In a stunning blow to the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), the united opposition in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh saw their candidate Tabassum Hasan emerge as the winner of the Kairana Lok Sabha constituency (Uttar Pradesh) by-election.

Tabassum consolidated the united opposition votes and defeated the BJP candidate by a big margin in a by-election marred by the large scale malfunctioning of the Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail system installed with electronic voting machines and repolling on 73 booths.

Hasan, 47, will be the only Muslim representative in the Lok Sabha, or Lower House, in Uttar Pradesh, where 20% of the population is Muslim.

The Kairana defeat is the second big shock for the BJP in the last 10 days after losing power in the southern state of Karnataka to the opposition alliance in a roller coaster game.

The state has 80 parliamentary seats from a total 545, the largest share in the country, and the BJP had won 73 of them in 2014 elections. That number is now reduced to 70.

On the other hand, it was a deja vu moment for the united opposition in Uttar Pradesh, which snatched two key Lok Sabha constituencies from the BJP in a by-election in March. Their bench strength has now increased to 10.

Those seats – Gorakhpur and Phulpur – were held by BJP stalwarts Yogi Adityanath and Keshav Prasad Maurya, who vacated them after getting to lead India’s largest and most politically significant state as chief minister and deputy chief minister respectively.

The victory in Kairana and also at the Noorpur Assembly constituency in Uttar Pradesh has energized both the national and regional parties in opposition. They now hope to evolve a successful coalition strategy to take on the BJP in state elections later this year and in the 2019 national polls.

The Kairana seat fell vacant after the death of BJP Member of Parliament Hukum Singh. Riding on a Hindutva wave, the BJP had fielded his daughter Mriganka in the contest, but failed to overcome electoral mathematics posed by the united opposition.

A big loss for the BJP

Though a by-election doesn’t usually carry high significance, this by-election involved of every trick in the political trade: ranging from polarization to abuse of power to malfunctioning voting machines to caste and dynasty politics, allege opposition leaders.

That’s because this by-election was not only a prestige issue for the BJP, which rules at the national and the state level in Uttar Pradesh, but also a test of opposition unity ahead of 2019 general elections.

That the BJP would be rolled within 14 months of its thumping victory in Uttar Pradesh has perplexed everyone. The BJP’s national chief Amit Shah, considered as a super strategist, has been unable to contain the slide in Uttar Pradesh so far.

Fielding Hasan, who had been a Member of Parliament from a party of Dalits – the Bahujan Samaj Party – on behalf of a party having support among backward communities, Rashtriya Lok Dal, was a strategic move.

Putting up a Muslim candidate in a polarized environment, especially after Jinnah’s portrait controversy at Aligarh Muslim University, was a big gamble. However, the opposition went ahead and restricted the division of Muslim, Dalit and Backward votes considered crucial in this constituency.

The opposition was so sure of its victory that none of the big leaders campaigned in the by-election. But alarmed with previous defeats, the BJP used chief minister Adityanath, deputy chief minister Maurya and a dozen other ministers for campaigns. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi came down to inaugurate a small portion of the Eastern Peripheral Expressway in the neighboring area – Baghpat – a day before the election.

Many questioned the timing of the inauguration, with his address touching upon key issues affecting the area. The opposition complained to the Election Commission about a possible violation of the model code of conduct, but it was turned down.

Congress leader Virendra Madan alleged: “The BJP lost the game despite trying all the tricks. This includes [the] attempt to polarize society, abuse of power as evident by the road show of the prime minister in the neighboring district after the campaign in Kairana ended officially and inaction of the election commission over such a brazen violation of model code of conduct. Nothing worked though.”

“BJP had made tall promises during elections. Since nothing came through, people are angry and frustrated. Law and order have deteriorated and corruption is 10 times as high as BJP leaders have said themselves. BJP MLAs are accused in rape cases. Dozens of them got extortion threats. Kairana results only proves the BJP has failed miserably,” claimed Sunil Sajan, the leader of the Samajwadi Party.

Even BJP leaders feel the Kairana outcome was a warning bell. “The writing is on the wall. The loss of three Lok Sabha seats in UP (Uttar Pradesh) might have a cascading effect in the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh Assembly polls and even in 2019 general elections if we fail to gauge the undercurrent,” says a senior BJP leader.

Communal forces uniting, claims BJP

BJP spokesperson Harish Srivastava said: “We are concerned over the Kairana defeat and will analyze the reasons for the same. However, it is not due to anti-incumbency. Yogi and Modi governments have performed well on all fronts including law and order. Several pro-poor programs have launched.”

The BJP blamed “communal and caste forces” for its loss. “Parties like SP, BSP and Congress, which were rivals for years and their previous alliances broke midterm, have joined hands against us,” said Srivastava.

As far the opposition’s claim of misuse of power and government machinery, Srivastava replied: “PM inaugurated the expressway as per Supreme Court order and for the benefit of the people.”

The Supreme Court order had not mentioned that the PM should launch it and the expressway could have been opened at the administrative level. Srivastava agreed, bur added: “Congress ruled the country for years by violating all norms. They make noise only when in opposition.”