Major tectonic shifts are set to define Indian politics in the run-up to the general elections of 2019. The Samajwadi Party (SP), led by Akhilesh Yadav, and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), led by Mayawati, have jointly announced their alliance for the Lok Sabha elections this year.
BSP chief Mayawati said that the two parties will contest 38 seats each out of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh. While smaller parties like the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), led by Ajit Singh and his son Jayant Chaudhary, will be accommodated with two seats, the Congress has been kept out of the alliance. However, the SP-BSP combine will not field candidates in the Gandhi-bastions of Amethi and Rae Bareli.
Reasons for the alliance
In 2014, the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 71 seats in the state with its ally, the Apna Dal, securing two seats in Mirzapur and Pratapgarh. The Congress was restricted to its pocket boroughs of Amethi and Raebareli, while SP could only win 5 seats. The BSP failed to win a single seat in the state, despite its consolidated vote bank. The assembly elections of 2017 witnessed further decimation of the opposition. The Akhilesh Yadav led government in the state was defeated by the BJP. Although the SP and the Congress had entered into an alliance, the BJP came to power with a thumping majority, winning 312 seats in the state. The alliance of the UP ke ladke was humbled with a mere 54 seats in the assembly, while the BSP could only secure 19 seats.
The state of Uttar Pradesh has 80 Lok Sabha seats, comprising nearly 15.7 per cent of the total strength of the lower house. Electoral success in Uttar Pradesh ensures a shot at power in Delhi, and the opposition parties understand the need for electoral reconfigurations.
The alliance between two of the biggest rivals in Indian politics bases itself on several factors. While both the SP and the BSP have failed to win significant number of seats in the past two elections and check the Modi juggernaut in the heartland state, their respective vote banks of Yadavs and Muslims, and Dalits have remained intact. Besides, the RLD may prove effective in the Jat-dominated belt of western Uttar Pradesh. While the BJP secured 42.6% vote share in Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it secured 40% vote share in the 2017 assembly elections. On the other hand, the SP secured 22.3% in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and 22% in the 2017 assembly elections. The BSP vote share rose from 19.8% in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to 22.4% in the 2017 assembly elections. Simple caste arithmetic and consolidation of vote share can provide an upper hand to the alliance in Uttar Pradesh against the BJP. No wonder, SP chief Akhilesh Yadav remarked on Friday that the “coalition will get the math right and defeat the BJP”.
In the last couple of years, several issues of mob lynchings, atrocities on Dalits, the crisis around the dilution of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, economic woes as a result of demonetisation and the hurriedly implemented Goods and Services Tax, among others have given a new lease of life to the regional satraps to flex their political muscle. Moreover, the alliance has tried and tested its political vitality through successful Lok Sabha by-election victories for the SP and the BSP in Phulpur and Gorakhpur and the RLD, SP and BSP combine in Kairana.
Mandal vs Kamandal?
The Hindi heartland, especially Uttar Pradesh, has been privy to the politics of Mandal vs Kamandal since the late 1980s with the rise of caste-based parties and the BJP. At the height of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the BJP won 221 seats in the assembly elections of 1991, securing about 31.5% votes. The saffron party was halted by the electoral understanding of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Kanshi Ram in 1993, with the SP-BSP combine winning 109 and 67 seats respectively out of the 256 and 164 seats contested by them in an alliance. It had given rise to political slogans such as, “Mile Mulayam Kanshiram, hawa mein ud gaye Jai Shree Ram”.
However, the coalition government fell two years with the infamous “Guest House scandal”, wherein Mayawati was humiliated and attacked by party workers of the Samajwadi Party at the Meerabai Guest House in Lucknow following BSP’s call for withdrawal of support to the Mulayam Singh Yadav government. It led to a complete breakdown of relations between the two regional satraps. Mayawati became Uttar Pradesh’s first Dalit chief minister, albeit for a brief period, with support from the BJP in 1995, which sought to divide the consolidated vote bank of the caste-based alliance to its own benefits.
However, from 1995 to 2002, Uttar Pradesh has seen uncertain years of President’s Rule, brief chief ministerships and fickle coalitions. Post 2002-03, Uttar Pradesh largely witnessed a three-way fight between the SP, BSP and the BJP, with the Congress gradually losing out in its status as a key player in the state. The regional caste-based parties held sway in the state’s politics with the Samajwadi Party forming government twice in 2002 and 2012, while Mayawati’s “Dalit-Brahmin” combination gave her absolute majority in the assembly elections of 2007. These parties played a crucial role as kingmakers during the UPA years too, ensuring the survival of the Congress government at the Centre at significant points of time.
The politics of caste trumped religious mobilisation and benefitted the regional parties in their attempt to grab power. The politics of Uttar Pradesh has been characterised by two things over the last decade and a half since 2014: the enmity between the political leadership of SP and BSP, and their near-total dominance over the state’s politics. However, the extent of the victory of the BJP in 2014 and 2017 presented a grave threat to parties like the SP and BSP, and their carefully crafted caste coalitions. Narendra Modi’s idea of development combined with latent religious mobilization across the state and Amit Shah’s caste equations led to massive victories for the BJP. According to Prof. Badri Narayan, “Narendra Modi’s backward caste card and Amit Shah’s Hindutva card, together with the creation of a mixed package of Hindutva heat, caste equations, mirage of development and air time politics, led to the Modi storm in UP, in which the SP and BSP lost their traditional voters to the BJP.”
The SP-BSP coalition is aresult of the rise of Narendra Modi and a generational shift in the Samajwadi Party under Akhilesh Yadav, which has reignited the political contours of the 1990s. While Mayawati has stated that she is ready to forget the “Guest House scandal” for national interest, Akhilesh Yadav has let political pragmatism define electoral interests. In the press conference, he stated, “I am grateful to Mayawati for giving me equal status. They should know any insult to Mayawati is my insult.” Against the BJP-RSS’s religious and social engineering strategies, the SP-BSP in the contemporary era are following on the footsteps of Kanshi Ram’s famous election slogan of 1993, that “the road to Delhi passes through UP”.
One can only guess whether the newly found trust between Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav will be able to sustain the alliance to combat the electoral machinery of the BJP or perish under the weight of its historical baggage and political contradictions.
Avishek Jha is a 2018 Young India Fellow, and is currently a Programme Fellow with Academe India.