Kairana Lok Sabha by-election 2018: Bypolls to test Opposition unity, appeal of Hindutva vs secularism

The ongoing by-elections in Kairana could be the most important political battle for the BJP before the 2019 elections. It will put to test two theories that could be crucial in the 2019 General Election: One, index of opposition unity, and two, ability of the Hindutva appeal to influence an election when pitted against the counter war cry of secularism.

Kairana is the first parliamentary constituency where the entire opposition has come together after the 2014 drubbing by the BJP. Tabassum Hasan, a Samajwadi Party candidate is contesting on the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) ticket. Hasan has the support of both the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

On paper, Hasan is a formidable candidate. Just a few months ago, the SP-BSP combine had beaten the BJP in Gorakhpur and Phulpur in spite of the presence of the Congress. In a direct fight with the BJP with no other candidate playing spoilsport, in theory the RLD looks invincible. An opinion poll conducted by CSDS-Lokniti had recently predicted the BJP’s vote share would be around 35 percent if elections were to be held today. If that is the situation on the ground, the BJP has every reason to worry about Kairana.

 Kairana Lok Sabha by-election 2018: Bypolls to test Opposition unity, appeal of Hindutva vs secularism

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters

The Hindutva appeal is also on trial in Kairana. In 2014, Hukum Singh of the BJP had won from Kairana by more than three lakh votes in the aftermath of the Muzzafarnagar riots. He had defeated the SP candidate Nahid Hasan, Tabassum’s son, in spite of the presence of nearly 5.5 lakh Muslim voters, which got divided between the opposition. This year, the Muslim vote appears united in favour of Hasan.

A counter-polarisation can yield rich dividends for the BJP. But, this has been stymied by the united opposition’s plan to forge a Muslim-Jat-Dalit and Yadav alliance. Together these voters are nearly 70 percent of the constituency.

If the BJP goes on to win Kairana, it would indicate that the opposition unity is just a myth and the prime minister’s weighs a lot more than all his rivals combined. It would also prove that Hindutva is a much bigger issue than secularism, thus putting a big question mark over the rationale of the opposition unity.

As many critics have argued, the opposition is coming together ahead of 2019 polls with just one thread binding them — secularism. They have no other shared ideology, agenda or belief. Their ‘Modi hatao’ campaign is based on just one slogan. If it bites the dust in Kairana, the opposition would have to reconsider its strategy to counter the much more attractive appeal of Hindutva and Modi-tva.

A victory for the opposition would, of course, vindicate its belief in unity and secularism. Uttar Pradesh has 80 Lok Sabha constituencies. Though the caste arithmetic is not the same in every constituency, the opposition’s ability to pool its vote could be a huge setback for the BJP, especially if vote share stays around the predicted 35 per cent mark or falls further below it. If the Kairana model works, the BJP would be starting the 2019 innings with a huge deficit.

Retaining its seats in UP is important for the BJP because of the evolving political scene in the other states. In 2013, the BJP had swept Rajasthan (25/25), Madhya Pradesh (27/29), Gujarat (26/26), Delhi (7/7) and Haryana (7/10). The close contest in Gujarat and the political winds in Rajasthan and MP suggest the BJP will struggle to repeat its 2014 performance in these states. If UP adds to the BJP’s deficit, the 2019 race could be much closer than anticipated.

In many ways, Kairana is to 2019 what Allahabad was to 1989. Back then, VP Singh was the united opposition candidate in a by-poll held in the summer of 1988, just a few months before the next general election. His victory had given the opposition—BJP-Left and Janmorcha-- the hope that its unity can challenge Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress.

Back then, Ajit Singh, current chief of the RLD, had predicted that Allahabad would decide the course of national politics till the next general elections. "Let's have no doubts on that," he had told India Today.

History has a strange way of repeating itself. Today, his own candidate’s fate could decide the outcome of the 2019 election, albeit against an adversary that was his ally in 1998.

Click here for LIVE updates on by-elections in 10 Assembly and 4 Lok Sabha seats

Updated Date: May 28, 2018 12:07:13 IST