It looks like Mayawati has finally decided to bite the bullet and will opt for an equal partnership with the SP in the 2019 elections, leaving the Congress out in the cold.
All eyes will be on a joint press conference by Mayawati and Akhilesh tomorrow.
The verdict of opinion polls is unanimous: What happens in Uttar Pradesh will determine whether Narendra Modi gets to form the government one more time or not. This makes the formation of the ‘mahagathbandhan’ in Uttar Pradesh arguably the most crucial political move in the lead up to the 2019 polls.
When the stakes for the opposition are so high and solution seems so obvious, what is delaying the formation of the grand alliance? Is the delay deliberate and part of a planned strategy or is there more to it? But if there is some reason bogging down the alliance formation efforts, what could it be?
The one question which needs to be understood is why there is a stoic silence from the side of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) while the only noise regarding the alliance is coming from the Samajwadi Party (SP).
The Only Way Forward For Akhilesh Yadav
After the disastrous performance of the SP in the UP assembly elections, the reality of shifting caste loyalties in the state in the post Modi era has finally dawned on Akhilesh Yadav. Communities like Rajputs, Gurjar, Jats and certain non-Jatav Dalits have deserted him, and his party’s support base has shrunk to only the Muslim-Yadav group.
Unless he draws additional votes from other quarters, it would be impossible for him to make a comeback in UP politics. The imprint of his wily uncle Ram Gopal Yadav, who spent years working with Mulayam Singh Yadav and understands the fine art of caste politics, is palpable in every move Akhilesh seems to be making.
During the bypolls, SP ceded crucial Lok Sabha seats like Gorakhpur and Kairana to the much smaller Nishad Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal respectively. It was primarily aimed at sending a positive message to castes like Nishad and Jats, that SP is willing to share political power with them. But both Akhilesh and his uncle know that all this strategy will not work unless they get the backing of a bigger social group. That is where the BSP and their core ‘Jatav’ voters become critical for them.
It must be noted that SP does not want the Congress to be a part of this alliance. Ram Gopal like Mulayam, understands way too well that the Congress does not bring anything additional to the table. In fact, by fighting separately the Congress can only help SP by cutting the upper caste votes of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The 2017 assembly polls were held in a unique scenario where the family drama of the SP engulfed the party and created a perception of a weak Akhilesh. Worried about losing minority voters to Mayawati, who was making a fervent pitch to woo them, the Akhilesh-led SP turned to Congress. It was a desperate move to hold on to and to consolidate minority votes.
All media reports in the last 18 months coming solely from the SP camp, clearly indicate no role for the Congress in the mahagathbandhan.
The only time Akhilesh softened his stand and tried to reach out to the Congress was during June-October last year. But the reason behind the initiative was in reality, rooted in Mayawati's increasing desire to work with the Congress. Emboldened after witnessing the complete capitulation of a desperate Congress to Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka, Mayawati had started fancying her chances to get a larger role in national politics.
She, perhaps, believed that a desperate Congress can be bulldozed to cede space for her political ambitions. She stopped responding to SP feelers, instead started focussing her energies on how to bring the Congress to her doorsteps.
Akhilesh and Ram Gopal understood this change in Mayawati’s posturing, made an appeal to the Congress to take up the responsibility to bring regional parties together. But the results of the assembly elections in the three Hindi heartland states, where Congress formed the government, came as a huge setback to Mayawati. She can no longer expect Congress to form an alliance on her terms. SP in turn has quietly returned to its earlier stand.
The sole objective of the SP is to weaken the BJP in the state. To achieve this objective, Akhilesh wants to partner with BSP on equal footing. He believes that as long as his party and the BSP contest on equal seats, due to better vote transferring capabilities of Mayawati, SP would end up winning much higher seats than BSP.
Moreover, according to the recent opinion polls, as a CM face Akhilesh enjoys higher popularity ratings in the state than what Mayawati does. Akhilesh reckons that the combination of these two factors will position him, not Mayawati, as the main challenger to the BJP in 2022. He is even ready to accept the Congress into the alliance if Mayawati wants him to as long as she agrees for equal seat sharing between BSP and SP.
The biggest possible glitch in this well thought out plan, of course, is if Mayawati demands to contest on more seats than the SP.
Mayawati - Caught Between A Rock And A Hard Place
After a disastrous performance in both the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and 2017 assembly elections in UP, Mayawati and the BSP are facing an existential crisis. But keeping herself politically relevant is not the only thing on her mind right now. She is no longer in the best of health, and before she retires, she is very keen to get one more shot at wielding power.
After Congress getting a shot in the arm in the recently concluded assembly polls, her national ambitions have subsided. Her focus has firmly shifted to the 2022 assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh and hence 2019 polls could effectively be a means to the end.
According to this author, there are broadly three objectives which Mayawati will try to accomplish. The first is to strengthen her party by winning maximum seats. The second is to not let the SP emerge as the primary challenger to the BJP in 2022 and third is to not allow Congress to eat up her party organisation in other states in garb of her “alliance” with it in UP.
Mayawati cannot really afford to fight alone. Her party just does not have the capacity or the resources to go alone into the fight. Therefore, let us analyse in detail the pros and cons of ‘all’ three options which she has at her disposal right now to achieve her objectives:
1. An ‘arrangement’ with the BJP
After the emergence of Modi, the BSP has lost a lot of Brahmin, weaker sections of the Other Backward Class (OBC) and even non-Jatav Dalit voters. If Mayawati is serious about emerging as a main challenger to the BJP in state politics, she has to get the backing of at least one bigger social group. The Brahmins who backed her in 2007, the only time she won a majority in the state assembly, no longer seem interested in doing business with her party.
Therefore, her search ends with the Muslims, who constitute approximately 20 per cent of the electorate. The sharp politician in her recognises that the Dalit-Muslim alliance is a formidable combination. She has already made an attempt to achieve this but has failed. However, there is no reason to believe that she has given up on this strategy altogether. Keeping this in mind, an open alliance with the BJP is a definite ‘no-go’ option for Mayawati for she intends to be the main challenger to the saffron party in 2022.
Here, having an arrangement with the BJP means getting into an informal understanding with them. It is a scenario where the BSP and BJP officially fight the election separately, but field supplementary candidates at the constituency level in order to win maximum seats for themselves. Theoretically, it would mean BSP can get a respectable seat tally, much more than SP which would get demolished. It can achieve all three objectives of Mayawati.
But all is not hunky-dory in this scenario for the BSP. It is a path fraught with risks. The first of course is the question of whether the BJP would honour such a commitment once Mayawati fields candidates on all seats and has no way to go back. Second, even if the BJP cooperates, translating such a complex electoral arrangement into reality is a huge ask and very difficult, if not impossible, to execute. Can Mayawati still go ahead with a strategy with such risks and uncertainties looming given the fact that one more defeat can effectively end her political career?
2) Mahagathbandhan with SP and other smaller parties, with the Congress at bay
Ever since the BSP emerged on the national scene as significant electoral force, its tallest leaders Kanshiram and Mayawati have been very clear about keeping an arms distance from the Congress as far as contesting elections on the ground are concerned. Mayawati has always been paranoid about Congress eating into her core support base. She believes, all it would take is a simple mistake i.e. an alliance on the ground with Congress and her core voters will permanently return to where they used to be before the birth of BSP.
Even in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly polls, after receiving multiple feelers, she was advised by some of her confidants to accept the alliance request of Congress as it would lock up the Dalit-Muslims alliance on the ground. They argued that the BSP does not enjoy the confidence of the minority because of its past association with the BJP and the only way to regain that trust would be if Mayawati is backed by the Congress party. Mayawati’s fears got the better of her and she decided to take an alternative path and fielded a large number of minority candidates instead of allying with the Congress. The Congress went ahead and stitched an alliance with the SP, and as the exit poll data suggests, the alliance ended up getting almost the complete consolidation of minority votes in its favour.
Let’s see what impact keeping Congress out of the SP-BSP alliance would have on voting preference of key social groups – On seats where the SP candidates are in fray, they would continue to garner Yadavs and minority votes. They would also get additional votes of Jatavs as election after election it has been proven how Mayawati’s voters get easily transferred to her alliance partners. But what about the seats where BSP will field candidates? She would get her own core votes and the Yadav votes may also go to her. But what about minority votes? Will they back her considering her past? What it they think that she may join the BJP post-poll? What if congress fields some strong candidates? Won’t they be more comfortable in voting for Congress than voting for BSP?
It is not difficult to guess that final seat tally of SP could be much higher than BSP if Mayawati goes ahead with this option.
As far as the Congress is concerned, they would still have something to cheer about even if they are excluded from this alliance. Congress can not only attempt to damage the BJP in constituencies where it is weak by fielding upper caste candidates but, can even try to win seats which have significant minority presence and where the BSP is contesting.
3) Embrace the Congress and allow it to be a part of the Mahagathbandhan
The Congress is trying every trick in the book to pressurise the SP-BSP to form a larger alliance in UP on the lines of Bihar 2015. It would not only work out arithmetically to win maximum seats in UP but it would also enable them to project Rahul Gandhi as the consensus ‘PM candidate’ of the larger anti-BJP bloc.
Their latest attempt of holding secret talks with Bhim Army chief Chandrasekhar Azad and Pragatisheel Samajwadi Party chief Shivpal Singh Yadav is aimed at delivering the message to SP-BSP that, if sidelined, Congress would not shy away from damaging them. Although it may merely be posturing considering any impulsive step may actually benefit the BJP in the state. Moreover, though Azad and Shivpal belong to same caste groups as Mayawati and Akhilesh respectively, their ability to mobilise these social groups is highly questionable.
Despite its best efforts, whether Congress would be part of the larger alliance or not would solely be decided by Mayawati. Akhilesh eventually will have to fall in line as there is no space for him to resist even if he wants to.
Congress’s entry would ensure that minorities have no other option but to completely rally behind BSP candidates, wherever they are contesting. It would help Mayawati’s party to win large number of seats (approximately as high as SP’s). As a result, Mayawati would be able to achieve her first two objectives. But what about the third one? That would be her major worry. Even if she does not let the Congress take away the Dalit votes from her in UP, she will not be able to stop the Congress from taking advantage of this UP ‘arrangement’ in other states. To keep herself relevant in Uttar Pradesh politics, is Mayawati ready to sacrifice her party in the other states of India? Considering that BSP enjoys good support in at least half a dozen states, can she willingly let her party organisation disintegrate and be eaten up by the Congress?
Sensing little room to manoeuvre, lately, Mayawati has hinted that she would not mind allying up with the grand old party if the Congress agrees for a ‘pan-India’ alliance and offers respectable seats to the BSP not only in UP but, all other states as well. But, enthused after the recent success, the Congress is unlikely to offer her that choice.
The Road Ahead For Mayawati And Mahagathbandhan
Hypothetically, things could have been much simpler for Mayawati if Uttar Pradesh was heading for assembly polls instead of voting for the parliamentary elections. She could have demanded to adopt the ‘Bihar model’ where she would be declared as chief ministerial face of the alliance. In this situation, BSP and SP would contest on equal number of seats (170 to 180 each) while Congress would get the rest.
It would have allowed her a chance to become UP chief minister once again without worrying about losing her party organisation to Congress in other states. Desperate to keep his party together, Akhilesh would not have had any option but to support her demands despite his reservations (just like Lalu Yadav was compelled to do so in Bihar in 2015 in favour of Nitish Kumar).
Only if fate had allowed her this luxury. Alas. Unless she secures a good ‘pan India’ deal from Congress, including it in the mahagathbandhan remains as bad an option for her party as allying solely with SP on equal footing.
Fighting alone is not an option either. Having tacit understanding with the BJP appears to be the least bad option for her but this path is also very risky.
Mayawati is set to hold a press conference with Akhilesh Yadav tomorrow as per media reports. It seems she has finally decided to bite the bullet and go ahead with the option of equal partnership with SP, keeping Congress out. But the question still remains, whether this move will really mean great news for her party. The answer is not too far away.