So Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav have finally opted for pragmatism over pride and prejudice. The logic had been staring at everyone’s face from even before 2014, when the electoral phenomenon called Narendra Modi hit Uttar Pradesh for the first time. It was like a giant snowball, devouring the whole landscape before it, almost programmed to superabundant success. But even in the face of that self-propelling elemental force, an aggregation of the three main non-BJP parties—Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Congress—added up to just a wee short of 50 per cent of all votes cast. And seats gained? Just 7/80. Everyone saw the logic, but no one could surmount the entrenched political antagonisms to make it happen.
It did happen, over a year later, in Bihar. A ‘mahagathbandhan’ or grand alliance of two forces that had lived in mutual antipathy since the mid-1990s. The Nitish-Laloo entente didn’t endure, but it demonstrated the viability of the formula. That is, when faced with an otherwise unstoppable force, enemies can join hands to become one immoveable object—for sheer survival. The thought has been intermittently floated as a trial balloon ever since, especially after the assembly polls in early 2017 once again reiterated the BJP’s utter domination of the field in UP. What if Mayawati, still an icon for Dalits in her reduced state, and still the proud owner of a near-captive vote, comes together with the newly maturing talents of the second-generation Samajwadi, Akhilesh, with his party’s solid earth connection back in Yadav country?
Now it has come to pass. Even as the BJP was savouring the glad tidings from the Northeast, news wafted in from UP of the SP and BSP getting together to try and overcome the saffron challenge jointly in Gorakhpur and Phulpur, two Lok Sabha constituencies that will vote on March 11 to fill the vacancies left behind by UP CM Yogi Adityanath and his deputy. It’s blind date Sunday: no one is quite sure how it will turn out. But its effect will be parsed, interpreted and acted upon for months to come. Not just by the present dramatis personae, and way beyond these two heartland constituencies.
Undoubtedly, despite the surface braggadocio, there is nervousness within the BJP that Akhilesh and Mayawati may have found a winning formula. Whatever the outcome in Gorakhpur and Phulpur, both leaders have demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice smaller gains for a larger purpose—a new tactical playmaking that opens up the chessboard. In the immediate context, the BSP will get priority over contenders from the SP for Rajya Sabha nomination. In return, the BSP, which anyway does not contest bypolls when it is out of power, has asked its supporters to back SP candidates in both places. If this mutual accommodation works to their advantage, it cries out to be applied across the state to try and beat the hefty margins BJP has been scoring since 2014.
Some observers are bullish about the prospects of this political tango. “For sure, if this alliance takes place, it can be a real game-changer in UP, the first empirical evidence of which is how CM Yogi has reacted to the news. His choice of words, comparing animals with individuals, says everything. Dalits across the state are waiting for a chance to replace the BJP and this could be the moment,” says Vivek Kumar, who teaches sociology at JNU in Delhi and is an expert on Dalit movements in UP. Mayawati had hastened to qualify this as a mere understanding over two seats, not an alliance. “But the fact that anecdotes are suddenly being pulled up, of how Mayawati was once gheraoed by Yadavs during a previous stint when they ran the government together, indicates the BJP’s nervousness and the power of this association,” he says.
At any rate, a controlled lab experiment will be handy. A limited ‘alliance’ will allow Mayawati to test the extent to which her voters will migrate at her command—before she seeks to apply that on a larger scale. Her problem is an old, well-recognised one: BSP voters are more loyal to the party line and have been known to vote for alliance partners almost en bloc. But the reverse flow of benefits used to be always more meagre—savarna voters kept a disdainful distance from a Dalit candidate/party. That phenomenon had dimmed the BSP’s enthusiasm for alliances and, in the last decade, Mayawati has relied more on expanding her votebase to other castes—winning an absolute majority in 2007 and exceeding 27 per cent votes in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls.
Now, after over a decade, she has to see if her voters—19.7 per cent in 2014 and 22.23 per cent in 2017—will still migrate. Akhilesh, too, faces a kind of trial: can Dalit, Yadav and Muslim votes come together, and accommodate other OBCs as well? If successful, Akhilesh, with his 22 per cent vote in both previous elections, would herald a new politics in UP where the elite castes—around 20 per cent of the population—could lose some of their salience.
The numbers are a bit iffy in Gorakhpur. Here, the figure of Yogi looms—five-time MP, Rajput, CM—with his 5.3 lakh votes in 2014 The SP had fielded a Nishad candidate, and he had fallen three lakh votes behind. The BSP had got 1.76 lakh votes and Congress around 46,000. But if things don’t add up even in Phulpur, both parties will have a lot to think about. This is the reason why Mayawati is being slightly gun-shy, asserting she has no truck with SP beyond the bypolls. A loss may kill off the chances of a proper alliance in future. But even if it doesn’t win the next match, it could still be seen as a better team in that shape. “The public wants an alliance of non-BJP parties in UP and beyond,” says Ramesh Dixit, NCP leader in UP. “Even if motivated by self-interest, we are glad the alliance is taking shape,” he says. “The attempt is to see if Dalits, after violence in Saharanpur and Allahabad against them, want to see the BJP defeated.”
In this equation, the Congress, though its voteshare was only 7.5 and 6.2 per cent in 2014 and 2017 respectively, is playing a not insignificant role: fielding Brahmins in both seats, it’s testing its appeal among savarna voters, who are right now almost fully in the BJP camp. Should they extract a goodish share here, especially in urban centres, they would dice up the BJP’s hold over one of UP’s most populous social groups. Yet, the Congress may also want to grow as a party and, if it laps up Muslim votes, as indicated in some seats in the recent local body polls, it could complicate the field. True synergy can come only with precise cutting, slicing, sewing.
“We will take future action step by step, gradually. We have seen how Bihar ended and don’t want to repeat that,” says BSP leader Sudhindra Bhadoria. He acknowledges the alliance will need to be worked at in the field, given that the SP’s supporters have an image problem. “We want the SP to win in Gorakhpur. It’s our effort to create a combination of democratic and social-justice forces,” he says.
RLD’s Ajit Singh has backed the SP-BSP front, but his future path is as iffy as that of his social base
These stirrings of comradely feelings are, of course, a response to the dominant position the BJP, with a 40 per cent voteshare (2017), has acquired in the state. Both the BSP and SP sense the need to swim together in order to dam the Hindutva flood and save themselves from drowning. Beyond the BJP’s own pinpointed social engineering (see ‘Frenemies in Need’), it has that other brahmastra in its armoury: Ayodhya. A contentious religious plank can act as an agglomerative force over and above the pull of caste—like a vacuum bomb that sucks out all life from other political forms. Holding each other’s hands is a sensible battle formation to adopt at such moments.
“Those who don’t have power in UP can all be part of the new arrangement. Obviously the BSP’s Muslim votes also count,” says Dalit ideologue Satish Prakash, pointing to the minority support it got in the recent mayoral polls. Thus, an alliance can aim for 40 per cent of voters (Dalits + Muslims + Yadavs). “Of course, not all Dalits, Muslims and Yadavs will vote for SP-BSP, it will perhaps be 60:40 between BJP and the alliance,” he says. The idea is to use the Congress to get that closer to 50:50. In response, the BJP will try to polarise the electorate along religious and finer caste lines. “But together, the others at least remain serious contenders,” he says.
The BSP-SP today both confront a fragmentation of their base, so it becomes imperative for them to try coalesce their own and split the BJP’s votes. (This is where the Congress comes in.) The BSP especially has to counter erosion. Besides the BJP’s Dalit outreach, it’s also a little worried about the Bhim Army’s charismatic Chandershekhar ‘Ravan’ and Gujarat Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani’s rise: Mayawati feels the Congress is trying to edge closer to Dalits via these figures. So the BSP is signalling its future viability by announcing its deal with the SP. “The BJP too is tightening its grasp over Dalits,” says Samajwadi Party leader Sudhir Panwar. “Mayawati wants to consolidate her voters even if she is not in the fray.”
As for the SP, it now sees no point allying singularly with the Congress, with its declining voteshare. The 100-seat tie-up in 2017 was disastrous: the Congress’s savarna voters deserted it for the BJP due to the SP’s enduring ‘M-Y’ tag, and the latter’s voters also drifted. The tag still has its uses, though. The score on which there is most restlessness, in all political camps, is whether that can scale up to a Dalit-Muslim-Yadav phalanx.
If the trio does forge a viable common platform, things may then turn on how other small OBC parties respond. The non-Yadav OBCs are precisely the sections the BJP had wooed to its side, and they do like to retain a separate marketshare. But four years of Modi and one of the Yogi regime have left groups such as the Nishad-Mallahs and Rajbhars disenchanted. Yogi’s ban on sandmining has affected the dailywage work of the first group, already hard hit by demonetisation. The latter, restive of late, have been frequently sitting on dharna citing local corruption. A new front could give them a place to migrate to.
“There’s anger against the BJP on law and order, and people are remembering our regime. Question is, how much will it translate into negative voting against the BJP and positive votes for us,” says SP leader Richa Singh, who contested unsuccessfully from Allahabad (West) last year and is now campaigning for Phulpur candidate Nagendra Patel. The BJP has also fielded a Kurmi, Kaushalendra Patel. “The moment the tie-up was announced, it led to a positive wave in our favour. We are trying to spread the news as soon as we can,” she says. Phulpur includes three rural swathes, in parts of which news of the tie-up was yet to reach.
With roughly three lakh Muslims and as many Dalits plus some two lakh Kurmis, Phulpur looks a shoo-in for the alliance on paper but ground realities pose a challenge. The Kurmis had been won over by the BJP in 2014: Anupriya Patel is a face in the central cabinet. And the party kept its pro-OBC credentials burnished by making Keshav Prasad Maurya deputy CM. Maurya, in his record win in 2014, had totted up 52 per cent votes. The SP and BSP combined got just 37 per cent: a 1.4 lakh gap in votes. “It’s true Kurmis and Yadavs wouldn’t find each other easy allies given their history of conflict. Kurmis also have no compulsion to be part of our alliance, like Muslims,” concedes Richa Singh. A section wants to remain with the party in power though they feel they didn’t get their due. The RSS has been active for years in these parts, trying to build a ‘Hindu identity’ among OBCs. “The RSS says that if people vote for the tie-up, their future generations will turn into ‘Tipus’ and ‘Aurangzebs’. These things have an effect on people,” adds Richa Singh.
But is this a pact between supremos or also one between communities, asks Mohammad Sajjad, who teaches modern Indian history at Aligarh Muslim University. He is a sceptic. “At present, there’s no ideological bulwark against Hindutva. In the past there was Mandal. The anti-Hindutva stream could be wishful thinking: it has scant leadership, no cogent articulation, no credibility. People appear ready to support Modi for another five years,” he says. More practical questions: there are 66 Dalit castes in UP, and how acceptable is Mayawati among all of them? Jatavs, Mayawati’s base, are 80 per cent of that demographic, but the BJP had started chipping away at the remainder. Also, can Akhilesh go beyond the M-Y orbit? His party has not groomed other OBC leaders even after routs in 2014 and 2017.
Sajjad’s biggest grouse is with the secular parties not standing up to Muslim orthodoxy, denying themselves a chance to blunt Hindutva’s edge. “They are defying the SC’s triple talaq verdict...the SP, RJD, Congress and BSP don’t speak out against this. How will they counter the charge of appeasement,” says Sajjad. The charge of pandering can stick. For instance, the Congress needs some serious rescuing before it ceases to be seen as ‘a party for Muslims’ and, at its core, as a Brahmin party. An alliance might help it aim for its old pan-electorate appeal. As for the BJP, the gameplan is clear. “In Gujarat, it needed Patels to create a Hindu-Muslim divide, next door it needs Marathas, in UP it’s Jats. But Jats are no longer interested in polarisation,” says Sudhir Bharatiya, state general secretary of Ajit Singh’s RLD, which has offered support to the SP-BSP tie-up.
The importance of western UP will only grow for the BJP, with even speculation that Modi may shift from Varanasi to Mathura next time. That will be like the centre of gravity shifting, setting off a chain of events. There’s talk of RLD chief Ajit Singh campaigning in Muzaffarnagar, one fulcrum of which is the rebuilding of Jat-Muslim ties. Jats are sore over the BJP’s keenness to withdraw 2013 riots cases only for its own top leaders, so the alliance may fancy its chances among Jats. Jats shoring up a secular front would be an ironic twist, reminiscent of Laloo’s Bihar: Yadavs earlier participated in anti-Muslim riots but under Laloo emerged as their “protectors”. Of course, if Ajit Singh manages a good crop, he might want to take it to the BJP’s factory. Such is the tenuous soil on which two forces that have dominated UP for three decades, mostly in antagonism, are trying out combine harvesting.