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What the BSP-SP rapprochement means

There are mixed signs at the moment. But if it happens, it is a potentially dramatic shift in the politics of Uttar Pradesh with implications for 2019 general election.

analysis Updated: Mar 05, 2018 07:37 IST
Prashant Jha
BSP chief Mayawati and former UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav.
BSP chief Mayawati and former UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav.(PTI File Photos)

Twenty-three years after the ‘Guest House incident’, where Samajwadi Party workers assaulted Mayawati and the latter swore to keep off the SP and its leader Mulayam Singh Yadav forever, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the SP have indicated there could be a degree of rapprochement.

There are mixed signs at the moment. But if it happens, it would be a potentially dramatic shift in the politics of electorally crucial Uttar Pradesh with implications for 2019 polls.

Three questions are key to understanding the possibilities, motivations and limitations of this move.

Who do the SP and the BSP represent?

The Samajwadi Party began with a core constituency of OBCs and Muslims. But over the years, from being a party of different backward groups, SP ended up becoming a party of Yadavs. This Yadav plus Muslim equation, coupled with the caste votes brought in by candidates of different castes, was key to SP’s political fortunes.

BSP’s core constituency was Dalits, with a slice of the most marginalised backward groups. But over the years, the party shrank to being the party of Jatavs, a Dalit sub-caste to which Mayawati belongs. But to succeed, BSP has needed one more social group. In 2007, it was the Brahmans, which worked out. In 2017, it was the Muslims, which did not work out.

The SP and BSP were allies in the early 90s.

But it did not last. And the reason it collapsed, besides Mayawati and Mulayam Singh’s clashing ambitions, were the contradictions between their respective social constituencies. There was often a conflict between landed OBCs, including Yadavs, and landless Dalits. The two began competing ruthlessly.

What brings them together?

SP and BSP are today on the verge of overcoming this history of acrimony.

The primary impulse is political survival. Mayawati has now lost three elections in a row: the 2012 assembly, 2014 Lok Sabha and 2017 assembly.

She has maintained a solid vote share hovering around 20 percent, but this has not translated into seats. This has led to desertions from the party, the weakening of the organisation, and one more electoral setback could well close the doors for her.

She is particularly vulnerable because BJP is aggressively targeting her own core base, Dalits. Non-Jatav Dalits shifted on a large scale to the BJP in 2017, and in the bypolls, in the absence of BSP candidates, there was a possibility that even Jatavs of Gorakhpur and Phulpur may move.

For the SP too, the 2017 loss has been devastating. With Yogi Adityanath consolidating and BJP aggressively wooing the non Yadav backward communities, the SP can see returning to power will be difficult. One reason why it lost was also because the Muslim vote got fragmented; BSP put up over 100 Muslim candidates.

The generational change in SP has helped. Akhilesh has always respectfully called Mayawati , ‘Bua’ or aunt. He sought to reach out to her even before the last assembly polls. His overtures, and Mulayam Singh and Shivpal Yadav’s absence from active SP politics, has probably made it easier for Mayawati to consider the alliance.

Will it work?

On paper, a unified SP-BSP alliance, with Congress as a junior partner, appears unbeatable. Going by the 2017 verdict, this would have a combined vote share of over 50 percent. It will unite the anti-BJP vote. Muslims, Jatavs, Yadavs and even a slice of upper castes could come together. It will energise the cadre and challenge the BJP machine. However, in practice, this will not be easy to translate on the ground.

The first challenge will be sharing of seats and distribution of tickets.

Two, these social groups have a lot of conflict. It is not obvious that BSP’s Jatav voters will support SP’s Yadav candidates — or SP’s Yadav voters, prefer a BSP or Congress candidate over a BJP candidate.

Three, if the message goes out that this alliance is meant to unify the Muslim vote, as the BJP will definitely project, there could well be a counter Hindu consolidation. And finally, personality clashes on the ground, and one party machine going inert in seats where another party contests are inevitable.

UP will be at the centre of the 2019 election yet again. With the bypolls, and BSP-SP dalliance, the action has begun.