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The Arithmetic of Opposition Unity

The Uttar Pradesh by-election results represent both promise and problems for the opposition.

The outcome of the Kairana parliamentary and the Noorpur assembly by-elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP) declared on 31 May confirmed a trend that was established by the results of the bypolls held in the Phulpur and Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seats in March this year. It is now clear that a united opposition can trounce the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as it did in the four seats it won across west, central and east UP. Had the opposition parties contested Kairana and Noorpur separately, the BJP would have had a decisive edge.

But, what do the results portend for the 2019 election from a state that sends 80 members of Parliament (MPs) and had turned in 73 MPs for the BJP and its ally, Apna Dal, in 2014? Is the outcome a sign that economics will trump religion? The ­balance between religion and pragmatism has always been delicate in UP because one incendiary statement, gesture or ­occurrence can potentially polarise the polity within no time.

It is evident that the opposition’s victories in Phulpur and Gorakhpur—when the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) buried the mutual rancour of the past, and made common cause to confront and defeat the BJP—were not a one-off moment. In Kairana and Noorpur, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), helmed by Ajit Singh, the scion of Chaudhary Charan Singh, and Ajit Singh’s son Jayant Chaudhary teamed up with the SP. As in Phulpur and Gorakhpur, the anti-BJP axis projected itself as a loose alliance rather than a compact one whose one-point agenda was to annihilate the BJP. Given the combustible history of west UP, where Kairana and Noorpur—scalded by the communal violence between Jats and Muslims in 2013—are located, the opposition seemed acutely aware of the likelihood of another religious polarisation by the BJP to bolster its prospects that were adversely affected by issues impinging on the region’s shaky economy.

However, in Kairana and Noorpur, the BSP was apparently far less upfront than it was in Phulpur and Gorakhpur. Its president, Mayawati, did not put forth an appeal to her cadre although west UP, where her party had first implanted itself, remains its mainstay because of the demographic preponderance of the Jatavs-Dalit, the sub-caste to which she belongs. By not fielding a candidate, did Mayawati indicate that she would support the opposition or signal her “neutrality” to the BJP? Mayawati remains ambiguous. On the other hand, the fledgling Bhim Army, which was born when a young Dalit agitator from Saharanpur, Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan, was incarcerated in May 2017 for “waging a war” against the state, threw in its lot with the opposition. Azad issued a written appeal exhorting Dalits to unanimously vote for the opposition. His mother personally carried the message across Kairana. The Congress party also stayed out of the fray in Kairana and SP president Akhilesh Yadav did not campaign. If he had, there was a danger that old wounds would have reopened among the Muslims, who blamed him, as the chief minister of UP, of being indifferent to their plight after the 2013 communal riots.

The Kairana seat was given to the RLD, whose candidate, Tabassum Begum, came from a political family of the area that had been associated with every political party except the BJP. In choosing her, the opposition, and more so the RLD, made two points: one, that it was prepared to challenge and counter the perception that a Muslim candidate would consolidate her community’s voters, but also trigger a reverse polarisation of the Hindu voters cutting across castes and sub-castes. And, second, from the RLD’s perspective, Tabassum Begum belongs to the Gujjar backward caste and was, therefore, useful in sending out a message that theirs was not a party owned by the Jats. However, despite losing, the BJP polled a substantial number of votes in both seats that testifies to its continuing strength in west UP.

Ajit Singh and Jayant Chaudhary harked back to a traditional door-to-door mode of campaigning. They kept their thrust on regional and not national issues. They tapped into agrarian anger arising from the interminably delayed payments to sugar cane growers from the government-owned factories. The BJP’s 2017 manifesto had promised to pay farmers within 14 days of the sale of their crops. This was projected as a “radical” policy, although an identical provision exists in the UP Sugar cane (Regulation of Supply and Purchase) Act, 1953. In the 2017–18 agricultural season, of the ₹23,319 crore dues to the farmers, sugar mills have yet to clear ₹6,691 crore. The RLD’s campaign was encapsulated in its slogan, “Ganna [sugar cane] ya Jinnah?” an allusion to the furore kicked up by the BJP over a portrait of Mohammed Ali Jinnah that still hangs on the wall of the Aligarh Muslim University.

Today, the arithmetic is in favour of a united non-BJP front in UP. But, if the opposition wants to base its campaign on the mismanagement of the economy and agriculture by the centre and the UP government, it will have to craft a common minimum programme. This can run into basic problems arising from the old contradictions of landownership and farm employment that exist between the empowered Jats and backward-caste Yadavs and Gujjars, and the less empowered and landless Dalits. Much also depends on the stance that Mayawati eventually adopts and the opposition’s adeptness at keeping Hindutva out of the pre-poll discourse.

Updated On : 22nd Jun, 2018

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