Waiting Game: UP - BSP has a slight advantage over BJP
The SP is not going to simply collapse and disappear to convenience its rivals.
With less than six months to go, the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election of 2017 is engrossing the political class. There is a three-way contest afoot between the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the incumbent Samjawadi Party. Theoretically there is a four-way battle, with the Congress in the race. Potentially a five-way election, with the SP splitting, would make things even more interesting. However, this split is unlikely, notwithstanding the current struggle within the Yadav family. Where do things stand? The grim news is for the Congress, with Rita Bahuguna Joshi, a long-time functionary of the party in Uttar Pradesh, leaving for the BJP. In electoral terms, this is not a major loss. Ms Joshi is not a huge vote winner; if she had been, the Congress would have been differently placed in the first place. Nevertheless her departure is telling of the failure of the Congress to win enough support in the brahmin community, a reasonably sized cohort (about 10-12 per cent of state population) and influential beyond its numbers.
When the Congress began its Uttar Pradesh campaign under the leadership of Prashant Kishor and Rahul Gandhi, it targeted brahmins — and hence placed Sheila Dikshit as its chief ministerial candidate. The calculation was brahmins had an old association with the Congress and were probably tiring of Narendra Modi in mid-term. Hence they could be looking for options to the BJP. If enough brahmins switched to the Congress, then, constituency by constituency, seat by seat, the Congress could become competitive and appeal to other voter groups and communities. In a fragmented polity, where even 25-30 per cent of the vote can be enough to win a seat, this could help the Congress punch above its weight.
As a strategy, this was not a bad one. However, it hasn’t quite worked. If anything brahmins and upper caste voters in general remain firmly in the BJP camp. It is possible that some of these voters may dump the BJP and move towards the winning party — should that party not be the BJP — in the final stages, as a demonstration of the “bandwagon effect”. Yet, the Congress is unlikely to be that front-runner. In a multi-cornered contest, the weakest contestant gets squeezed out. Move to the SP. For all the infighting, it is beyond belief that the party will split in patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav’s lifetime. Akhilesh Yadav may want to carve out a new, more inclusive identity — as opposed to the grime his “uncles” specialise in. Nevertheless, he needs to inherit his father’s Yadav base if he is to be electorally competitive. He cannot reasonably do this by taking on his father publicly. No memorandum of understanding between the Akhilesh Yadav spin and advertising factory and the English-language press in Delhi can replace that hard fact.
What Akhilesh Yadav is attempting is similar to a strategy that proved successful for Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in West Bengal in 2006. He is positioning himself as a likeable candidate and an agent of change against the backdrop of a discredited culture of governance created by his own party. However, two caveats need to be entered here. In 2006, the CPI(M) establishment played along with Mr Bhattacharjee and the Opposition — the Trinamul Congress-BJP alliance — was organisationally too weak to take advantage of a popular mood for change. Ten years on, the Akhilesh Yadav-SP dynamic in Uttar Pradesh is very different. Party patronage and sub-regional networks — represented by the various “uncles” — are holding on to their turf and are not amenable to any organisational discipline. That aside, the Opposition — especially the BSP under Mayawati and a resurgent BJP, smelling its chance after 15 years of exile from the secretariat in Lucknow — is not missing anything.
When one combines this with the overall despondency with the government — crime; the nexus between land-grabbing SP functionaries and local police officials; corruption in departments such as those of roads, public works and irrigation (all run by Shivpal Yadav, Mulayam’s brother and Akhilesh’s estranged uncle) — an anti-incumbency sentiment becomes inevitable. Indeed opinion polls that have shown a certain popularity for Akhilesh Yadav as an individual have equally suggested huge disappointment with his government. If the SP begins to slip, where will its voters go? There are three primary constituencies for the SP: Muslims, Yadavs and a slice of the non-Yadav upper OBC vote. The BSP is targeting Muslims and the BJP the other two. It needs to be factored in though that even in a losing cause, the SP and Mulayam Singh Yadav in particular will retain a sizeable chunk of Muslim and Yadav support. The SP is not going to simply collapse and disappear to convenience its rivals.
Both the BSP and the BJP start with some advantages. The BSP managed 20 per cent of the vote even in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, despite winning zero seats. On paper, a dalit-Muslim alliance is formidable. Complemented by Mayawati’s presence as a chief ministerial face and an attraction for floating voters here and there, this could take her to victory. The BJP has solid support from upper caste groups and has carved out sustained loyalty among some OBC sub-communities, a project it is looking to expand under Amit Shah’s presidency. As opposed to Bihar, Uttar Pradesh is that much more urban. As per 2011 census figures, 11 per cent of Bihar is urban but 22 per cent of Uttar Pradesh lives in cities and towns. This gives the BJP a pan-state baseline vote. Since many Muslims too live in cities and towns, a dalit-Muslim alliance leaves scope for a counter-mobilisation on caste as well as religious lines. What the BJP lacks is a candidate for the chief ministership — someone with name recognition and administrative experience to take on Mayawati. At some point, that will cost the BJP. This is not an issue that can be brushed aside for good.