It was in 1993, when Mulayam Singh Yadav, founder president of the newly born Samajwadi Party, and Kanshi Ram, national chief of the fledgling Bahujan Samaj Party, sprang a surprise by forging an electoral alliance with the sole purpose of checkmating the resurgent BJP riding the crest of the Ram temple wave.
The coalition government lasted one year and 181 days, but the two regional parties grew enough to eventually control the state’s politics. The Congress was already in decline since it allowed the laying of the foundation stone for the Ram temple in Ayodhya in 1989; the BJP also started decaying along with its emotive temple issue losing potency after the demolition of the disputed structure in December 1992.
While the Congress regained ground and formed a government at the Centre in 2004, it could never revive in Uttar Pradesh that sent the Gandhi family – from Jawaharlal Nehru to Rahul Gandhi -- to the Lok Sabha.
The decline of the BJP, however, happened gradually and by the time the state entered the new decade, it was very far from the seat of power. The saffron party barely won 88 seats polling 20.08% in 2002 and a decade later in 2012, fell to 47 seats and 15% votes.
Nonetheless, it propped up Mayawati in 1995 after the SP-BSP alliance collapsed and supported her government from outside. However, in 1996 elections, the BJP agreed to play second fiddle to the BSP. She became chief minister of a coalition government.
The BJP was eyeing her Dalit vote bank and eventually it was in 2017 that it could penetrate it and take away a sizeable chunk of Pasis (a sub-caste of Dalits) from her party’s fold.
Thus the state’s politics was literally controlled by Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav and both got their first jolt in 2014 when Narendra Modi, then Gujarat chief minister, landed in the state to contest the general election from Varanasi. He swept UP in 2014 and again in 2017. By then, while Mayawati had lost many of her caste champions to the BJP, Akhilesh Yadav had replaced his father Mulayam.
Is it the end of regional party politics in UP? What next for Mayawati and Akhilesh? Can they revive their respective parties as both survive on the politics of caste identity?
Political analysts usually feel that leaders may be down but not necessarily out.
Mayawati may have to change her style of politics as all caste combinations and calculations will fail until she moves beyond building statutes. Young Dalits want jobs, laptops and a better life. She has so far promised dignity to her voters but she will have to add development too.
Akhilesh has added aspirations to his caste politics and added development to his agenda. He also has age on his side. But he faces a major challenge from within his own family. The knives are bound to be out as his uncle Shivpal Singh Yadav will be vengeful. His father had once said, “I have given the party to him for three months. Let him contest this assembly election the way he wishes.”Mulayam may try to take control of the party from him before the 2019 Lok Sabha election and it is not going to be easy. He may have to fight for the chair against his own son. Now that his second wife Sadhna Yadav has also come out in the open with political ambitions for herself and son Pratik Yadav, Mulayam may have to do a tightrope walking as he also knows Akhilesh is the party’s future.
On the other hand, Akhilesh is also prepared as he says, ‘Victory has many fathers, defeat none.’
An emboldened BJP will try to end the rule of the regional parties and repeat its 2014 performance in 2019 as it wants bipolar politics in the country. However, it will prove to be a gigantic task as both the regional parties have a base vote which will be hard to penetrate.
(Sunita Aron is senior resident editor, HT, Lucknow. She tweets at @overto)