A year after its Lok Sabha victory, a BJP leader asked a question in a private conversation: “Is there any chance, however remote, of Mayawati and Mulayam coming together?”
The BJP, he went on, would win in UP if the two did not unite. But it would become difficult for the party, if, say, the SP and BSP were to make common cause. His other observation was even more interesting: “The more the Samajwadi Party feels it can make it again on its own, the better it would be for us.”
The BJP need have no fears on the score of Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav coming together. As for the Samajwadi Party, on the defensive on the law and order front, chief minister Akhilesh Yadav has of late tried to counter his party’s rough-and-ready image by appropriating development as his core agenda — going for expressways, stadia, a metro, hospitals, women’s helpline, cycle tracks, power projects, a nutrition mission, etc. Today, people in UP tell you: ‘Bhaiyya (Akhilesh Yadav) is good. But ...’
Their ‘but’ refers to an unhappiness with the party on the law and order front. What has also not helped is the way Mulayam has upbraided Akhilesh and his ministers publicly. It may have been ‘netaji’s’ way of assuaging the ‘chacha-tau brigade’s angst at the nephew’s new-found assertion, but it has done nothing for the party or the government in the run-up to the critical elections.
The Muslims in UP, who favoured the SP, Congress and the BSP, in that order of preference, are today increasingly unhappy with Mulayam. They blame him for not supporting them when the Jat-Muslim violence took place in Muzaffarnagar in 2013, suspecting a tacit understanding between the SP chief and the BJP, and they felt let down when Mulayam broke up the Janata parivar in the midst of the Bihar elections and urged the people to vote for ‘anyone but Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad’.
The two years of the BJP rule have fuelled Muslim fears to such an extent that they are increasingly voting more strategically to defeat whoever can take on the BJP.
Could Mayawati, who is on the upswing in UP, be the chief gainer of this sentiment? However, there are Muslims who fear that she could go with the saffron party in the event of a hung assembly, as she had done in the past. She has decided on tickets for around 100 Muslims, mostly in western UP. With a Dalit-Muslim combination, she could sweep in western UP, which accounts for 120 seats (going up to Bareilly).
Essentially, Mayawati’s appeal lies in her perceived ability to set right the ‘law and order’ situation. People have begun to say that if she comes to power, she will ‘fix things’. Curiously, they do not expect that she will curb corruption, or create jobs, or bring succour to farmers.
Then there is the sudden cooling off of Ajit Singh’s RLD for a merger with the JD(U). The idea was a tie-up between the unified party and the Congress, and poll whizz kid Prashant Kishore had suggested that Priyanka Vadra be the face of this alliance in UP. But the RLD seems more inclined to go with the BJP today. Ajit Singh will undoubtedly get a ministerial berth in New Delhi; the RLD workers are also more enthusiastic about going with an ascendant force. The BJP will gain by consolidating its Jat support in western UP, dented by the recent Jat stir in Haryana, and by driving a wedge in the opposition ranks. The RLD, by itself, does not add up to much but by turning its face away from the Nitish-Congress initiative, it may ensure that the Congress remains a non-starter in UP.
The Congress story might have been different had it managed to tie up with the BSP. This would have helped the BSP by firming up the Muslim support behind such an alliance.
It is not for nothing that the BJP has seized every opportunity to bring the debate on ‘nationalism’ centre stage because this is an issue that can polarise the situation in the Ganga belt, and the party gained richly from the polarisation in the 2014 elections, notching up 71 seats. It can be expected to keep the issue alive in one form or another and party president Amit Shah has exhorted party persons to keep the focus on nationalism.
The party may not go for communal clashes of the Muzaffarnagar variety this time because of a calculation that the floating voter — after all, Modi moved from an 18% hardcore support to 31% because of these voters — gets uncomfortable with repeated violence. The usual Pakistan bashing will also be less convincing, with the PM having made special overtures to Pakistan. Ayodhya seems to be a spent issue electorally, though the party is keeping the mandir up its sleeve. Unlike the issue of Rohith Vemula, which worried the BJP — the Dalit vote for the BJP had doubled in 2014 — ‘JNU’ came in handy for the party, enabling it to flog ‘nationalism’, which has many takers.
The UP polls are almost a year away. And yet parties are already positioning themselves for the mother of all battles. It will be a particularly high-stakes election for the BJP, expected either to give it the adrenaline it needs for 2019 or to hasten its decline. Remember, the party could not have got a majority on its own but for UP.
Neerja Chowdhury is a senior journalist and political commentator
The views expressed are personal