Unlikely friends

The euphoria in the United Progressive Alliance camp over the defeat of the Opposition-sponsored cut motions in the Lok Sabha is belied by the numbers: 289 for the government and 201 against. Exclude the Bahujan Samaj Party's 21 MPs — and it is immediately apparent that the Manmohan Singh government is a minority regime surviving on divisions within the Opposition, and leveraging its position to exploit the vulnerability of some of its rivals. That the dramatic rescue act by the BSP owes to some deft back-room understanding is plain enough. The larger question is the impact of this quid pro quo agreement on BSP-Congress relations in Uttar Pradesh. The BSP and the Congress have formally aligned just once, in 1996 when neither could have foreseen a situation where they would emerge as principal rivals in U.P. With 83 of 85 Lok Sabha seats from the State in 1984 and 269 of 425 Assembly seats in 1985, the Congress was master of all it surveyed in India's most populous State. Yet by 1991, the party was out of the reckoning in U.P. with only five seats in the Lok Sabha and 46 seats in the Assembly. While the Congress' marginalisation in U.P. was politically humiliating, it allowed the party the freedom to throw its weight behind whoever it perceived as a friend — the BSP in 1996 and the Samajwadi Party in later years, with a fair amount of cross-wooing thrown in.

Once Ms Mayawati wrested power from Mulayam Singh, the Congress's equation with the BSP changed — from on-again, off-again friendship to bitter rivalry accentuated by the deep personal animosity between the U.P. Chief Minister and Rahul Gandhi. The BSP chief and the Congress general secretary tend to bring out the worst in each other. The two fought bitter public battles much before the 2009 Lok Sabha election. The feud intensified after the Congress staged a surprise victory over the BSP. Not only has the Congress' rising star set himself the task of winning the 2012 U.P. Assembly election, he has left no one in doubt that he means to achieve this by weaning away Ms Mayawati's phenomenal Dalit following. But the BSP chief did not earn her formidable reputation for nothing. She has not deviated from the strategy of building an independent base and repeatedly testing its strength. Following her Lok Sabha setback, she has assiduously targeted her core constituency, placing Dalits in key positions of power and directing resources to Dalit-specific programmes. Against this background, it is difficult to see either party giving effect to the new ‘friendship' forged at the Centre. It is a cardinal principle in politics that principal rivals cannot be friends. And that is how it looks, at least in U.P.

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Printable version | Apr 1, 2020 6:47:35 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/Unlikely-friends/article16373487.ece

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