The most anticipated political event after the five-state elections, including the three Hindi heartland states, has taken place: it is the alliance between the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh. What does the alliance mean for the BJP and why it is significant for the next general elections? The answer is obvious: UP is the largest state in India with 80 Lok Sabha seats and it’s an indisputable fact that whoever wins UP usually rules India. In other words, if you lose UP badly, you cannot rule India. This has been proved in several general elections in the past, including 2014 when BJP swept UP with 71 seats (73 in alliance with Apna Dal). Arithmetically, UP played a significant role in propelling BJP to power in Delhi.
Therefore, the coming together of SP and BSP could be a bad news for the BJP because it could possibly prove to be game changer in 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The emergence of a new political combine in UP will not only dent the political might of the ruling dispensation, it is also a reminder to the BJP that the same forces which had humbled the party in 1993 assembly elections after it managed to ride to power in 1991 on the back of Ayodhya movement, are back to challenge its political supremacy once again 25 years later. This could send ominous signals to the BJP which rules UP and has seen the demonstration of the dominance of the SP-BSP combine when the alliance defeated the BJP in four successive by-elections in 2018, that include the bastions of chief minister Yogi Adiyanath and deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya.
While the SP-BSP alliance, which also has two smaller constituents in Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and Nishad Party, is likely to become a nightmare for the BJP in UP, the exclusion of Congress from the alliance may not be a good news for the grand old party, which now braces to fight the elections alone in UP on all 80 seats. That the BJP has already got jitters became evident when on the first day of the party’s national executive in New Delhi on January 11, party president Amit Shah devoted a good 15 minutes talking about the SP-BSP alliance. Though he dismissed it as a ‘farce’, BJP leaders, including prime minister Narendra Modi, are busy running down the alliance as an attempt for ‘petty political gains’ and a product of ‘fear of Modi’.
But the fact is most political alliances are opportunistic in nature and that does not exclude the Modi government’s 35-party NDA, though BJP has lost some 16 allies in the last four years. This should make them even more jittery. It is believed that the SP was inclined to have the Congress on board, but for Mayawati who has her own issues with the Congress. The decision to leave uncontested the two constituencies of Rai Bareli and Amethi, represented by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi respectively, not only sends out the message that doors have been kept open for the Congress for a post-poll arrangement, a tacit understanding with the Congress on select seats, where the SP and BSP may not be on a strong footing, also cannot be ruled out.
Organizationally, the Congress may be a weak party in UP, but the party is not so down and out of contention as it was in 2014. Its recent victory in the three heartland states has put the Congress on a revival path and has established Rahul Gandhi as a leader. If he puts the party organisation in order in UP, the Congress could emerge as a serious player. So what could be the impact of the SP-BSP alliance on BJP? If opinion surveys are to be believed, the alliance will be a big challenge for the BJP in 2019; it could also hit Modi’s chances of returning to power. According to December 2018 ABP News-C Voter survey, the SP-BSP alliance will be victorious on a whopping 50 seats and NDA will be down to only 28 seats, thus losing 43 seats compared to 2014.
The Maya-Akhilesh combine could also alter the BJP’s poll math: the NDA will be reduced to 247 seats, 25 short of a clear majority. A closer look at 2014 vote share data reveals a clear picture. In 2014, the BJP and its ally Apna Dal got 43.3 percent of the votes and won 73 seats or 90 per cent of the seats. This is because the Opposition vote got divided between the SP, BSP and the Congress-RLD alliance. The combined vote share of the newly formed alliance constituents was 43.1 percent, which is almost equal to that of the NDA.
This means that had the SP, BSP and RLD contested the 2014 election as an alliance and transferred their votes effectively, they would have won more seats than the NDA. The same logic applies to 2017 UP assembly elections in which the NDA got 41.4 percent of the votes and won 80 per cent seats, while the Opposition vote got divided between BSP, RLD, Nishad Party and the SP-Congress combine. The combined vote share of the SP, BSP, RLD and Nishad Party in 2017 was 45.6 per cent, 4. 2 percent more than the NDA. This underscores the importance of the SP-BSP alliance and the reason why the BJP feels edgy.
This excludes the prospects of a vote swing against the BJP, which is bound to happen because of anti-incumbecny. A negative swing of 3 per cent vote against the NDA and in favour of the alliance may reduce the NDA to less than 20 seats. The caveat here is that the success of the alliance would depend on their ability to transfer votes to other constituents. Of course, the BJP will try to counter the alliance with measures that may polarise voters. A lot will depend on how well the Congress plays its cards. The success of the alliance will also depend on the minority vote. Muslims in UP are a potent anti-BJP force and any division in their votes would benefit the BJP.
`Minority support for the SP is a given; but having aligned with the BJP on three occasions in the past, the BSP may find it difficult to enlist minority support. In such a case, if the Congress emerges as a serious contender, it could prevent division of the minority vote with silent understanding with alliance partners. In such a play-script, the outcome of the political battle in the coming general elections will not only decide the BJP’s fate but also that of the prime minster.
A L I Chougule is an independent senior journalist.