Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati’s remark “Uttar Pradesh will decide who will come to power at the Centre and who will be the prime minister” is a challenge to the BJP, but also holds a subtle message for the Congress. The SP-BSP alliance fully intends to cut the BJP down to size in 2019 and all the grand old party needs to do is stay out of the way.
Until 1991, whoever won the majority of seats in UP ruled Delhi, or vice-versa. That changed when the Congress, despite winning only 5 of 85 seats in UP, was able to form a minority government at the centre. Again in 2004, the Congress got only nine seats in UP (against 55 to the SP and BSP), but together with its allies and the Left Front, easily passed the half-way mark.
In both instances, the Congress was able to shrug off its losses in UP thanks to its generous tally in the south. The scenario has changed since then. The Congress footprint in the south has shrunk drastically, making it more dependent than ever on regional parties.
The sub-text of Mayawati’s remarks is that the Congress should make the best out of being excluded from the Opposition alliance in the state. Instead of sulking, it should focus on cutting into BJP votes. If Congress president Rahul Gandhi can leverage his brahmin credentials to undermine the BJP’s upper caste votebank, he will win brownie points with the opposition.
The Congress is at rock bottom in UP, in any case. Its voteshare in Lok Sabha 2014 was just 7.5 per cent. It fell even lower in the 2017 assembly elections, to 6.2 per cent. So it has nothing to lose and everything to gain by contesting all 80 seats in UP. In a best-case scenario, it could pull off a repeat of 2009, when it won 21 seats and 18.5 per cent of the votes.
Mayawati pointed out with brutal frankness that the Congress would be a liability for the SP and BSP, because it cannot transfer what little voteshare it has to the ‘social justice’ parties. They see no reason to give the grand old party a free ride, at the expense of their own seats, because the Congress cannot offer a quid pro quo. What it can do is cut into BJP votes, in the hope that the SP-BSP will support its claim in a post-electoral scenario. A nod-nod, wink-wink understanding between Akhilesh and Rahul appears to be in place.
Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav are both mature politicians and will not make the mistake of underestimating the BJP. On the face of it, they are on a very strong wicket and have much to gain from each other. For example, the Samajwadi Party’s image as a criminalized party incapable of maintaining law and order will be offset by Mayawati’s impeccable track record in that respect.
The combined voteshare of SP-BSP in 2014 was 42 per cent, just half a percentage point less than the BJP’s. In this election, Mayawati’s main target was Mulayam Singh Yadav. It was widely rumoured that she had subtly transferred part of her votes to the BJP in seats where the SP and BJP were the main contendors. In the 2017 assembly elections, they fought separately but it was clear that both regarded the BJP as their main opponent. Their combined voteshare was 44 per cent to the BJP’s 40 per cent.
The mathematics of pre-poll coalitions are not based on simple arithmetic, however. There’s no guarantee that the SP will be able to transfer its votes to the BSP, although the reverse is certainly true, going by the bye-elections last year. The Congress-TDP tie-up in Telengana proved a flop, because the alliance voteshare in 2018 was 17 per cent less than the combined voteshare of both parties in 2014.
Nor is the BJP a walkover. The Dalits and Muslims combined account for 40 per cent of the total votes and both seem to be safely in the bag for the alliance. However, it must be remembered that the BJP won 18 per cent of the Jatav and 45 per cent of the ati-Dalit votes in 2014, not to mention 10 per cent of the Muslims. Among OBCs, its performance was spectacular. It won 27 per cent of the Yadav, 53 per cent of the Kurmis and Koeris, 77 per cent of the Jats and 60 per cent of the lower OBC votes.
The recent 10 per cent quota for non-OBCs and Dalits may work to the BJP’s advantage, by cementing the support of the economically backward among the upper castes. And while the BJP has so far chosen not to overtly pursue the Ram Janambhoomi agenda, there’s nothing to stop the RSS from doing so. The SP-BSP and BJP are under no illusions; both know they are in for a tough fight. And given the elasticity of almost all the votebanks in UP, any outcome is possible.
Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.