As the nation turned its eyes to the elections in Maharashtra and Haryana on Wednesday, few people realised that the Samajwadi Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party were battling it out for an important by-election in the volatile constituency of Kairana in Uttar Pradesh's Shamli district.

The assembly seat came open after BJP MLA Hukum Singh, who had been booked in connection with riots in neighbouring Muzaffarnagar last September, was elected to the Lok Sabha in May.

The Samajwadi Party swept the previous round of by-polls in Uttar Pradesh in September, winning eight of the assembly seats as well as the Mainpuri parliamentary constituency. Kairana did not go to the polls then because of a litigation filed by a Rashtriya Lok Dal politician that had been pending since 2012.

An important seat

Kairana is a very significant constituency for the BJP. Not only has the seat been vacated by its MLA Hukum Singh, the party has dominated this constituency for some time. A victory for the BJP in this seat would send a signal that at least in some of the pockets of western UP – the region that has been the site of several polarising strategies by the party – it still retained ability to win.

In the September by-polls, of the three assembly seats in the communally charged districts of western UP, the BJP managed to win only Saharanpur. The Samajwadi Party was victorious in Bijnor and Thakurdwara.

Conversely, if the Samajwadi Party succeeds in wresting Kairana, it would bolster the image of Akhilesh Yadav government, which had faced flak last year for failing to quell the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar, Shamli and neighbouring areas of western UP.  It would also continue the SP’s winning spree in the state after its pathetic performance in the Lok Sabha elections.

Focus on SP apathy

Perhaps because its divisive strategies had failed to yield fruit in last month's by-polls, the BJP did not send Gorakhpur MP Yogi Adityanath to campaign in Kairana. Instead, Hukum Singh and BJP MLA Suresh Rana, both accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots, were put in charge.

The party’s campaign in Kairana focused primarily on the apathetic attitude of the Samajwadi Party government to the interests of traders and sugarcane farmers. The saffron party also tried to play safe by giving away the ticket to Hukum Singh’s relative, the Gujjar leader Anil Singh Chauhan.

The SP has never won Kairana. If its candidate Nahid Hasan emerges victorious, it would prove a great boost for the party.