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Cat and mouse in Uttar Pradesh

As Dalits across the country took to the streets this week, protesting the Supreme Court order diluting the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, an unusual coming together happened in Uttar Pradesh. Samajwadi Party (SP) workers, with a history of violence and hostility towards Dalits and the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), joined the protesting Dalits in large numbers. The SP has since announced grand plans to celebrate the 127th birth anniversary of Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar.
Stunning as these unity moves are, they had been preceded by another incredible event — of Ms. Mayawati offering support to the Akhilesh Yadav-led SP in the by-elections to the VIP parliamentary seats of Gorakhpur and Phulpur. The script was classic David versus Goliath. Gorakhpur was vacated by Yogi Adityanath, five-time MP from the same seat, venerated head of the powerful Gorakhnath mutt and also the incumbent Chief Minister. Phulpur had been held by Keshav Prasad Maurya before he surrendered it to take charge as the State’s Deputy Chief Minister. This plus the Bharatiya Janata Party’s landslide victory in the 2017 Assembly election, made the ruling party impossibly strong. Yet the SP triumphed handsomely in both seats, which allowed only one explanation: Ms. Mayawati and Mr. Yadav had clicked as a pair and their infectious chemistry had brought together their warring vote bases.
But it wasn’t clear — it still isn’t clear — if the alliance will hold. During the by-election campaign, the BJP had called the SP and the BSP, saanp and chuchundar (snake and shrew) and that’s indeed what they had been until they unexpectedly united for the by-elections. The last unity experiment of the two parties had been 25 years earlier — the government they formed in 1993 collapsed within two years under the weight of mutual contradictions and ambitions — and the length of time since then had only reinforced the conviction that their enmity was irrevocable. The recent rapprochement proves the truism that in politics there are no permanent friends or enemies. But will they remain friends, resisting blandishments and threats that could and will come their way? The key to this imponderable is Ms. Mayawati rather than Mr. Yadav who has shown himself to be more willing of the two. In recent interviews, he has spoken of walking the extra mile to please Ms. Mayawati knowing she will set stiff terms for the alliance, including demanding a higher share of seats.
It is certain then that the coming months will witness a fierce tug of war between Mr. Yadav and BJP president Amit Shah. The winner will be decided by Ms. Mayawati. Though leaning towards the SP for now, she is considered entirely capable of switching sides. The uncertainty owes not only to the BSP chief’s quicksilver temperament and the suspense that always accompanies her moves but also to her long-held belief that while the BSP’s catchment of Dalits votes is fully transferable, the votes of the partner are not. The most powerful actor in this triangle is Mr. Shah of course. The BJP chief’s record since taking over brims with conquests accomplished via his immense persuasive powers and the humongous war chest at his command. From U.P. to the north-east, the BJP’s path to success is littered with defections and alliances formed and broken.
Mr. Yadav will do all he can to keep Ms. Mayawati by his side while Mr. Shah will want to do the opposite: wrench her away, not for an alliance with the BJP which will mean surrendering valuable seats to a volatile partner, but to keep the SP and the BSP apart. For both of them this is a fight they cannot afford to lose. For Mr. Yadav, it is a question of survival. For Mr. Shah, winning U.P., where the BJP alliance mopped up 73 of 80 seats in 2014, is intrinsic to securing a second term in office for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Mr. Yadav cannot match wits with the quick-thinking Mr. Shah. However, U.P. this time is not the U.P. of 2014 or 2017. In both elections, the Modi-led BJP was the challenger that kindled new hope among U.P’s impoverished millions. More critically, the SP and the BSP fought separately in both elections. Had they been united in 2014, the BJP would have still been ahead but with a considerably lower share of seats. In 2017, the combined vote share of the parties exceeded the votes polled by the BJP by a few percentage points. And if the Congress were to join this alliance, the Bihar-style Mahaghatbandhan would become unbeatable, even assuming the partners don’t fully transfer their votes.
Mr. Yadav’s eagerness is backed by statistics. If the SP does not align with the BSP, it will perish. The SP’s share of Lok Sabha seats and votes has plunged from 23 seats for 23.26% in 2009 to five seats for 22.35% in 2014. In the Assembly, it’s seen a fall from a high of 224 of 403 seats for 29.15% in 2012, to a pitiful 47 seats for 21.82% in 2017. The SP calculates that the BSP will agree to an alliance with it because the alternative is to face political extinction. The BSP’s decline since 2009 is even more dramatic than the SP’s. The party that won a majority on its own in 2007, finished behind the SP and the Congress with 20 Lok Sabha seats in 2009. In 2014, it won zero Lok Sabha seats for a vote share of only 19.77%. In 2017, belying its claim of a revival, the BSP won a meagre 19 seats for a vote share of 22.23%.
An important member of the SP, Sudhir Panwar, argues that both parties are at a juncture where the status quo is no longer an option. “For Ms. Mayawati too all other options are closed. The only way forward for her is to align with the SP.”
The logic is impeccable but Amit Shah is hardly likely to sit back and watch the SP and the BSP form an alliance and run away with the major share of seats. Ms. Mayawati is particularly vulnerable on finances: The BSP’s assets have grown manifold and she and her brother have faced several income tax raids over alleged accumulation of wealth. Sources in both parties have confirmed that at least one previous alliance attempt failed due to this pressure.
On the other hand, Ms. Mayawati has reached a point where she gains nothing from hedging her bets. An alliance with the BSP does not suit the BJP. So it will play deal-breaker. The SP will not oblige but the more susceptible BSP could. And yet, a surrender won’t win Ms. Mayawati any seats which will effectively end her career. In recent years, the BSP chief has recklessly expelled valuable Muslim and backward caste party leaders. The SP and the BSP have also seen an erosion in their core constituencies of Yadavs and Dalits. An alliance between them will stem the desertions. Another factor in the BSP’s calculation will be the perception that Dalits who were open to the BJP are now angry and alienated. The BJP’s trump card could be fresh caste mobilisation via the expected sub-categorisation of Other Backward Classes.
Even in that event, any SP-BSP pact will be a winner. Ms. Mayawati, though, remains an enigma. She has sworn to defeat the BJP but in Karnataka she has aligned with the Janata Dal (Secular), which indirectly helps the BJP.
Whatever happens in the end in U.P, it will be interesting to watch the upcoming cat and mouse game.