Kairana/Palghar: After blowing through Karnataka, the winds of opposition unity appear to have gathered momentum in the politically critical states of UP and Maharashtra.
- BJP loses to opposition unity in UP by-polls, saves face in Maharashtra
- Opposition parties came together to pitch candidates against BJP
- United opposition could dent PM Modi's plans for re-election next year
In the by-election to the Kairana Lok Sabha constituency in western UP, Tabassum Hasan of the Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), backed by Akhilesh Yadav's Samajwadi Party, Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Congress, defeated the BJP's Mriganka Singh by a margin of over 50,000 votes. In Noorpur, which was electing a new representative to the legislative assembly, it was the SP candidate who wrested the seat from the BJP (Both seats had fallen vacant after the death of BJP lawmakers).
The wins in Kairana and Noorpur come on the back of the Gorakhpur and Phulpur by-elections in March, in which the SP and BSP set aside decades of bitter political rivalry to oust the BJP from its strongholds represented by UP chief minister and Hindutva icon Yogi Adityanath and his deputy Keshav Prasad Maurya. In Kairana, Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati went a step further when they chose to support a third-party candidate from Ajit Singh's RLD, and once again harvested rich dividends.
"When Hukum Singh of the BJP won Kairana in 2014, his victory margin of 2.30 lakh votes was more than the combined votes of the SP, BSP and RLD. Four years later, his daughter's loss proves that if the opposition parties fight together and are not against each other, they could control India's most crucial political landscape in 2019," RLD vice-president Jayant Chaudhury told cheering supporters as the results came in.
For Ajit Singh, the Kairana win marks a cautious return to the party of the Jats, the dominant agricultural community in the region and their key supporters. A majority of Kairana's 1.5 lakh Jats had switched loyalties to the BJP in the last general elections after communal violence in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts in 2013 killed at least 60 people, mainly Muslims.
Kairana, which has a population of 16 lakhs and is located in the Shamli district, was one of the worst-affected areas.
With Tabassum Hasan's win, the RLD believes it has successfully buried the ghost of the riots and struck a blow to the BJP's Hindutva brand of politics. "This win would not have been possible if Jats and Muslims, who form nearly half the population in Kairana, had not voted together," Tabassum Hasan told the media after her victory.
"They were helped by the widespread anger among sugarcane farmers over non-payment of their dues by the sugar mills running into crores of rupees, the failure to create jobs promised by PM Modi, which has reignited the Jat demand for reservations, and no relief from the hundreds of cases filed against the community during the 2013 violence,'' says Vijender Chowdhury, a landlord in Phugana village dominated by Jats.
But an equally important, more silent role in Tabassum Hasan's victory was played by Kairana's 2.5 lakh Dalits who in 2014 had also voted for the BJP. "The spike in atrocities against the scheduled castes since Yogi Adityanath became Chief Minister last year, the continued incarceration of Bhim Army leader Chandrashekar in jail, the desecration of Ambedkar statues across the state, have angered the community.
"How did the BJP think it was going to get our votes," asks Neetu Singh a Bhim Army activist in Shamli. "We are elated that a united opposition, in which Mayawati-ji plays a decisive role, has triumphed over the divisive politics of the BJP".
The other crucial cross-border test for opposition unity played out in the Bhandara-Gondiya parliamentary constituency in the north-eastern part of Maharashtra where Madhukar Kukde of the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) defeated his BJP rival. Mr Kukde was backed by the Congress after the two parties, who had a bitter falling out before the 2014 assembly elections over seat sharing - they won just 81 of the 288 seats in the Maharashtra assembly - tied up once again in February to take on the BJP ahead of 2019.
The Bhandara-Gondiya seat fell vacant after BJP lawmaker Nana Patole quit the party last year and joined the Congress in protest against the "failure of Narendra Modi and Devendra Fadnavis to address farmers' issues". The constituency, which shares its borders with Madhya Pradesh, has traditionally been a stronghold of the NCP leader and Rajya Sabha member Praful Patel who had notched up four victories from here before his defeat to Patole by over 1.5 lakh votes in the Modi wave of 2014.
"The farmer issue was just an excuse. Patole believed that in 2019, he was going to be replaced by Praful Patel, who had been cosying up to the BJP, as the party's candidate. So, he decided to make a hurried exit," Nalin Jadhav, a retired government employee and resident of Gondiya told NDTV. But once Sharad Pawar decided to revisit the NCP's alliance with the Congress, all talk of collaborating with "more winnable partners" ended and much of the burden of campaigning on his home turf fell on Praful Patel.
"This is a victory for Praful Patel and a huge setback for PM Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, in whose name the BJP campaigned. Since Patole had been publicly critical of PM Modi, calling him 'anti-farmer', it was important for the BJP to win here as proof that farmers still support the party, obviously they don't," a local BJP leader who did not want to be named told NDTV.
The NCP also appears to have gained from the rock-solid backing of its candidate's caste base - Kukde is a Kunbi, traditionally cultivators who have a 27 per cent vote share in the constituency - and the fact that the Shiv Sena did not announce its support for the BJP candidate in a reflection of the growing animosity between the coalition partners. Meanwhile the BSP, which has a strong presence in Bhandara-Gondia (in 2014, its candidate got more than 50,000 votes), opted out of the contest. "Even though we received no orders from the top to transfer our votes to the NCP, we decided to follow the party's lead in UP," says Vijay Ram, a BSP activist in Gondiya.
But if elsewhere in the country the by-elections witnessed a coming together of former political enemies, the victory of the BJP's Rajendra Gavit, a former Congressman, over the Shiv Sena's Shrinivas Wanga in the parliamentary constituency of Palghar (reserved for Scheduled Tribes) on the northern outskirts of Mumbai saw a bitter falling out between old allies who have fought every Lok Sabha election together since 1989. The local party Bhajan Vikas Aghadi claimed the third spot in a close contest.
The by-election caused by the death of BJP lawmaker Chintaman Wanga made headlines after the Shiv Sena fielded his son as the party candidate - the BJP accused its ally of back-stabbing. "The Shiv Sena takes Shivaji Maharaj's name, but behaves like Afzal Khan," the party's star campaigner UP, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, had thundered at a public rally referring to the 17th century general who tried to kill the Maratha king at a peace-meet. While Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray sought to make the by-poll an emotional contest between "Wanga's legacy" - hoping for a sympathy wave in favour of his son Srinivas - and the BJP's "arrogance", the BJP stuck to its theme of betrayal.
Palghar has a mixed semi-urban and rural population of 30 lakhs, of whom half are adivasis, 20 percent North-Indian migrants and the rest a diverse group of castes and communities.
Beyond the sympathy narrative, Uddhav Thackeray's opposition to some of the BJPs big-ticket infrastructure projects -- the Mumbai-Ahmedabad Bullet Train and Mumbai-Baroda Expressway projects - which will cut through vast swathes of tribal land, found some resonance with the voters, but the BJP had its math in place. "The party focused on the north Indians who have no love lost for the Shiv Sena and its anti-migrant rhetoric and brought in leaders from UP and Bihar to consolidate their vote. The party was also confident that Maharashtrian votes would be split between the Sena and the BVA to our advantage," claimed Subhash Kale, a BJP leader in Palghar.
A win would have given the Shiv Sena the confidence to go solo in 2019, now it will be forced to rethink its strategy. But despite the bitterness of the campaign, Maharashtra Chief Minister Fadnavis has not closed the door on the alliance. "We want all our friendly allies and parties who are against Congress and NCP to stay together," he had said at the beginning of the campaign.
IOU or the Index of Opposition Unity, which in the 1980s targeted the Congress, has now come to haunt the BJP's mean election machine and the popularity of PM Modi ahead of the 2019 polls.