managed to defeat the BJP.

After careful negotiations, the RLD joined this broad coalition. Its candidate was to be Tabassum Hasan, who was a leader of the SP till her candidature was announced. The BSP, sticking to the tradition of not fighting by-polls, would not put up a candidate. While Mayawati stayed away from making an explicit call to back the RLD, it was understood her support was to the anti-BJP candidate. The Congress refrained from putting up a candidate, after losing its deposit in both the earlier by-polls.

So here was the new experiment. If the BJP had Mriganka Singh — the daughter of the deceased MP, Hukum Singh — banking on the sympathy factor and the broad Hindu consolidation, on the other side, was the Jat-led party putting up a Muslim candidate, supported by all other formations.

Jayant Chaudhary led the campaign.

He was aware that the biggest risk for him was the BJP converting it into a ‘Hindu-Muslim’ election. When asked if putting up a Muslim candidate was a risk, he said:“It is time to bite the bullet. How long will we play on their turf?”

But the shadow of 2013 had not completely dissipated. Chaudhary and the RLD did not bring Hasan — the Muslim candidate — to the Jat areas and told Jats they must support the RLD as it was their party; that the BJP had betrayed them; and that they must vote for the RLD in memory of‘Chaudhary saheb’, a reference to Charan Singh. They raised livelihood concerns and Chaudhary spoke of how a search for Kairana on Google threw up riots. It was time to change its image. Jats seem to have returned to the party in substantial numbers.

Hasan, meanwhile, campaigned in Muslim areas,where not much convincing was required that the RLD was best positioned to defeat the BJP. To add to this was a section of the Dalit vote, which appears to have come because of Mayawati. The BJP was left with a narrower social coalition: Gujjars (the candidate’s caste); upper castes; and a section of the non-Jat OBCs.

By-election results
Voting was held on May 28 for four Lok Sabha and 10 assembly constituencies
Constituency Wins Held by
Kairana (Uttar Pradesh) RLD BJP
Palghar (Maharashtra) BJP BJP
Bhandara- Gondiya (Maharashtra) NCP BJP
Nagaland NDPP NPF
Constituency Wins Held by
Noorpur (Uttar Pradesh) SP BJP
Shahkot (Punjab) Congress SAD
Jokihat (Bihar) RJD JD(U)
Gomia (Jharkhand) JMM JMM
Silli (Jharkhand) JMM JMM
Chengannur (Kerala) CPI(M) CPI(M)
Palus Kadegaon (Maharashtra) Congress Congress
Ampati (Meghalaya) Congress Congress
Tharali (Uttarakhand) BJP BJP
Maheshtala (West Bengal) TMC TMC

What it means

The Kairana outcome offers significant takeaways.

For one, west UP is approaching a post Muzaffarnagar phase in politics in which Muslims and Jats are willing to vote for the same candidate. But it is important to remember that this does not necessarily mean that social harmony is back; that the trust deficit and political polarisation is over. The fact that the RLD did not actively advertise its Muslim candidate in Jat areas and the candidate did not actively advertise the party in Muslim areas is telling; as is the fact that Akhilesh Yadav did not come out to campaign calculating that this could aid communal polarisation (he was CM when riots happened, and Jats view the SP with suspicion). Clearly, there persists a major gap between communities.

Two, pure arithmetic works. A fragmented opposition helped BJP. A united opposition has created a severe political challenge, by stitching together unlikely social coalitions and consolidating votes. PM Narendra Modi spoke in Baghpat, a day before the polls, and indirectly addressed issues related to the Kairana electorate, but the power of local arithmetic overwhelmed it. When voters press the button in general elections, however, their motivations may be different. Amit Shah is well aware of this challenge and has spoken of the need to get 50% of the vote share in UP, but this will probably be his biggest challenge in 2019.

And finally, the Kairana election has highlighted the return of the RLD and given it some political space. The party will remain limited to its west UP pockets. It will be a marginal player in the border alliance in Uttar Pradesh, but from almost becoming irrelevant, it has shown that it retains the support of an important social group. This election also signals a generational shift in the party with Jayant Chaudhary now firmly in command.

UP’s 80 seats are up for grabs in 2019. The Kairana election has truly opened up in India’s most politically influential state.


    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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