After almost a quarter century, Uttar Pradesh politics is witnessing an almost impossible phenomenon: the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party have joined hands in the poll arena. Well known for their political rivalry defined by crude snub and animated contests for 23 years, the two have come together ahead of the March 11 byelections to Gorakhpur and Phulpur parliamentary constituencies. Such has been their enmity that it often seeped into personal level among their leaders and had permeated down to their grassroots cadres and supporters.
Then, recently, BSP supremo Mayawati announced a strategic pact with the SP led by Akhilesh Yadav. Her wordings at a press conference convened to announce it indicates that the relationship will be give-and-take initially. But one can also read in it the future possibilities to grow into an alliance for the 2019 general elections. For now, it’s a limited-purpose agreement with a short-term goal. One, of course, is to win the two Lok Sabha seats. The other is a tacit quid pro quo: the BSP aspires for the Samajwadi’s support in the April Rajya Sabha elections, while the SP is keen to mobilise support for the state MLC polls slated for this June.
Wind back to 1993, when the SP’s Mulayam Singh Yadav and his BSP counterpart Kanshi Ram formed a Dalit-OBC poll front. It performed impressively in the state elections, and they formed the government (along with the Congress and Janata Dal). This alliance worked well for a while, but the SP-BSP relations began souring within a couple of years. In 1995, that government fell. Playing a role in it was the ‘guest house kand’ in which SP supporters attacked Mayawati. Subsequently, she formed a government with the support of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In hindsight, the BSP has been very tough in carrying out alliance politics. Kanshi (1934-2006) had once, while answering a journalist’s question regarding his alliance with the saffron party, said, “We will do anything to protect the interest of Dalits and Bahujans.” Also that the BSP “will always be more beneficial” in any political alliance. Today, vis-à-vis the SP, it’s very difficult to say who among the two partners is going to benefit from the alliance. This pact has no Dalit and Bahujan agenda, which has been the BSP’s main plank of politics. Its aim now is to defeat the BJP.
All the same, the agreement can help evolve a smooth relationship between the two parties that can together claim more than half of UP votes. Their base votes, comprising Dalits and a section of the OBCs, may form a formidable social alliance that may translate into votes as well. Again, when the SP and the BSP were ruling UP in an alliance in the early 1990s, conflicts between the two parties had percolated to the grassroots. It appeared to have perpetually spoiled all possibilities of their coexistence, with social contradictions between the OBC and Dalits only sharpening. At its height, there erupted violence, which compelled Kanshi to break ties with Mulayam. The ‘Dauna kand’ was one such case of atrocities on Dalits by OBCs. Of course, there were simultaneous issues around the use of state power in resolving problems of their base voters.
As for the renewed SP-BSP pact, the BJP calls it an “opportunistic deal”. The party’s leader, chief minister Yogi Adityanath, ridicules it as an impossible camaraderie that can exist between saanp aur chhachhandar (the snake and the shrew mouse). Nonetheless, this pact has the potential to influence UP politics in the long run—to the extent of having a bearing on national politics.
Piquantly, Gorakhpur will remain unaffected to it: Yogi’s connect with that eastern UP parliamentary constituency is that intimate. The temple-centric Gorakhnath Math, which centres round a millennium-old monastic tradition, has an impressive influence on OBCs and SCs in that belt near the Nepal border. There, an ‘upper-class’ Brahmin-Thakur axis may counter any influence the SP-BSP pact can wield. In Phulpur, off Allahabad, the two-party alliance may work well. With around 20 lakh voters from the Patel, Dalit, Muslim, Yadava and Brahmin communities in pretty sizeable numbers, the agreement has the capacity to shape up a broader social alliance, thus influence the election results in a bigger way.
Other local factors will also contribute to influencing the poll results. Overall, it is set to give UP politics a fresh focus on caste—something that had faced a reversal in the 2014 Narendra Modi wave and last year’s UP polls where the BJP served a mix of developmental desire with Hindu identity.
If the SP-BSP pact works well, it may encourage other regional parties and small groups in the cow belt to come together and form a grand alliance, further strengthening the mahagathbandhan against the BJP and its allies. In neighbouring Bihar, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) already works as a basis of attracting non-BJP votes. Only the other week, ex-CM Jitan Ram Manjhi shifted from the ruling alliance to join Laloo Prasad Yadav’s RJD-led mahagathbandhan that includes the Congress as well. Laloo’s RJD has already announced its support to the SP-BSP alliance. This, at a time when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance is facing problems to keep its smaller partners in humour.
If the politics of mahagathbandhan emerges really well, the grand old Congress may work as the nucleus of these state-based anti-BJP alliances. That can form a pyramidical structure of mahagathbandhans at the national level—and contest against the NDA in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Such a possibility may give a new turn to the electoral politics in the Hindi belt—the saffron party’s traditional strong base.
In Bihar, the RJD has been working from long time to evolve a national alternative against the BJP under the leadership of the Congress. In UP, the SP already contested the 2017 UP assembly election with the Congress on its side. These days, Akhilesh and his Congress counterpart Rahul Gandhi have a better understanding as younger leaders in the anti-BJP front. Rahul has many a time lauded Kanshi and showed a soft corner for the Mayawati-brand politics. In other upcountry states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab, the mahagathbandhan politics may take shape under the Congress leadership. These are states that anyway have a BSP presence in some pockets. Sustained negotiations can see these states forming non-BJP gathbandhans in the run-up to 2019.
As for non-Hindi regions like West Bengal, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, there is a Third Front mobilisation in the air. It remains to be seen whether a Third front and a Congress-led mahagathbandhan emerge individually and contest separately in 2019 or whether these two blocs come together as an anti-NDA axis in the next parliamentary election. To be closely observed remains a possible shift in the Left politics: whether the Communists and Marxists are going to join a mahagathbandhan or form a Third front. More such thoughts are set to emerge if and once the current SP-BSP pact performs—so as to spring chances of a broader formation of non-BJP forces in the country.
(The writer is director, GB Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad.)