Opposition unity and a focus on economic distress: How the Kairana bye-poll is a test case for 2019

“This time the issue isn’t [the 2013] riots [in Muzaffarnagar] but sugarcane,” said farmer Vinay Mallik. The temperature was 45 degrees Celsius and Mallik had braved the fierce May sun to sell his sugarcane crop to a mill in Western Uttar Pradesh’s Shamli town. “Earlier was different,” he said, referring to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the 2017 Assembly polls. “At that time Hindu-Muslim happened. That is why so many Jats voted for the BJP. Now 80% Jats will vote for the Rashtriya Lok Dal.”
On Monday, the Kairana Lok Sabha constituency in western Uttar Pradesh will vote for a new representative in Parliament. Hukum Singh, the Bharatiya Janata Party MP from this Lok Sabha seat, died in February.
As a heat wave makes temperatures rise across North India, western Uttar Pradesh is seeing its coolest election since the 2013 riots. Communal tensions are low and most voter engagement seems to be centred around bread and butter issues: sugarcane – the region’s largest crop, and the rising cost of electricity. Add to this an alliance of all the Opposition parties in the region – the Rashtriya Lok Dal, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party – and the dice seems loaded against the ruling BJP.A win for the Opposition in Kairana would provide a template for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections: A united Opposition that focuses on economic issues and deflects the BJP’s attempts to bring in a communal angle.
It is the economy, stupid
Anant Choudhary, 28, is a Jat farmer from Un town in Shamli district who feels betrayed by the BJP. He explained why he was switching back to the Rashtriya Lok Dal, the region’s Jat-led party, after supporting the BJP for the past few years. “[Narendra] Modi and Yogi [Adityanath] said that we will ensure sugarcane payments in 14 days,” he said. “But the last payment we got was in December. Not only that, electricity rates have gone up and now we have more power cuts.”Late payments by sugarcane mills is a near universal complaint acrss the constituency.In the Sir Shaadi Lal Mill in Shamli, Khuldeep Pilania, general manager (cane), said that the mill had made payments to farmers till January 11. “The entire system of sugarcane is broken here,” Pilania said, shrugging. “Weare going at a loss.”To add to farmer distress, the BJP state government sharply hiked rural power rates soon after taking office last year.
On May 11, Rashtriya Lok Dal leader Jayant Chaudhary tweeted out a poll in which he asked which issue would dominate the Kairana bye-poll.