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The saviour’s burden

The SP-BSP combine has willy-nilly emerged as the strongest opposition to the BJP

It’s a wonder of this Lok Sabha election that the most unexpected of alliances, between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh, is holding up against multiple challenges while elsewhere in the country, the national Opposition presents a fragmented picture.

Overcoming the odds

Indeed, the responsibility of shoring up the Opposition against the powerhouse combination of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief Amit Shah has come to rest on the shoulders of Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati who helm the SP and the BSP, respectively. History and conventional wisdom suggested that the alliance was an impossibility, and if it happened, it would collapse under the weight of its contradictions. The bitter past between Ms. Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav (Akhilesh Yadav’s father and founder of the SP) aside, the SP and the BSP had also to contend with decades of debilitating hostilities between their core voters, the Yadavs and the Jatavs. That all this baggage was overcome, and a big push for the alliance came surprisingly from the rank and file of the two parties, speaks to the survival imperatives confronting the partners and their cadre. The BJP had driven each party to ruin and they had no choice but to unite against the behemoth.

Though the SP and the BSP teamed up to a collective rhetoric of national interest, the truth was that Ms. Mayawati and Mr. Yadav needed a way out of the existential crisis they faced. Yet today, the rhetoric has got invested with an urgency, a larger meaning beyond the borders of U.P., more so in the context of the Congress irresponsibly wrecking alliance possibilities in other States. With Opposition unity in shameful disarray across the country, the SP-BSP partnership has willy-nilly become the sole stumbling block between the BJP and its ambition to wrest a second term via a bounty of seats in U.P. The SP-BSP combine is a spectacular force capable of inflicting heavy losses on the BJP. And considering 71 of the BJP’s 2014 Lok Sabha seat share of 282 came from U.P, the significance of a reversal here cannot be overemphasised.

As the Lok Sabha election enters mid-point in U.P., the alliance looks in no hurry to unravel. On the contrary, the partners have stunned audiences at their joint rallies with a crackling chemistry that might have appeared scripted were it not for the fact that at least one of the actors, the mercurial Mayawati, is too much of her own person to perform to command.

In itself it was a surprise that Ms. Mayawati agreed to campaign for Mulayam Singh Yadav. But she did more. A quarter century of enmity got erased as she shared the stage with him and lavished praise on Yadav senior’s stellar leadership qualities. At another rally, a charming scene between Ms. Mayawati and Dimple Yadav attested to the blossoming of new relationships and the well-being of the alliance. The BSP chief embraced Yadav junior’s wife, also a candidate from Kannauj, and the adopted “daughter-in-law” sealed the deal by touching the senior woman’s feet. There was a time when Ms. Mayawati and Mr. Akhilesh Yadav were bua-bhatija (aunt and nephew) to their opponents who used the term as a taunt, to indicate they were a quarrelsome pair. Surreally, the BSP chief has now not only appropriated the insult but made the Yadav family her own.

Specific challenges

Will the bonhomie last? For all the serial photo-ops by the mint-fresh extended family, the alliance is in fact extremely fragile and stalked at every stage by myriad challenges. On a recent tour of Western U.P, I found that the formidable arithmetic of the alliance wasn’t necessarily making its fight easy. Each seat was hotly contested and the prognosis in local parlance was 50-50 — meaning the BJP and the alliance were equally placed for a victory. Two factors appeared to have complicated what on paper was a walkover. First, the Jats, a community that had voted nearly en masse for the BJP in 2014 and 2017, were not fully on board with the alliance despite its seat-sharing deal with the Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD). The pitch was queered further by the presence of the Congress, now bolstered by the unexpected induction of Congress general secretary, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, into the U.P. campaign.

Undoubtedly piqued by the Congress’s exclusion from the Opposition alliance, Congress president Rahul Gandhi had declared at the time that the Congress wasn’t a pushover and would play on the front foot. This was clearly not an idle boast as could be seen from the Congress choosing to field candidates who could cut into the alliance votes, especially where the party’s candidate was a Muslim, as in Saharanpur, Moradabad, Badaun, Bijnore and so forth. The obvious gainer from this would be the BJP, unless Muslim voters were able to muster extraordinary acumen and decide overwhelmingly in favour of the alliance. Past data shows that a united Muslim vote is a myth. A split Jat vote across western U.P. posed a similar threat to the alliance.

When I travelled in the same parts in February 2017, ahead of the Assembly election, it was to find the community still trapped in the spell cast by Mr. Modi in 2014. The assumption that Jats felt remorse for betraying the RLD and their leader Ajit Singh, was not borne out. Two years on, it was evident that community loyalties had not fully returned. Jat vote consolidation was visible only on the two seats contested by Mr. Singh and his son, Jayant Chowdhary. The vote was split vertically on other seats despite the three-way alliance between the SP, the BSP and the RLD. The Jat attraction to Mr. Modi was strong, and distressingly, most conversations with community leaders and voters, deceptively cordial in the beginning, ended in a tirade against Muslims. This despite an admission that tensions had cooled between Jats and Muslims and the mahoul (atmosphere) had improved considerably from the time of the 2013 Muzaffarnagar communal conflagration. One often heard refrain was that the RLD had made a political compromise and there had been no real change of heart.

This is a warning sign equally to the SP-BSP pact. The alliance’s future depends upon a lasting understanding between the partners and a seamless transfer of votes between their respective constituencies. The alliance has been helped in this election by a confluence of factors, among them farmer distress across communities, and a feeling, among Muslims and Dalits, of being overrun by the Yogi Adityanath Government. Farmers, both Jats and Muslims, are facing the triple whammy of delayed payment for sugar cane, mounting debt and an inability to dispose of their unproductive cattle. This commonality is one reason for the reduction of Jat-Muslim tensions.

As against this there is the looming Modi factor, and the mesmeric pull of toxic Hindutva, now represented by the likes of terror-accused Pragya Singh Thakur. The alliance has to hold strong, and prove that it is an alliance of substance and not merely a one-off arithmetical wonder. It needs to do this for itself, and even more because failure is not a option. Against all expectations, the SP and the BSP have come to represent the only viable Opposition to the BJP and it is a responsibility that cannot be carried lightly.

Vidya Subrahmaniam is Senior Fellow at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. E-mail: vidya.subrahmaniam@thehinducentre.com

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2020 12:12:30 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-saviours-burden/article27005285.ece

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