After the repeated, humiliating defeats of 2014 and 2017, BSP supremo Mayawati and SP chief Akhilesh Yadav set aside 25 years of acrimony for coming together to beat the saffron party at its own game. The results of the Gorakhpur and Phulpur byelections have validated the SP-BSP partnership and shown that if they stand together, the complicated caste equations can work in their favour, giving the ruling BJP a tough time. BJP president Amit Shah had taken the art of stitching together of caste combines to an almost scientific level. It served the party well in the 2014 general elections and, after some tough lessons from the Bihar debacle of 2015, again in the UP assembly polls last year.
This time, the SP-BSP strategy—to disrupt the BJP’s caste calculus—was evident in the choice of candidates. For Gorakhpur, Akhilesh chose Praveen Kumar Nishad, son of Dr Sanjay Nishad, who founded NISHAD (Nirbal Indian Shoshit Hamara Aam Dal) in 2016, representing the OBC community of boatmen—a large section of the state’s population and the second largest community after the Brahmins in the area. In 2014, the Nishads are believed to have voted BJP, which had been wooing non-Yadav OBCs. Pitting a Nishad against BJP’s Brahmin candidate proved to be a masterstroke, while the saffron party failed to consolidate elite caste voters.
“Akhilesh turned the tables on the BJP,” says a state BJP leader. “Besides the BSP and NISHAD, he allied with others like the Peace Party, NCP, CPM, RLD, Forward Bloc and Pragatisheel Manav Samaj Party. This brought together Yadavs, Dalits, non-Yadav OBCs and Muslims.”
In Phulpur, with a substantial Muslim population, the BJP candidate K.S. Patel lost to N.S. Patel, the SP candidate from the same Kurmi caste, by a 59,631-vote margin, despite former MP Ateeq Ahmad polling 40,000 votes as an Independent.
BJP leaders, who had dismissed the SP-BSP tie-up as one in whose favour neither the “rasayan” (chemistry) nor the “ganit” (arithmetic) worked, had to eat crow. “The arrogant BJP couldn’t see the defeat coming and took the elections lightly,” says Sudha Pai of the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. “Akhilesh approached Mayawati when things looked tough with the Congress. It was do-or-die for both, while the Congress was entirely out of the picture.” Both Congress candidates lost their deposit.
The strategy to disrupt the BJP’s caste calculus was evident in the choice of candidates fielded by Akhilesh’s party.
Now, while the SP and the BSP may formalise their successful partnership and contest the 2019 general elections as alliance partners, the Congress seems unlikely to be included. “The Congress shouldn’t have contested the bypolls if it was interested in a larger alliance against the BJP. It’s no longer a player in UP politics,” an SP leader tells Outlook. “With hardly any base, it brings little to the table as an alliance partner. At best, if it does find a place in the alliance, the seat-sharing formula for 2019 is likely to be 35 seats each for SP and BSP, with only 10 for the Congress.”
Ironically, even as the grand old party is being edged out of political discourse in the country’s largest state, it is trying to forge a united front to take on the might of the BJP in 2019. UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi hosted leaders of 20 political parties for dinner at her house on March 13. “While the efforts are laudable, the moot question that will always remain is who will lead the Opposition,” says Pai. “Most senior leaders are not likely to accept Rahul Gandhi as their leader. Also, there are regional pressures. Will the DMK and the AIADMK work in an alliance? Will the TDP and the TRS work together? There will be issues of seat sharing and caste conflicts. It is complicated.”
Looking at the positives, the SP leader says that if the SP-BSP alliance works on the ground, it would be good enough to shake the BJP on its own. “The BJP-led NDA got 73 of its Lok Sabha seats from UP. Take away a big chunk and the BJP will have a tough time to return to power in 2019,” he concludes.