Politicians usually communicate in two ways. They either state a known fact or covertly convey the unknown. Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati denying an alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP) at a recent press conference, for instance, was more about the latter. What she said at the presser was not as important as the clues she seemed to offer on her future strategy.
Why UP is important and, hence, Mayawati
For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the 2019 general elections make UP a make-or-break state. Having literally swept the state five years ago, the party must win by a good margin if it wants to wade off anti-incumbency across the Hindi belt. This makes the state’s two opposition players—the BSP and the SP—virtual roadblocks for the Narendra Modi government attaining the magic number of 272 in Lok Sabha. If SP and BSP don’t join hands, a second stint for Modi is an almost foregone conclusion.
On March 4, even as the BJP was celebrating its wins in the Northeast, the BSP dropped a bombshell, announcing support to SP candidates for the bypolls in Phulpur and Gorakhpur. This unprecedented development made headlines across news media. The two parties had not seen eye-to-eye since they parted ways in June 1995. Interestingly, it was the face of the BSP’s second-rung leadership—Ashok Gautam—who made the announcement about offering support to the SP.
As media was abuzz with talk of how the move signalled a return of the 1993 Mulayam-Kanshi Ram alliance that stopped the BJP juggernaut after the Ram Mandir movement, Mayawati briefed the press herself on March 5. She tried to ‘downplay’ the support to the SP, saying the arrangement was only limited to the by-polls, the Rajya Sabha and the legislative council elections. A closer analysis of her presser and the reaction on the ground, however, reveals more than what was heard.
On March 6, Times of India reporter Rohan Dua tweeted a video of SP candidate Nagendra Patel and SP leader Nidhi Yadav publicly thanking Behen Mayawati during their campaign rally in Phulpur. In the end, SP leaders wearing red caps were seen chanting the slogan, “Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati zindabaad zindabaad” (Long live Akhilesh and Mayawati). For SP’s ground workers, Behenji’s help was much more than just a tactical support to defeat BJP.
This was the first time since 1995 that the names of SP and BSP leaders were being taken together. On March 7, at a Gorakhpur rally addressed by SP chief Akhilesh Yadav, his supporters appeared jubilant, waving SP’s red flags alongside the BSP’s blue.
So what do these SP and BSP workers know that we don’t? Mayawati’s press conference on Monday offered the following clues:
Alliance less unrealistic: Since the falling out with the SP after a bitter guesthouse incident in 1995, Mayawati has been firm in her adversarial stand. Even when BSP founder Kanshi Ram was alive, attempts were made to stitch an alliance but Mayawati would have none of it. But the comfort with which she said that the SP and the BSP would vote for each other in the Rajya Sabha and the Vidhan Parishad elections showed she was comfortable with the idea of an alliance. Mayawati’s press conference was followed by Akhilesh thanking “the BSP and (Ajit Singh’s) Lok Dal for their support”.
The message in the medium: By letting her second-level leaders break the news of this alliance, she may have killed two birds with one stone. First, she exhibited that inner-party democracy was not a fictional concept within the BSP. And second, she gave out the signal that she was not averse to an ‘understanding’ with anti-BJP forces anymore.
Tie-ups with any party in any state: Dismissing an alliance with the SP in 2019, Mayawati reiterated that the final decision was yet to be made. But the hidden clue was: “We are open to alliances in any state and with any party to defeat the BJP if we get respectable seats.” This was in stark contrast to her old stand, that votes of other parties don’t get transferred to the BSP as the party’s 1996 alliance with the Congress had proved. But the BSP’s alliance with JDS in Karnataka now shows that Mayawati may have altered her strategy.
Multiple discussion with SP, nothing with Congress: In the press conference, Mayawati warned the Congress that if it expects BSP’s support in the Madhya Pradesh Rajya Sabha polls, then it must support the BSP in the UP Rajya Sabha elections. This indicates that there has been no talk with the Congress whatsoever and that everything was conveyed through this press conference alone.
This might make the Congress a little nervous since any pact between the SP and the BSP could reduce the party to just its traditional strongholds in Amethi and Rae Bareli, leaving the remaining seats to be shared by the stronger regional forces.
But what can become the Achilles’ Heel for a likely BSP-SP alliance is the seat-sharing formula. A panicked BJP unleashing the CBI and the Income Tax department on netas of the two parties cannot be ruled out. But even if the olive branch extended by the two parties results in a tactical understanding at most of the 80 constituencies then the BJP will face a really tough time in the state. The BSP and the SP, each commanding 20-22 per cent vote share can defeat the BJP, especially since even Cong voters (5-6 per cent) would, in case of such an eventuality, swing this alliance’s way.
These clues clearly suggest that a pact between the BSP and the SP is very much on the cards. Downplaying the alliance may be Mayawati’s strategy to catch the BJP napping. But workers of both parties sound extremely ebullient about the prospect and the next few days of campaigning in Phulpur and Gorakhpur will reveal how strong the bond gets in the coming days.
Remember, the ‘impossible’ alliance of RJD and JDU in Bihar also took roots during the 2014 by-elections. The proverb that there are no permanent enemies in politics could come true once again.