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The Congress, accustomed to keeping potential allies on the tenterhooks, now finds the boot on the other foot. The Bahujan Samaj Party, a feisty David confident of its grip on an anxious Goliath, is testing the patience of even the most pro-alliance of Congress leaders. "Things are moving far too slowly," a Congress leader fretted while on the phone to a BSP MP.
The Congress is palpably nervous but Mayawati is in no hurry. In fact, she retired into a shell for four days last week, fuelling speculation that she will wait until the Lok Sabha is dissolved before arriving at an open understanding with the Congress. The Congress leaders' rationale is that she would then feel less vulnerable to the machinations of the central government. Yet another interpretation is that UP is currently in a state of political flux with the future of the Mulayam Singh Yadav government uncertain and she'd rather wait for things to settle down.
Kept off balance, the Congress sent out mixed signals in UP, first laying the groundwork for a withdrawal of support to the Mulayam government over a two-day meeting of the upcc in Lucknow. But even as party workers were clamouring for a parting of ways with the SP, AICC general secretary Subodh Kant Sahay declared that it would not withdraw support, for fear of pushing the Samajwadis into the welcoming arms of the nda. Some Congressmen saw the move as a strategic necessity while others felt it was an avoidable display of brinkmanship. Yet others saw it as confused thinking.
"We never said the Congress has to withdraw support to the SP government in UP as a precondition to talks," clarified BSP spokesperson Sudhir Goel. Articulating the official Congress position, CWC member and former UP governor Motilal Vora said: "We are talking to everybody. The ideal situation is a Congress-BSP-SP front". But he admits in the next breath that doesn't seem even remotely possible. Any noises the SP makes about extending issue-based support to a Congress government has only added to the confusion.
Only after talks with Mayawati have reached a viable stage will the Congress close the door on Mulayam, say senior party leaders. A Congress-SP-rld front is the less desirable option as far as Congress president Sonia Gandhi is concerned, a fact that became obvious when she stayed away from SP leader Amar Singh's birthday bash. Says a CWC member: "She does not think he'll be a reliable post-electoral ally." Apart from a small pro-SP lobby (Arjun Singh, Jagdambika Pal, Pramod Tewari), other senior Congress leaders (Pranab Mukherjee, Ambika Soni, Ahmed Patel, Motilal Vora, Jaipal Reddy, Salman Khursheed) are focused on an alliance with the BSP.
Most political commentators are also of the same view. Professor Zoya Hasan of Jawaharlal Nehru University feels a Congress-BSP alliance is likely to be more successful than a Congress-SP one. The Congress and SP votes are not mutually transferable while that of the BSP is, he says. In fact, the BSP's tough bargaining posture is predicated on the fact that its voteshare is not only higher than that of the Congress but is totally transferable. There's no evidence though to show that the Congress vote is. "What the BSP gets out of the alliance is representation in a possible government at the Centre," points out Vora.
Prof Hasan believes if the Congress aligns with the BSP, "the Muslim vote could well be divided. The alliance may also get upper-caste votes". Points out the Congress' Khursheed: "If the BSP wants to know what we bring to the table, it has only to look at the 1999 LS results."
On paper, a Congress-BSP alliance looks a winner. An analysis of its prospects based on the 1999 poll results says an additional 39 seats could have been won. Of these, the AICC analysis says the Congress could have won 22 more seats and the BSP 17.Winnable seats include eight in MP, 23 in UP, one each in Punjab, Uttaranchal and Rajasthan, three in Maharashtra and two in Chhattisgarh.
But it is seat adjustments outside UP which are proving a tricky proposition. The BSP wants to open its account in other states, although it was at best placed third or fourth in the seats it contested outside UP. The Congress is keen on a multi-state alliance because even in weak BSP seats, it ensured the former's defeat. In Mumbai North-East, for instance, the BSP took less than one per cent vote, but it was enough to defeat the Congress nominee. Party sources say the BSP may settle for 50 seats in UP if it is recompensed outside the state.
But the arithmetic of a Congress-BSP alliance isn't that simple. It merits a seat-by-seat analysis, as the BSP votebank is fixed (23 per cent in LS '99), but that of the Congress is highly elastic (14 per cent in LS '99). Depending on the candidate, the alliance could command a higher voteshare than the sum of the voteshares of the two parties fighting separately. Or vice versa. One example is Faizabad, where the Congress might have attracted Muslim votes allying with the BSP. Instead, it was wasted on the SP, which came in fourth.
The Congress stakes in an alliance with Mayawati are high. "We are willing to go quite far in accommodating the BSP," admits Khursheed. Barkis is willing. Trouble is, a reciprocal nod is yet to come.