The bypolls in Uttar Pradesh, always considered the crucible of Indian politics, have revealed that a clever mixture of inclusiveness and economics is increasingly winning the day. This explains why the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Congress were able to leave the Samajwadi Party (SP) in their dust in these polls. The SP was tripped up by the complacency that certain votebanks would not desert it and that focusing on exclusive castes would pay dividends. In contrast, Mayawati’s foxy strategy, even before a less than impressive showing in the Lok Sabha elections earlier this year, has helped her to get away from her trademark Dalit politics and project her party as one with a pan-caste and class appeal. So, castes like the Brahmins, once anathema to her, are now visible faces of the BSP. Far from diluting her core competency, the voter plumped for this inclusive approach.
The Congress too played a deft hand in these polls. The secular appeal of Rahul Gandhi acted as a magnet for the Muslim voters to desert the man considered their messiah while the other choice was the secular BSP. The mistake that the SP strongman Mulayam Singh Yadav made was perhaps to get a former saffron leader Kalyan Singh into the party. The most devastating symbol of the SP’s decline was the defeat of Mr Yadav’s daughter-in-law, Dimple, from his stronghold of Firozabad at the hands of former actor Raj Babbar, who was once a star campaigner for him. Likewise, Mr Yadav’s once mesmerising presence fell flat in Etawah and Bharthana where once he would not have even bothered to campaign.
This means now that the battle for UP will be between a broadbased BSP and a resurgent Congress with its aam admi agenda. Both parties were also smart enough not to rely on any of the popular caste combinations and threw in a generous dose of economic sweetners to an eager electorate that is no longer content with tired old shibboleths. In effect, both were able to reinvent themselves, especially the BSP which did not take the poor LS showing lying down. If UP is a forerunner of things to come, it could signal the death of theories like cowbelt politics, caste- and religion-based votebanks and inherited fiefdoms. The candidates, a degree of progressive political vision and a diverse appeal will the carry the day in future.