When the Opposition was pulverised in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections last year, the refrain of the political class was that the very presence of Muslim candidates in the fray triggers communal polarisation, which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sharpens to come to power. The only way to stall the BJP's rise, or so the argument went, is to not field Muslims in elections — a view that the community's intelligentsia too endorsed.
A year later, the emerging anti-BJP front has done just the opposite — it has fielded a Muslim, Tabassum Hasan, in the by-election to the Kairana Lok Sabha constituency. It may seem ironic to speak of Kairana amidst the hurly-burly of the Assembly elections in Karnataka. Yet it is the result of Kairana, and not Karnataka that will help measure the BJP's chances of returning to power in 2019.
Kairana is close to Muzaffarnagar, the epicenter of Hindu-Muslim violence in 2013. In Kairana also falls Raajhar, the village where BJP leader Amit Shah had told 400 Jats in a private meeting before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections that they must vote for Narendra Modi's party to "avenge their humiliation of 2013 (violence)". Shah’s comment went viral on social media and turned, to a great degree, the election in the state into a Hindu-Muslim contest. Since then, the BJP has fought just about every election on the Hindutva plank.
From this perspective, the candidature of Tabassum Hasan will give credence to the BJP's dubious charge that the Opposition parties are all pro-Muslim and gang up against it only because it speaks for Hindus. This is more so because of Hasan's own past — she was elected to the Lok Sabha in 2009 on a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) ticket. Her son, Nahid, is a Samajwadi Party (SP) MLA from Kairana. She will contest the bypoll on the symbol of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), which she joined recently. It seems the Congress will keep away from Kairana to ensure a direct fight between the BJP and the Opposition.
It would appear that the Opposition is either on a suicide mission or the victories in Gorakhpur and Phulpur Lok Sabha bypoll have led it to over-estimate its strength. This is because of Kairana’s voter demography — there are 5.46 lakh Muslims, 2.46 lakh Dalits, 1.52 lakh Jats, 1.23 lakh Kashyaps, 1.20 lakh Gujjars, one lakh Sainis, 32,000 Thakurs, 65,000 Brahmins, 60,000 Vaish, and 1.05 lakh others.
If the bypoll in Kairana becomes a Hindu-Muslim contest, Hasan will find the going tough. The combined Hindu vote of over 10 lakh is nearly twice that of Muslims in the constituency. It is precisely why the BJP will seek to widen the rift between Hindus and Muslims — as is already being done over Muhammad Ali Jinnah's portrait in Aligarh Muslim University.
Even the support of Dalits to Hasan might prove inadequate. Although BSP leader Mayawati has not yet directed Dalits to vote for Hasan, it is presumed that given the anger among Dalits against the BJP, they would rally behind RLD’s Hasan. Dalits and Muslims together account for 7.92 lakh votes, marginally more than 7.57 lakh of Hindus without Dalits. However, a Hindu-Muslim contest can split Dalits, turning Kairana into a touch-and-go for Hasan.
It would seem that the RLD may have stood a far better chance of winning had it fielded a Jat candidate there. While Jats and Dalits do not tend to vote the same party, largely because of the dominant-subordinate caste dynamics, the Dalits would have found the RLD a more acceptable option than the BJP, a party they identity as their principal tormentor. This is more so as the BJP has fielded Mriganka Singh, the daughter of Hukum Singh, whose death has necessitated the bypoll. Mriganka is a Gujjar, a community as oppressive of Dalits as Jats. There would have been no alternative for Dalits to flock around. As for Muslims, despite their animus against Jats, it is inconceivable to see them vote for the BJP. In other words, it would have been difficult for the BJP to turn the battle for Kairana into a Hindu-Muslim one.
For a party struggling to survive, it is mystifying that the RLD decided to field a Muslim candidate imported into its fold recently. Once representing a wide band of middle peasantry castes and Muslims, it is popularly perceived today as a Jat party that is led by Charan Singh’s descendants, son Ajit Singh and grandson Jayant Chaudhary. Yet it is debatable to what extent the RLD retains the support of even Jats, who swung behind the BJP because of the 2013 Muzaffarnagar violence that saw them engage Muslims in a bloody conflict. Simultaneously, the party's Jat identity drove away Muslims from it.
But Jats have also had 25 years of an ambivalent relationship with the BJP. They have periodically supported the BJP, but find their rise in the party hierarchy blocked. Their position is subordinate to the upper castes, who call the shots in the party. It is this ambivalence Chaudhary has been trying to exploit, for instance, by highlighting the agrarian issues.
The RLD can’t rebuild its Jat base unless it demonstrates its capacity to win elections. It is only through the acquisition of power that a social group can hope to reap real gains at the level of block, bank and thana, the tripod on which rural India rests. Despite their abiding enchantment with Charan Singh's family, the route to power for Jats still lies through the BJP. The alternative route for them is to combine with Muslims, who, like Jats, are numerous in west Uttar Pradesh. The social alliance between them has a high potential for victory.
In this sense, the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots proved disastrous for the RLD. Yet a window of opportunity has opened because of a grassroots movement to rebuild the Jat-Muslim relationship. It involves Muslims withdrawing cases against Jats accused of rioting in 2013, and the former getting monetarily compensated.
Pragmatism is driving the two social groups closer. Muslims feel their quest to seek justice will take inordinately long. The festering wounds and pending cases deny them the opportunity to work in the fields of Jat landowners, who have been facing labour shortages. There aren't even many Muslim handymen in villages who can repair agriculture implements. On top of it, Jats realise that their quest to acquire power independent of the BJP is possible only by combining with Muslims.
Their coming together depends on the extent to which Jats still remain under Hindutva's sway. For sure, a Jat candidate instead of Hasan in Kairana could have blunted Hindutva’s edge. The pragmatism of caste could have trumped the emotional appeal of religion.
So why did the RLD field Hasan?
There are three schools of thought, the first of which says that fielding Hasan was Mayawati's idea. The name suited SP leader Akhilesh Yadav fine. They consequently foisted Hasan on the RLD, which could defy them only at the risk of facing a triangular contest with the SP and the BJP. Through Hasan, both Yadav and Mayawati have conveyed to Muslims that their interests are of primacy to them.
This signalling is with an eye on the future. The emerging SP-BSP alliance is designed to survive the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. But Yadav and Mayawati also know that they will compete against each other in the 2022 Assembly elections. They wish to combine their respective support bases to stall the BJP, not hand it over to the electoral partner. And anyway, Mayawati’s choice could not be spurned because she is needed to transfer the 2.46 lakh Dalits in Kairana to the RLD, which judiciously fell in line.
The second school of thought says that the idea of fielding a Muslim candidate on the RLD ticket was Yadav’s idea, and Mayawati’s role was confined to deciding who among the Muslims should be fielded in Kairana. Whether Hasan or her son or any other Muslim, the political dynamics would have remained the same, so the argument goes. As a symbol, Kairana is powerful – after all, in 2014, the Sangh had alleged that the Muslim underworld had terrorised Hindu residents into migrating out. For a Muslim to win in Kairana implies ideologically vanquishing Hindutva. To borrow from cricketing parlance, Yadav wants to bat and score on a pitch the BJP has prepared.
For the RLD, its gain is that it has been given an opportunity to bag a seat in the Lok Sabha, to become a talking point and lead the Jats into the Opposition tent for the 2019 fight.
The third school of thought, however, says that Kairana is a test for Chaudhary. He has to demonstrate that RLD is the repository of Jat votes and, more importantly, that he can get them transferred to whomever he wishes, even to a Muslim. In case the RLD loses Kairana, Chaudhary cannot hope for his party to get a reasonable number of seats in a possible Opposition alliance. It will have Mayawati wonder whether Jats will vote for the BSP's Dalit candidates and have a rethink about tying-up with the RLD. Western Uttar Pradesh is as much the BSP's turf as it is the RLD's.
Whichever way you look at it, Chaudhary's work is cut out – he has to persuade the Jats of Kairana that their future depends on voting the Opposition candidate, a Muslim at that.
Updated Date: May 11, 2018 11:45 AM