Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s bombshell induction into the Congress and her being given the charge of East Uttar Pradesh just ahead of the general election did the one thing previously unimaginable. It caused a little tsunami in the TV studios habitually glued to the movements of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India Today TV set its fetching photo feature on Ms. Vadra to the 1980’s Bollywood hit song, “ Bijli girane mei hun aayee (I’ve come like a thunderbolt).” Anchors across channels debated the ‘Priyanka game-changer.’
A fusion and shift
Yet, for all the hype around Ms. Vadra’s wild card entry, it is not the first big thing to happen this election season. That credit goes to the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) which closed a breathtaking deal just weeks earlier. The alliance was between two subaltern forces, each with a committed vote base, the fusion of which was capable of effecting a tectonic shift in the power politics of U.P. The two had been bitter enemies before but have buried the hatchet realising the match-winning potential of their combined strength. The story of the SP-BSP threatened to be the story of the fall of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in U.P. and it triggered a furious rejig of calculations: the alliance did look poised to overtake the BJP. But then came the Modi Government’s announcement of a 10% quota in education and jobs for the general category. Into this cocktail has now been added the Priyanka Vadra factor, the consequences of which are as yet unclear, aside from its electrifying effect on the morale of the Congress cadre. The Congress, which had been left out of the SP-BSP deal, has since acquired a swagger which it is showing off for all to see.
Admittedly, there will be more twists with the near certainty of schemes tailored for U.P. in the Union Budget. The frantic one-upmanship between the parties in U.P. owes itself to the State’s fabled role in deciding who wins and who sinks at the national level. Although at least three governments, led each by the Congress and two versions of the United Front, in 1991 and 1996-1998, have made it to Delhi bypassing U.P., the belief remains that the way to the national capital is via Lucknow. The reason for this is the BJP’s critical dependence on U.P. Whether in 1996, when it emerged as the largest single party and briefly held power for 13 days, or in 1998, 1999 and 2014, when it formed full-fledged governments at the Centre, U.P. has been central to the party’s successes.
State’s poll arithmetic
Consider U.P.’s role in making BJP governments at the Centre. In 1996, 52 of the party’s total seats of 161 came from U.P. In 1998, 57 out of 182. In 1999, 29 out of 182. And in 2014, exceeding all expectations, 71 out of 282. In sum, no U.P., no government for the BJP. So if the BJP must win all it can in U.P, its rivals in the State, whether the SP-BSP alliance or the Congress, must ensure precisely the opposite result because the stakes are equally high for them with three crucial objectives to be met: dislodge the Modi government, ensure their own survival in the State, and have a shot at forming the next government.
With equations changing constantly and ever new inputs causing the poll arithmetic to undergo rewrites, is it possible at all to guess who will stand where in U.P. when the last vote is counted? On paper, the BJP is unassailable. But the U.P. of today is not the U.P. of 2014 or even 2017. Demonetisation, which powered the BJP’s 2017 victory, has recoiled on the poor. State Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s cow-centric policies have deepened the woes of farmers already in distress even as the targeted killings of Muslims, sizeable at 20% of the population, have left the community feeling under siege.
So even in a static political situation, the BJP would have found it hard to repeat its 2014 performance. In 2014 as well as in 2017, the BJP beat its opponents in every department — in caste arithmetic, in booth management and in being visible 24 into 7 via a captive media. Mr. Modi’s charisma, the party’s deep coffers and the old chestnut of communal polarisation did the rest. In 2019, the rivals are a savvier lot, with their own caste arithmetic and PR tricks.
It is a given that the Modi-Shah pair will not stand by while their opponents strategise to defeat them. Reports suggest that the 10% general quota has enthused the alienated upper castes. Whether this group will be diverted in part to the Congress because of Ms. Vadra remains to be seen but her entry undoubtedly poses a threat to this previously solid BJP vote bank. A resurgent Congress can also chip away at the SP-BSP’s Muslim support. The biggest plus point for the Congress is the goodwill it has always enjoyed in U.P. On the other hand, it has no core constituency that can act as a pivot to attract other castes and communities.
A deeper reading
The SP-BSP alliance was not meant to happen, and if it has happened, it is only because the situation was dire for both of them. The partners had no future individually. The BJP’s vice-like hold on the State and its resources meant that the respective cadre of the SP and the BSP had no hope for the foreseeable future. No party can indefinitely retain its rank and file without the carrot of an electoral triumph and a realistic chance at the loaves and fishes of office. The arithmetic of togetherness, ignored earlier, could no longer be overlooked. After the failure of their last unity experiment in 1993, the SP and the BSP had resolutely resisted teaming up, largely due to deep personal animosities. A change of guard in the SP in the form of Akhilesh Yadav did a lot to ease things. But it is arithmetic that clinched the deal. Together the SP and the BSP are match winners and have been so in every election since 1993 when they first beat the BJP. Indeed, statistics show that together they will have likely stopped the BJP’s conquest of Delhi, whether in 1998, 1999, or even in 2014. In 1998, the BJP’s vote share from U.P. was 36.49%. In the same election, the SP-BSP had a combined vote of 49.60%. In 1999, the partners had 46% to the BJP’s 27.64%. And in 2014, they lagged behind but only by a few decimal points.
Today, the two parties look formidable. They have got the Rashtriya Lok Dal on board, and are looking to add smaller Other Backward Classes (OBC)-based parties. Realising that the OBC castes are vital for victory, the BJP fused them together brilliantly in 2014. This time the advantage of social engineering could be with the SP-BSP alliance. If the combine’s vote share crosses the one-third mark, it could even benefit from the three-way split.
If the alliance brings itself to do one more thing, it could become unbeatable. And that is to stop chasing the chimera of upper caste votes and pitch itself as a protector of OBCs and reservation, as against the BJP which has returned to its upper caste roots with the 10% general quota. Will they do it?
At the time of writing, Rahul Gandhi had promised a minimum income for the poor. How the BJP tops that will be known on February 1.
Vidya Subrahmaniam is Senior Fellow at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org