In the 2014 general elections, Hukum Singh, a Hindu-Gujjar leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, won in western Uttar Pradesh’s Kairana constituency, marking the party’s first victory from the seat since 1998. Singh passed away in February 2018, necessitating a bypoll in the constituency. The opposition parties—the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Lok Dal, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress—entered into an informal tie up and fielded Tabassum Hasan, a Muslim-Gujjar and former member of parliament from Kairana, on an RLD ticket. In the bypoll three months later, Hasan defeated Mriganka Singh, the BJP candidate and Hukum’s daughter, by over forty thousand votes.
A combination of factors secured Hasan’s victory. The RLD, with a predominantly Jat voter base, focused on the plight of Kairana’s sugarcane farmers—till that month, six sugarcane mills in the constituency reportedly owed the farmers Rs 777 crore. A controversy over BJP leaders objecting to a picture of Mohammad Ali Jinnah put up on the walls of the Aligarh Muslim University allowed the RLD to brand the election as a fight between ganna, or sugarcane, versus Jinnah. Moreover, the RLD rallying behind a Muslim candidate secured votes from both the Jat and Muslim communities.
The Kairana parliamentary constituency has five assembly segments—Shamli, Thana Bhawan and Kairana from Shamli district, and Gangoh and Nakur from Saharanpur district. According to estimates in media reports, the constituency has around 16.6 lakh voters, comprising approximately 5.5 lakh Muslims, 2.5 lakh Dalits and 1.7 lakh Jats. This year, the RLD, the SP and the BSP are repeating their alliance for the upcoming Lok Sabha election. Hasan is representing the alliance in Kairana on an SP ticket, whereas the BJP has fielded Pradeep Choudhury, a member of legislative assembly from the Gangoh assembly constituency.
Apart from the sugarcane dues owed to farmers, a new crisis has also emerged for Kairana’s farmers—cow vigilante groups who disrupt cattle transport, and the state government’s crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses, have led to stray cattle running free in the constituency and feeding on crops. “Ganna triumphed last year,” Jitender Hooda, a Jat sugarcane farmer from Shamli, said. “This year, ganna and gai”—cow—“will be the BJP’s undoing.” The BJP has also angered a section of Hindu-Gujjars by denying Mriganka a ticket.
Yet, Manoj Sharma, the vice president of the BJP’s Shamli district unit, believed that the party’s “nationalism” narrative would see it to victory. Dheeresh Saini, a journalist and a political commentator in the region, told me that the opposition alliance is also on the back foot because it has not been countering this narrative. Sharma said the BJP has the support of “non-dominant” Other Backward Classes, but he agreed that the party was “struggling” due to the caste-based arithmetic of the opposition alliance working in their favour. “This election is not easy,” he said.