IT would be far-fetched, perhaps unabashedly romantic, to think that the aura of the legendary musician Abdul Karim Khan had something to do with bringing Kairana, his birthplace in western Uttar Pradesh, to its senses. In last week’s parliamentary by-election, Kairana, which had become the BJP’s laboratory for its polarising Hindutva politics, gave a clear victory to Tabassum Hasan, the combined opposition front candidate who wrested the seat from the BJP with a comfortable margin. She will be the first Muslim member from UP in the current Lok Sabha.

That, of course, sends another message to the BJP which had made it clear that Muslims did not matter in its political calculations as it pushed its toxic Hindutva agenda. There were a couple of other parliamentary victories, too, apart from a clutch of state assembly wins for the opposition parties. Even if it is too early for the opposition to break out in song, the Kairana victory is particularly sweet and it was impossible not to recall Karim Khan’s lilting notes of a khayal in Raga Basant as Hasan and her party, the Rashtriya Lok Dal, celebrated the success of the united opposition in halting the “chariot of hate” in UP.

Kairana has traditionally had a sizable Muslim population (about 33 per cent now) and it is to this town in UP’s Shamli district that the country owes the effulgence of its most popular school of Hindustani classical music, the Kirana gharana. This school or tradition of khayal singing was shaped by a gifted son of Kairana, the singular Karim Khan who was as swashbuckling in his personal life as he was original in his music.

The BJP was trounced in a key parliamentary stronghold — a rejection of everyday communalism.

If the Khan Sahib stunned the court of the Maharaja Sayajirao of Gaikwad with his brilliant singing at age 22, he caused more ripples when he eloped with Tarabai, a relative of the ruler, with whom he spawned three excellent musicians, Hirabai Barodekar, Suresh Mane and Saraswati Rane. He tutored even more illustrious disciples, foremost among them Sawai Gandharva, whose legacy lives on in the reverberating music of Gangubai Hangal and Bhimsen Joshi in India and of Roshanara Begum in Pakistan.

Karim Khan’s brilliance was drawn from many sources, a major inspiration coming from the sargam of Carnatic music which he laced into his khayal singing. Thus he introduced devagandhari and kharaharapriya to a north Indian audience who’d probably never heard these ragas before.

To music connoisseurs, Karim Khan was a remarkable innovator, the symbol of a secular, modern new style. To the lay person, too, he was extraordinary, a free spirit, unmindful of the social consequences of an interreligious alliance, impervious to convention and social hierarchy. He would certainly be anathema to the BJP and its saffron cohorts even if he did sing bhajans for Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi — or possibly because he did so! The Kairana of their making has little resemblance to the birthplace of Karim Khan at a time when its mores were gracious and inclusive.

Kairana today is the dark core of the new communalism that is being manufactured by the Hindu right in UP and it has been in the headlines for inventive ways in which the BJP has sought to polarise the Hindus and Muslims. In 2016, the BJP MP from Kairana, Hukum Singh, had unleashed a new campaign that played on the fears of the majority community by claiming there had been an exodus of several hundred Hindu families who were forced to flee because of killings and extortion demands. Kairana, he warned, had become the new Kashmir, and he released a list of those who had left Kairana. Predictably, it turned out to be fabricated.

Singh was forced to retract his allegations after reporters and an official team of the UP government found the list contained names of dead persons apart from those of a handful who had left in search of jobs elsewhere. Singh’s death in February necessitated the by-election and there was poetic justice in the fact that it was his daughter Mriganka that Tabassum Hasan trounced last week.

The opposition victory in Kairana would seem to herald a tentative new spring, a rejection by the people of the poison of “institutionalised, everyday communalism” that the BJP has been spreading, and not merely to win elections. In their recently released book, Everyday Communalism: Riots in Contemporary Uttar Pradesh, two political scientists from New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, Sudhai Pai and Sajjan Kumar, detail the perniciousness of the new strategy of communalisation, based on “using small, mundane but provocative local incidents to gradually create animosity and social jealousies between Hindus and Muslims who have lived together for a long time”. Vast stretches of UP have been living this daily horror for the past many years, and more so after the BJP was swept to power under Narendra Modi.

The book also highlights the inability of secular parties to counter the toxin of communalism effectively because of the way RSS-BJP have seeded communal politics into the way ordinary lives are lived. The secular ideal on which the Republic was founded does not make for ‘common sense’ and is, therefore, difficult to preach by other political parties confronting the wily strategies of the Hindutva brigade. For the latter, anything will suffice to construct communalism: a pile of wood that is stored for a celebration catching fire, a road accident, a game of cricket, an interfaith love affair or even a meal which is framed as a Hindu-Muslim problem to “create a permanent anti-Muslim social prejudice and make it acceptable in the popular discourse”, warn the authors.

Despite this concentrated onslaught, the Kairana result shows that there is hope yet in the Indian electorate. For one, they can see that the Modi government has been unable to halt the economic decline in the region. Although the BJP did try its best to deflect the issue by bringing Jinnah into the election rhetoric, the opposition insisted that “ganna (sugarcane) mattered and not Jinnah”. And that’s why Modi’s feverish eleventh-hour roadshow —unprecedented for a prime minister to campaign in by-elections — failed to change the mood of the voters.

It’s time for Kairana to think of music, to heal the rifts and celebrate the political spring.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2018