Kairana by polls are significant, in fact extremely important in the political environment today. And the significance of this election for both the BJP and the Opposition of this by poll should not be lost in the predictable war of words.

To begin with Kairana is adjacent to Muzaffarnagar, the laboratory that the Hindutva brigade created for itself in 2013, to communalise and polarise the voter in Uttar Pradesh ahead of the 2014 general elections. Kairana was heavily impacted as well, a municipal board in the adjacent Shamli district, with the affinity between the Jats and Muslims broken with organised and sustained violence that had the Muslims fleeing their homes, many never to return. The bonhomie seemed to have been broken for good, with hate and anger flooding the western belt of the state.

More recently, however, reports of unhappiness have been penetrating the deliberate media fog to suggest that the Jats---largely sugarcane farmers here---are in distress, weighed down under poor remunerative prices, partially or fully shut sugar mills, and a glut of sugarcane. Agitations have hit the belt with the latest claiming a life in Meerut, with a farmer from Baghpat dying in the midst of the agitation, and even as the authorities were in full preparation for a visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to inaugurate a highway, built of course on land acquired from the farmers. The contrast ---between the body of the farmer kept on slabs of ice and the high profile inauguration hours later---has sent ripples down the BJP offices in western UP, as the impact on the agitating Jats has “not been good” in the words of a party leader in Meerut.

Farmers now decry the violence that divided them. Some peasants speak almost with a sense of nostalgia, of the good times when all lived in communal harmony in the villages. And wonder if the Muslims will ever return, more also because they need them to work on their land. But the realisation that the divide has not made them richer or more prosperous, as was the assurance doled out at the time as the underbelly of the violence, has sunk in and the anger is now turning most definitively against the BJP.

An indication is the last minute decision of the Lok Dal candidate from Kairana to step down a day before the poll, and extend full support to Tabassum Begum the joint Opposition candidate. She is contesting of course from the Rashtriya Lok Dal seat with Ajit Singh’s son Jayant Chaudhary campaigning intensely for her. All political parties, Congress, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj party AAP, Left, Rashtriya Janata Dal, and more are behind the Begum who has been a Member of Parliament before on the BSP ticket from Kairana.

The very fact that the Opposition has fielded a Muslim candidate Tabassum Begum is an indication of new found confidence and a decision to send out a signal as Jayant Chaudhary said, to demonstrate that Muslims are not being factored out by the Opposition under pressure from the BJP. He made it clear that this was a deliberate decision to send out the right signals of secularism and unity. This, of course, is a step up for the Opposition since 2014 where it had become almost defensive about the minorities. But it also feeds into political calculations where the BSP and Mayawati expect to be able to transfer the Dalit vote to the Opposition bag, and the RLD by fielding its own candidate to bring in the Jat vote and thereby restructure the fragmentation positively.

Kairana has not been wedded to any one party, with the voters shifting sands fairly easily. The BJP won this seat in 1998, and then in the last 2014 elections when Hukum Singh was victorious. The by election has been made necessary by his death. The BJP presence has always been here, with the party coming second in at least four other parliamentary elections, as in 2009 when Hukum Singh lost to Begum Tabassum Hasan, then the BSP candidate.

The relative ease with which the ticket has been given, and the alignments worked out by the opposition parties looks promising for a workable alliance in the 2019 general elections. Ajit Singh, always an unpredictable factor, has rushed into the SP-BSP partnership as his party’s traditional Jat vote, nurtured by his father Charan Singh, has been substantially eroded by the BJP. His party members are particularly happy this time around with the response, that has been vocal as against the sullenness and anger that had virtually kept the RLD away from its own belt in the 2014 polls. Jayant Choudhary is holding small meetings, literally nukkad sabhas, in an attempt to persuade the Jats to return to the fold as it were, and realise that only the Charan Singh clan have their interests at heart. The anger with the BJP is making the Jats more receptive this time around.

This election is also the first test for the united Opposition in West UP, and that too in a belt that had been completely communalised by the BJP that is very active here. Western UP with a sizeable minority population has been the centre of love jihad, and beef campaigns by the Hindutva organisations. It is also now the centre for the emergence of a new Dalit politics, under the Bhim Army, whose leader Chandrashekhar has been put in jail by a worried Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Mayawati has still to finetune her relations with the Bhim Army, a more aggressive and radical outfit with a strong grassroot reach. A win in Kairana will impact on the alignments in this area as well for the next elections, with the BJP then having to grapple with a formidable combination of political parties who together constitute a majority in UP even today.

A defeat in Kairana will bring to an end the Muzaffarnagar politics for the BJP, with a message that communalism does not work over economics. The Jats who were prepared to hound the minorities out of their homes just a few years ago for a better future, are now more than willing to welcome them back as the violence did not turn out to be the ‘magic wand’ for all good things, as promised. In the pragmatic politics of India’s hinterland, communalism works so long as it brings food, or at least promises to. And is easily discarded---as it has been in past decades despite gruesome violence in Meerut, Malliana, Aligarh, Moradabad---when it does not fetch the promised dividends.

(Cover photograph, Courtesy Outlook: Jayant Chaudhary campaigning in Kairana)