Kairana as canary

Why Tabassum Hasan's election matters

By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 3.06.18

The election of Tabassum Hasan, the joint Opposition candidate who defeated the Bharatiya Janata Party's Mriganka Singh in the Kairana by-election for the Lok Sabha, is significant for several reasons. She's a woman, which takes the number of women elected from UP's 80 parliamentary constituencies to 14. She's also a Muslim, which takes the number of Muslim MPs from UP to 1.

The symbolic importance of Muslims breaking their duck in India's most populous province is not trivial. UP has a substantial Muslim population (nearly 20 per cent of the whole), often concentrated in particular constituencies. The BJP's success in sweeping these contests and achieving a winning tally of 73 seats without a single Muslim candidate was a triumph for its majoritarian ideology and a defeat for the ideal of an inclusive democracy. This was the first time since Independence that UP didn't send a single Muslim MP to the Lok Sabha.

Not that the Opposition fielded any successful Muslim candidates. Opposition victories were a family affair: the Samajwadi Party had five Yadavs elected and the Congress managed a couple of Gandhis. The difference was that the SP, the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party fielded Muslim candidates; thanks to these parties Muslims were contenders just as candidates from other communities were; they were participants and stake-holders in the great bazaar that is India's democracy. That none of them won was worrying. If we assume that an overwhelming majority of Muslims voted against the BJP, the party's Lok Sabha sweep in UP in 2014 indicated that it had managed to mobilize a bloc of non-Muslim votes large enough to render Muslims electorally irrelevant in India's most populous province.

For comparison's sake, it's worth noting that nine Muslims were elected to the Lok Sabha from UP in 2004 and seven in 2009. In a parliamentary democracy, Muslims don't have to be represented by Muslims; nor do Muslim citizens have to be represented as Muslims. However, when an election is swept by an explicitly majoritarian party led by grandmasters of communal polarization who milked the dreadful communal violence in Muzaffarnagar for political advantage, it is a little precious not to look at the elephant in the room; UP as a dress rehearsal for the BJP's ultimate goal: a Muslim- mukt politics.

It's silly to reproach the BJP for not fielding Muslim candidates. The party's reason for being is Hindu consolidation. Its project is to make India's demographic Hindu majority a self-aware political majority organized around the party's constitutive reflex: a visceral dislike of Muslims in particular and religious minorities in general. Since Muslims, reasonably, don't vote for explicitly anti-Muslim parties, it makes no sense for the BJP to nominate Muslim candidates. The BJP has won both Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha constituencies in UP with large Muslim electorates by consolidating a plurality of Hindu voters. It is the inability of the Opposition to give the anti-majoritarian vote (which includes the Muslims in these constituencies) a single candidate to unify around that allowed the BJP a free ride in 2014.

It is in this context that the selection and subsequent election of Tabassum Hasan are important. Despite the fact that a third of Kairana's voters are Muslims, it wasn't a foregone conclusion that the united Opposition would nominate a Muslim as its candidate in this crucial election. As recently as 2004, the Rashtriya Lok Dal, the party that made Tabassum Hasan its candidate this time round, had won the seat with a Jat candidate, Anuradha Choudhary, who subsequently joined the BJP.

Given the fact that Kairana's deceased MP, Hukum Singh, had made political capital by spreading rumours of the forced migration of Hindus from Kairana, and given the tensions between Jats and Muslims in the aftermath of the Muzaffarnagar violence, it could have been reasonably argued that the united Opposition should be represented in Kairana by an electable Hindu. This would deny the BJP the opportunity to polarize the election as a Hindu versus Muslim contest and it would be easier to win back the Jats who had switched their allegiance to the BJP after Muzaffarnagar because they wouldn't have to vote for a Muslim. Also, there was no real danger of the Opposition alliance dropping its Muslim parcels, because given the prospect of a BJP victory, where would Muslim voters go?

This is a plausible argument; by not succumbing to its easy logic the Opposition alliance did something more important than just winning an election; it demonstrated that making Muslims integral to an electoral contest (instead of marginalizing them and taking them for granted) was a winning strategy. The lesson was reinforced by Naim-ul-Hasan's win in the assembly by-election in Noorpur. The Kairana election was a gamble that paid off and by paying off, it demonstrated the workability of a political strategy premised on pragmatic inclusiveness.

It is important not to freight Tabassum Hasan's election with more meaning than it can bear. She is as much part of a family firm (whose business happens to be politics) as Rahul Gandhi or Akhilesh Yadav. Her late husband, Munawwar Hasan, had been elected from the same seat in 1996, as had his father before him. Her son, Nihad Hasan, ran against Hukum Singh in 2014 and lost. She had won the seat before in 2009. Between them the Hasans have been candidates for every major political party in UP — the RLD, the SP, the BSP, the Congress — except the BJP. Her claim to our attention is that she has shown that a Muslim can be the face of a successful political coalition, that even in a post-Modi India and a post-Yogi Uttar Pradesh, Muslims aren't politically radioactive.

For this, the RLD's Jayant Chaudhary deserves credit. He risked running a Muslim candidate (formerly of the SP) on his party's ticket despite the troubled relationship between Muslims and his principal constituency, the Jats of western UP. He ran a campaign focused on the economic needs and grievances of sugarcane growing peasants to counter the BJP's divisive appeal to Jats as aggrieved Hindus, summed up in his motto, 'Ganna not Jinnah'. Despite lending their mobilizational muscle to the RLD's campaign, Mayavati and Akhilesh Yadav had the political tact to let Chaudhary front the election campaign. This combination of materialist and aggregative politics has trumped the BJP's majoritarianism, restored Muslims to UP's parliamentary politics and made the case for the political viability of a Jat-Muslim-Jatav coalition in west UP for the 2019 general election.

When majoritarianism bids to become the political common sense of a country, as it has successfully done, for example, in Myanmar, the danger lies not in the bigotry of the majoritarian party but in the real possibility that it might remake the Opposition in its own image. In the first elections to Myanmar's Parliament under the new Constitution, Aung San Suu Kyi's 'liberal' Opposition ended up not fielding a single Muslim candidate because of a fear of alienating a mainly Buddhist electorate. The military junta's party, the National Unity Party, is majoritarian by default; the real political victory for Buddhist chauvinists like the incendiary monk, Ashin Wirathu, was the craven surrender of the National League for Democracy. Aung San's endorsement of Myanmar army's genocidal violence in Rakhine is a cautionary tale; from acquiescing in the deletion of Muslims from the electoral rolls and their sidelining as parliamentary candidates, it was a short road to becoming an apologist for the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas.

The importance of the Kairana by-election is that a united Opposition stood athwart this road in India and said 'no'. There were many reasons for this coming together, not least self-preservation, but it was the idiom of this unity, the candidate chosen to represent it and, most importantly, Tabassum Hasan's success, that make Kairana a landmark and, perhaps, a turning point in the history of India's majoritarian ascendancy.