Exactly 15 years ago, in the summer of 2003, LK Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee tried to persuade Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to join a national pre-poll alliance with the BJP in return for support to her in a hung UP Assembly.
This included a pre-poll alliance ahead of the Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh (MP), Delhi and Himachal Pradesh slated for that year. It was a tough bargain.
Mayawati felt that her vote-share would be transferrable to her alliance partner but the BJP may not be able to channel its votes back to the BSP. The BJP was fully aware of the benefits of the BSP’s committed vote-bank but Mayawati did not budge.
Fifteen years later, Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh are facing elections. In Karnataka, a few days ago, the Congress was able to stitch a last-minute deal with the JD(S), and with the BJP’s BS Yeddyurappa failing to prove a majority, the Rahul Gandhi-led party managed to return to office with HD Kumaraswamy of the JD(S) at the helm.
The upcoming elections in the three North Indian states too demand that the opposition parties forget their differences and form a pre-poll alliance, showing the same urgency that the Congress and the JD(S) showed after the elections in Karnataka. The question is whether the Congress-JD(S) will be able to complete the five-year term and extend the alliance to the crucial Lok Sabha polls in 2019.
Given that the Congress may not rebound enough to completely dislodge the BJP by 2019, the party needs to make a tectonic shift in its election approach – one of which includes forming a pre-poll alliance with parties like the BSP.
But what’s the need for such a pact?
1) After a long time, the BSP is not averse to joining a pre-poll alliance
The BSP has probably realised that, despite being the third largest party in the country in terms of vote-share, it drew a blank in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls due to the lack of alliances. The change in strategy is to convert the votes into seats. After a successful tie-up with the Samajwadi Party for the Phulpur and Gorakhpur bypolls in UP, and now Karnataka, where it had partnered with the JD(S), the BSP knows that its alliance with other parties does work. And it is moving fast. Having already announced an alliance with the SP for 2019, it has also sealed a deal with the Indian National Lok Dal in Haryana.
Without losing time, the Congress should approach Mayawati and propose a pre-poll alliance for the Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh Assembly elections this year. These polls are a semi-final to the big game of 2019, and the Congress needs to cover all the bases.
The BSP’s substantial presence in all of the northern states should serve as the deciding factor. Mayawati’s party continues to poll votes in the range of 2 lakh to 10 lakh and has a presence in almost every constituency in north India. This could come handy for the Congress in tight contests. In 2014, the BSP emerged as the third-largest party with 2.3 crore votes, or 4.1 per cent vote-share nationally, most of which came from the northern states.
During the 2013 Assembly elections in MP, although the BSP won only five seats with a vote-share of 6.42 per cent on the seats it contested, in many seats in the Bundelkhand region, along the UP border, its vote-share was substantial at more than 10 per cent. The BSP as an ally can prove to be the difference between getting close to a majority and getting a majority for the Congress.
2) Any ‘non-Congress, non-BJP’ pre-poll front will hurt the Grand Old Party
It appears unlikely that the Congress will enter into any pre-poll alliance with parties like the TDP (Tamil Nadu), the TMC (West Bengal), the CPM or the YSR Congress (Andhra Pradesh), which are increasingly appearing to coalesce towards a ‘non-Congress, non-BJP’ front.
But such a front will be a non-starter without the BSP. The JD(S) and BSP were also part of a similar tie-up in the Karnataka polls. The impact couldn’t be clearer.
A Congress-JD(S)-BSP alliance would have swept the polls with 57 per cent votes. But the BJP became the single-largest party with a vote-share of just 36 per cent. Karnataka proves that the Congress should stitch a pre-poll alliance even in places where it is strong.
That the BJP allied with smaller parties such as the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party and the Apna Dal to sweep the UP Assembly elections should also serve as a reminder for the need to take smaller parties along. Currently, the Congress has only one confirmed major pre-poll ally in the RJD. But that’s because in Bihar, the Congress is weak and doddering at the No. 4 position.
The Congress can perhaps take a backseat in Uttar Pradesh, playing second fiddle to the BSP-SP alliance, but ally with the BSP in other states by giving it respectable seat allocation.
3) With the BSP on board, the Congress will get the Dalit-Bahujan-centric outlook
The Congress should give up trying to peddle “soft Hindutva”, and stitch a Bahujan coalition, comprising OBCs, Dalits and Muslims, instead. As the Congress moves fast on alliances with like-minded parties, the BJP will try to rake up the divisive Hindu-Muslim issue, label the Congress, the SP and the BSP as Muslim-appeasing parties, and try to reverse-consolidate the “Hindu” vote in its favour.
The Congress alliance, however, can counter this by raising issues such as the SC/ST Act or the UGC order on reservation, forcing the BJP to be on the defensive.
The BSP has been a consistent supporter of the Congress-led UPA since 2004. It has bailed out the Congress many times at the Centre and even in states like Uttarakhand. In Karnataka, too, it was Mayawati who broke the ice between Sonia Gandhi and JD(S) patriarch HD Deve Gowda, helping the Congress-JD(S) alliance take shape. All this goodwill has not been reciprocated enough by the Congress.
It is also no secret that Mayawati harbours ambitions to be the PM. For the 2019 elections, that could become a bone of contention. But the Congress can easily defer that question to a post-poll scenario, keeping the PM candidature open by not insisting that Rahul be the lone choice.
There could also be resistance to an alliance with the BSP from within the Congress as it could view a revival of the BSP as being detrimental to its own fortunes in the long run – remember, the Congress’ decline in UP began with the BSP’s rise in the 1980s. But the Congress should realise that the stakes for 2019 are too high.
Karnataka has shown the compulsion for opposition unity, the Congress should pay heed.