Mayawati, in her remarkable rise up the power ladder over the past two decades, has displayed the instincts of a chess player. This means she has reached beyond her own strength to take advantage of the vulnerabilities of other pieces on the political chessboard. The BSP supremo's uncanny ability to capitalise on the individual failings of each of her opponents in Uttar Pradesh has time and again overcome what would otherwise be insurmountable odds.
Not surprisingly, as Mayawati today faces the formidable task of winning another term of office in Lucknow, she is looking to deploy the same tactic of using the weakness of her foes rather than depend on merely her own resources. The Uttar Pradesh chief minister's first trump card just ahead of next year's crucial state assembly polls has already revealed her flair for political chess. Indeed, her dramatic move to divide Uttar Pradesh into four different states has caught her rivals by surprise, exposing the confusion in the Congress and the BJP over the matter and provoking Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav to oppose the division outright, ensuring that it becomes a major issue in the coming polls.
Despite the palpable disarray in the Opposition camp, the mood among Mayawati's close aides in Lucknow is devoid of any kind of swagger or over-confidence. They appear acutely aware of how difficult it would be for an incumbent government to get a decisive mandate in its favour. "We are not stupid to think that 2012 will be the same as 2007 when the entire public mood had turned against Mulayam Singh Yadav," remarked one of her closest aides.
Surprisingly frank about the potential damage that anti-incumbency could do to Mayawati this time around, her aides say that although she has her nose clearly in front of her rivals, it would be tough to extend that gap to giving the BSP a clear majority on its own like last time. Some of those closest to her also admit with rare humility that it was not just anti-incumbency but some serious mistakes had been committed and a hundred things could have been done better. Yet they have innate faith in her ability to outmanoeuvre her opponents.
"It depends on the kind of trump cards she plays over the next few months. We have already seen the first one, let us wait for what comes next," a close aide said.
A major step by the BSP supremo to counter the anti-incumbency factor is the denial of tickets to a substantial majority of sitting legislators. In most areas, particularly in rural Uttar Pradesh, public disenchantment is more with the local electoral representative rather than with Mayawati or the BSP and this could be a clever move to regain voter confidence. "Unlike most other party leaders, she has such complete authority in the party that she can afford to deny tickets to as many legislators as she wants," an aide said.
There is also unanimity among political observers in Lucknow that Mayawati's core Dalit base remains intact and perhaps even stronger than ever before despite the relentless propaganda campaign against her by political rivals and the media. However it remains to be seen whether she has been able to retain the loyalty of her auxiliary base of most backward castes (MBCs) and poor Muslims and the addition of a upper caste layer led by Brahmins that made a vital contribution to her majority in 2007. Although the auxiliary base and the upper caste layer had deserted the BSP in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, in the past few years she has sought to woo them back.
Ultimately, Mayawati's real trump card would be the perceived inability of any of her main political rivals to provide a credible challenge in the polls. "It looks like Mayawati again with a reduced majority. None of the others seem to have the spunk to stand up to her," asserted a Lucknow taxi driver.
'Netaji', as his supporters call Mulayam Singh Yadav, has been slow to awaken from the virtual political coma he had sunk to a few years back under the influence of his then closest advisor Amar Singh. Yet there is little doubt that this once formidable Yadav chieftain helped by his son Akhilesh represents the most real challenge to Mayawati in the coming elections.
With Akhilesh evoking considerable enthusiasm in the Yadav belt during his cycle yatras and the return of Azam Khan to the party fold, bringing back a section of the estranged Muslim community, the Samajwadi Party is expected to put up quite a fight in the assembly elections.
However Mulayam Singh is not only a lion in winter but a seriously ill one believed to be suffering from myeloma that could remove him from the campaign trail. His son is still to acquire his father's stature and is further handicapped by reported sabotage by his uncle Shivpal Singh who resents being marginalised. The bitter competition with the Congress, highlighted by the recent scuffle between Rahul Gandhi aides and Samajwadi workers, could divert the party's focus to oust the Mayawati regime.
Rahul Gandhi, by being the first opposition leader in Uttar Pradesh to throw down the gauntlet challenging Mayawati, had given the Congress a definite edge several months ago. Unfortunately for him and his party, they have been ruthlessly exposed as we come closer to the state assembly polls. Gandhi himself has not been able to give proper direction to the Congress campaign with his first major election meeting getting publicity for all the wrong reasons - his top aides including UPA ministers kicking protesters and a self-inflicting gaffe describing migrant workers from the state as "beggars". The party's lack of grassroots organisation and credible local leaders is making the task of the young scion of the Gandhi dynasty that much more difficult. To compound matters, the Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement and Baba Ramdev's vow to humiliate the Congress has severely dented the party's emerging base among the urban middle classes and rural upper castes.
In fact, the Congress, which seemed not so long ago if not a serious claimant to power at least fairly certain of improving substantially its pathetic tally of 22 seats in the last assembly polls, seems to be no longer so. This has started worrying even the BSP which stands to gain from the anti-Mayawati vote being divided. "We want the Congress to do badly but not so badly that it all goes to Samajwadi Party," said a BSP strategist.
Bharatiya Janata Party
The BJP is a pale shadow of the party that dominated the UP landscape in the early 1990s. Corroded by caste conflicts within the party, it has withered away into an organisation that lacks the self-belief to pitch for the throne in Lucknow. With the Ayodhya movement losing its resonance, its backward caste base eaten away by Kalyan Singh and its slipping hold among upper castes, Uttar Pradesh, which launched the BJP into heading a national government more than a decade ago, is clearly no longer a party bastion.
In the past few months, there has been evidence of a BJP revival in UP after the campaign against the corrupt government led by Congress at the centre. All of a sudden there is speculation that the upper castes could be returning en masse to the BJP. Even if this does not lead to huge gains, the party is believed to be preparing to give support to Mayawati should she require the numbers to form a government and wait for the Lok Sabha polls to gain the benefit.
- The author is a Delhi-based journalist and the author of Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati