Mulayam Singh, the founder and nominal head of the Samajwadi Party (SP), has been making odd statements of late. In the Lok Sabha the other day, he said he hoped Narendra Modi would be back as Prime Minister. After Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav announced their 38:37:3 seat-sharing deal last week, leaving the Congress with only two seats and no alliance backing, he said that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seemed to have the edge right now.
You can also read this article in Hindi- 2019 चुनाव: सपा-बसपा गठबंधन में मायावती का वर्चस्व, अखिलेश को हो सकती है हानि
One can dismiss Mulayam Singh’s observations as sour grapes – something said to maintain his relevance in politics when everyone knows his best days are behind him. However, a wily old fox will not be saying these things just to spite his son and effective boss of the SP. At the very least, he fears something that he does not want to fully articulate. A closer look at the details of the SP-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) alliance gives us some clues.
First, this is not an alliance of equals, even though Mayawati gets to fight 38 seats to SP’s 37. That one-seat difference tells us who is, at least marginally, the senior partner.
Second, it is also obvious that Mayawati is calling the shots. The decision to leave Congress out in the cold is central to Mayawati’s thinking, not Akhilesh’ Yadav’s. For a man to summarily dump the Congress after building up a good equation with Rahul Gandhi in the 2017 assembly elections would have been unthinkable unless the compulsions are different. For Mayawati, the priorities are clear: her pre-eminence, and as final arbiter of Dalit votes, depends on preventing a Congress rise again in Uttar Pradesh. This can’t happen unless the Congress is cut down to size in the state. Akhilesh Yadav does not have the same need to downsize the Congress, but he has essentially kowtowed to Mayawati’s demand since he cannot afford to lose her in UP in 2019. He is trying to make the best of a bad bargain.
Third, the announcement of an SP-BSP deal on seats in Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh is yet another indicator that Mayawati is deciding strategy. The BSP has some clout in pockets of both states, but the SP is just a bit player. If the BSP-SP combine manages to garner votes, it may come only at the Congress’ cost. This again suits Mayawati rather than Akhilesh Yadav.
Fourth, there is the scenario post-May 2019, and in March 2022 (Uttar Pradesh assembly elections). If the BJP is – by some chance – defeated in the Lok Sabha elections, Mayawati will demand the support of Akhilesh Yadav to make a bid for PM, and he has obliged by saying this indirectly. He said he would be most happy if the next PM was from UP. However, few other regional parties in a rainbow coalition will agree to this. Neither Congress nor BJP will agree because they know Mayawati is a tough customer. Once installed as PM, removing her would be impossible, for it will be seen as anti-Dalit. In a coalition, it is only weak leaders who get chosen for the top job (Deve Gowda in 1996, I K Gujral in 1997). So, even if the choice revolves around making a Dalit the next PM, the Congress will probably choose someone other than Mayawati, especially after the shabby treatment it has got from her over the last one year.
Fifth, it is far from certain that Mayawati will support Akhilesh Yadav as Uttar Pradesh CM in 2022, especially if she is not PM. The deal works for both parties only if one is PM and the other, CM. If Mayawati does not get the top job in Delhi, she is under no obligation to accept SP as the lead party in Uttar Pradesh, especially given Dalit-Yadav caste antagonisms. So, while Akhilesh Yadav needs Mayawati in 2019, it is far from certain that she needs him beyond this year.
Sixth, the SP-BSP combo works for now for a simple reason: there is inherent caste arithmetic (Dalits plus Yadavs), and a solid phalanx of the 17 per cent Muslim vote that has nowhere else to go if it wants to defeat the BJP. But here’s the point: thus far Muslims have stuck by SP, and not Mayawati. If the SP-BSP combo clicks, the Muslim vote could potentially transfer from SP to BSP, especially since strenuous efforts are being made for a Dalit-Muslim alliance in some parts of the country. If this vote transfer happens, the SP will be decimated in 2022. What Mulayam Singh may be sensing with BSP and the Muslim vote is what BSP senses about the non-Jatav Dalit vote in UP, which went substantially to Modi. Mulayam Singh knows that if the Muslims find new parties to back, the SP will decline. He may not want more than a limited engagement with the BSP for the same reason that the BSP wants to deny another claimant for the Dalit vote in UP, whether Congress or BJP.
Seventh, the SP’s best bet is not to ally with Mayawati beyond the 2019 Lok Sabha elections if it is to retain its Muslim vote bank. Moreover, any Muslim consolidation with Dalits will leave the Yadav-led SP in the doldrums. The long-term future of the SP lies in two possibilities: one is to retain its MY combo (Muslim-Yadav) and reach out to smaller castes for regaining power once in a while; the other is to head a counter-consolidation of Hindu OBCs in partnership with the upper castes. Thus far the non-Yadav OBCs have been consolidating against any Yadav-led combo. The BJP will try to seal the cracks between Yadavs and other OBCs (it tried to do that unsuccessfully in 2014) to build its Hindu vote bank, which will be unbeatable if the upper castes also stay with it. The Yadav vote will anyway split if the BJP starts upping the ante on Mathura and Kashi – the former being a Krishna temple scandalised by past Muslim rulers.
Mulayam Singh has probably looked beyond the immediate arithmetic of the Lok Sabha polls to flag medium-term concerns. His hidden message to his son is this: don’t yield too much to Mayawati if you want SP to survive in politics.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!