- Newly-born spirit of opposition will be tested in Uttar Pradesh
- Kairana also provides other opposition parties with a crucial chance
- Like with other bypolls in Uttar Pradesh, Kairana is a political notable
The embrace in Karnataka, offered as nearly 23 top opposition leaders took the stage to proclaim a giant effort to block Prime Minister Narendra Modi's re-election, has already seen some follow up in Kairana in western UP, which votes for its new member of parliament on Monday; the results will be declared three days later.
On Thursday, one of two opposition candidates opted out of the by-election. That means it's a direct contest now between Mriganka Singh of the BJP, whose father Hukum Singh was the MP till he died in February, and Tabassum Hassan who belongs to the Rashtriya Lok Dal or RLD, the regional party headed by Ajit Singh, but is being backed by the Congress and the two other main players in the state, Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party or BSP and Akhilesh Yadav's Samajwadi Party.
In many ways, it is their new comity that's being tested. In March, they drew a line under decades of rivalry to collaborate on a crucial election - for Gorakhpur, represented for nearly 20 years by Yogi Adityanath, the saffron-robe-wearing monk who became Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. Together, they easily wrested the BJP stronghold, proving that they could control India's most important political arena if they remained on the same side.
The BJP would have won nearly 50 fewer seats in the last general election if they had combined, according to their joint vote share in the 2017 election.
For RLD president Ajit Singh and his son and vice-president of the party, Jayant Chowdhury, the Kairana election presents the opportunity to reclaim their core supporters of Jats, the dominant agrarian caste of Western UP, which shifted loyalties to the BJP in the general election after Hindu-Muslim violence tore through areas of Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts in 2013.
Kairana parliamentary constituency which has a population of 16 lakhs and is located in Shamli district was one of the areas worst hit by the violence. By choosing a Muslim candidate, the RLD - and by extension, the opposition - is hoping to unite its Jat base with Muslim voters, who form about nearly half the population in Kairana.
At least 60 people, mainly Muslims, were killed in the 2013 Western UP riots and more than 50,000 were displaced from their homes. Hindu votes consolidated around the BJP as Prime Minister Narendra Modi wowed India in a campaign that gave him a succulent victory. Jats moved away from the RLD and did not return in the state election last year that saw Yogi Adityanath take over as head of Uttar Pradesh.
When Hukum Singh of the BJP won Kairana, his victory margin in 2014 of 2.30 lakh votes was more than the combined votes of the SP, BSP and RLD.
The loss, however, had a sliver of hope for the opposition.
"It was a section of the 1.5 lakh Hindu Jat vote which moved away from the BJP (in last year's state election)," claims Yashpal Mallik, President of a local Jat organization who says the community is now upset with the BJP for failing to include it in groups that benefit from affirmative action policies. "For a while, the Jats believed in Narendra Modi's promise of creating employment outside of agriculture and government through programmes like 'Make in India', but where are the jobs after four years? Young Jats have no choice but to demand reservation or live off the land, where the distress is growing, because the BJP has reneged on its assurances to sugarcane farmers."
"And this is the situation when the Minister for Sugarcane Development, Suresh Rana, is one of the MLAs from the Kairana parliamentary constituency," Jayant Chowdhury points out to a gathering of farmers. "We would have ensured timely payment to every cultivator, but you did not elect a single MP or MLA from the RLD. You were persuaded to think of yourselves, not as farmers, but as Hindus. And look where it got you?"
He is campaigning in Phugana, a large and prosperous village dominated by Jats where 16 Muslim men were killed in 2013 and six women allegedly gangraped. Phugana's Jats have voted for the BJP in the two elections since then, but this time, Balbir Mallik, a prominent landlord, insists "Our community will vote for the RLD candidate (Tabassum Hassan) in spite of her religion, because this time we are supporting Ajit Singh. Every caste in UP has its own party now, whether it's the Yadavs, Rajbhars or Kurmis. We had one for more than two decades, but drifted away from it, now it is the time for ghar-wapsi (home-coming)."
In the nearby village of Lisad, where 13 Muslims were killed in 2013, Rajinder Chowdhury, a local Jat leader, is accused in 36 cases of arson and murder. In February, Yogi Adityanath's government began the process of withdrawing the FIRs or police cases filed against some of the Hindu Jats. "But nothing has happened so far," said Mr Chowdhury because the cases against him remain open.
"We got carried away by the BJPs 'bahu beti bachao' - 'save our daughters and daughters-in-law rhetoric' in the build-up to the Muzaffarnagar-Shamli riots, but soon realised that our own bahu-betis were repeatedly teased and raped, but no one talked about protecting their honour," says Sachin, a college student and member of the Bhim Army, an organization of young Dalits formed in 2015 after attacks on Dalits by upper castes in Saharanpur, also in Western UP.
Mriganka Singh, however, is confident of victory. Apart from the BJP's traditional upper caste Hindu vote, she also has the loyalty of members of her own caste, Kairana's 1.4 lakh Hindu Gujjars. She refutes the charge that Yogi Adityanath's administration, accused of extra-judicial encounters, has targeted minorities including Muslims. "Law and order has improved," she says, cheered on by her supporters.
The biggest push for Mriganka Singh, however, could come from PM Modi himself who isn't campaigning for her but is inaugurating a major freeway and holding a public meeting next door in Baghpat the day before voting. The opposition has said this amounts to indirectly violating the prohibition on campaigning in the hours before voting.
Like with other by-elections in Uttar Pradesh, Kairana is a political notable. And will serve as a crash course on 2019.
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