UP will be Rahul’s stumbling block

A titanic battle lies ahead in Uttar Pradesh with the BJP on one hand and the Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party together on the other playing for high stakes in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. The BJP’s new citadel of UP which catapulted it to Central power is shaking at the foundations. Quite remarkably, though they have a bitter legacy of yesteryears, the BSP and SP have put up a spirited show of unity. Efforts to drive a wedge between them have failed and the two leaders, fighting a battle of survival, are putting up a reasonably convincing show of togetherness.

While Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati used to be at dagger’s drawn, the coming of the new generation Akhilesh Yadav has given a fresh lease of life to the beleaguered regional parties in what is being touted as a bua-bhatija combination. With UP being the state with the largest representation in the Lok Sabha, it is this state that will drive the agenda substantially in coming years starting with the Lok Sabha polls three months down the line. For the BJP, it is an uphill battle but not one in which it can be written off or wished away. Its strategists are working overtime.

If Akhilesh-Mayawati are wily and foxy, the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine is calculative, too and well grounded. If there was an impression a few years ago that casteism was on its way out, electoral politics has ensured that it stays with a vengeance. Religious polarisation is equally the name of the game. There is, indeed, an obscurantist streak in today’s UP politics but it is part of a deliberate attempt to sow the wind so that what gets nurtured is a whirlwind. There is no knowing which way the wind will finally blow.

Seeing the conventional political domination of the Yadavs, Jatavs and Muslims which were the main props for its rivals, the BJP played a clever game in the last elections when it politicised certain marginalised castes and groups. This time around, the party would endeavour to spread its caste net wider even as the SP and BSP seek to consolidate their traditional votebanks. Within the OBCs, the BJP has prioritised the Mauryas, Kurmis and Lodhs as the promoters of Hindutva politics and consequently the ones to be wooed assiduously.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, SP had won five seats with 22.35 per cent vote share, while BSP could not win a single seat despite polling 19.77 per cent votes. Both, SP and BSP, were restricted to 50 and 20 seats respectively in last Assembly elections held in 2017. Both regional parties have borne the fruit of their partnership, reflecting the full flow of caste politics is back in the state. The victory in Gorakhpur and Phulpur Lok Sabha seats was a significant achievement for both SP and BSP, which entered an electoral pact for the first time after 1993 Assembly polls.

The Muslims have never voted for the BJP in large numbers but this time around the males among them are clearly piqued by the vociferous espousal by the BJP of moves to outlaw triple talaq. There would, evidently be a section among Muslim women that would be ingratiated to the saffron party for its support to women’s emancipation through outlawing of triple talaq but it remains to be seen whether Muslim women would defy the dictates of their spouses on a major scale.  An interesting aspect of the BSP-SP alliance is the way it has kept the Congress and Ajit Singh’s RLD which has pockets of influence in western UP out of it. A concession has, however, been made in terms of the two regional parties deciding not to put up candidates against Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.

The Congress will, however, suffer on account of not being part of the BSP-SP tie-up. The Muslims, too, would rather support BSP-SP than waste their anti-BJP votes in voting for the Congress. Fresh from its impressive showing in the Assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhatisgarh the Congress was in delirium but the UP snub has come as a rude shock. Yet, it is hoping that the anti-BJP mood in those states would give it a boost in UP, too despite being in a shambles organisationally.  Its resolve to contest all 80 seats may be misplaced bravado but Rahul Gandhi cannot be unaware that if the Congress is routed in UP, it can hardly come up trumps nationally.

Indeed, UP could well be the biggest stumbling block to Rahul’s ambitions on the national firmament though a post-poll alliance of the SP-BSP alliance with the Congress can hardly be ruled out. There is ofcourse the factor that Lok Sabha polls would be a different ball game for the Opposition than its fight in the Assembly elections where the issues were local and Narendra Modi’s oratory was not inwidespread evidence. If the Lok Sabha contest is projected as one between Modi and Rahul, the Modi juggernaut could roll on. The Modi government has the advantage of incumbency which confers on it the advantage of holding out a plethora of sops for voters.

The new law on quotas for upper caste poor may stumble at the court stage but by then the elections would be out of the way. All in all, it is a keen battle that will be on show in UP.

Kamlendra Kanwar is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.

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