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DALIT POWER TO THE FORE
- No political formation in UP has the foresight to craft a broad alliance

The collapse of the fifteen-month-long coalition government led by Mayavati may have been abrupt. But there was little love lost between her Bahujan Samaj Party and its post-poll ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party. The chief minister may have chosen the time at which to move on, but there was never a meeting of minds, let alone a union of hearts of this rather odd couple.

The two parties first joined hands in 1995, when the rift between the Dalit- led party and the Yadav-dominated Samajwadi Party brought things to breaking point. The shortlived minority government lasted barely six months but it enabled Mayavati to virtually double her share of the popular vote. The BSP has never looked back since then. Once the rung to power for the upper castes and then for the backward classes, the Dalits of Uttar Pradesh had finally learnt to play one off against the other and emerge with the trump card in hand.

The next time they joined hands, the scales were tilting in the BSPís favour but its leadership failed to anticipate the rifts in its own ranks. Despite its Dalit image, the party has always reached out to significant groups of the Mandal castes, especially those that are lower than the Yadavs in the social scale. Kalyan Singh split the members of the legislative assembly on caste lines in 1997, and the Hindutva party took office without actually having a popular mandate for administering the countryís most populous state.

Every time the BSP has been stung in this manner it has actually bided its time and hit back. In April 1999, its five members of parliament played a decisive role in the Lok Sabha in enabling the ouster of the second Vajpayee government.

Over the last few weeks a similar drama was played out in Lucknow, only the stakes were even higher for the chief minister. With the courts closing in on the issue of the Taj corridor scandal, the inner circle of bureaucrats and ministers close to the chief minister was coming under ever-closer scrutiny. Even earlier, she was put in her place by the central leadership of the BJP when she tried to encroach on the prime ministerís prerogative of who ought to serve in the cabinet.

The downsizing of Mayavati saw the state unit of the Hindutva party in a rare mood of exultation. Even as the central leadership talked of a seat sharing arrangement for the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls, the two parties behaved less like partners and more like rivals. This adversarial relationship was only made worse by the fact that the BJP legislative was now smaller in size than the BSP, 87 to the latterís 110.

The state unit was already downcast. It was bereft of able leaders after the expulsion of Kalyan Singh and the humbling of Rajnath Singh in the 2002 state assembly elections. A pre-poll accord with a powerful BSP would have been the last straw. Yet this loomed larger than ever in the gameplan of the national leadership as well as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

The BJPís backing of a Dalit woman chief minister would put all lower caste critics of Hindutva in a quandary. Mayavati, in turn, kept the heat on Mulayam Singh Yadav, a possible fount of resistance to the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. The deep rifts over land issues and the struggle for power between the Dalits and the Mandal classes helped the upper caste dominated Hindutva party. In turn Mayavati would gain access to liberal largesse from the Centre and entrench her party in power through use of patronage.

But the plans fell through on more than one count. True, the two parties worked together to defeat the Samajwadi Party in the byelection for the assembly seat of Chiraigaon. But there remain serious doubts about the open mindedness of the savarna Hindu voter of the BJP mindset. Will he or she bow to Mayavatiís leadership and stamp on the elephant symbol come election time'

All the evidence suggests this was never quite the case. The most rapid growth of support for the saffron party in the state was in the late Eighties and early Nineties. The upper caste voter turned from the Congress to the mandir platform to keep lower caste assertion at bay.

Already by 1989, the Bahujan Samaj Party had polled nine per cent of the popular vote. This went up marginally during the poll accord with Mulayam Singh in 1993. From the mid-Nineties, it has more than doubled and now stands at around 24 per cent. The latest break with the BJP should suit the Dalit party. Over the years, it has competed with the Samajwadi Party for the support of the minorities and the lower backward communities. It will now campaign that its leader was being made a scapegoat in corruption cases, much the same way that Laloo Prasad Yadav has done in neighbouring Bihar. Its electoral machine is in order and ready to face the test of another election.

The question really is whether this latest break will bring about a major change in UP politics. At present, this does not seem likely. Neither the Samajwadi Party nor the BSP is about to fade from the scene. The BJP, though a shadow of its former self, still remains a far larger presence than the Congress.

This three-pronged struggle for supremacy among the three large political formations has polarized and divided the state. None is able to impose its will or has the foresight to craft a lasting and broad social alliance. Post-poll accords are also fraught with tensions and contradictions.

A divided and polarized UP where the Dalit and other backward classes-led formations are the major players will also affect the options before national parties. No wonder a section of the BJP was willing to gift the state away to a Dalit-led party in return for the lionís share of seats in the Lok Sabha. And no wonder the Congress is unsure about whether to ally with or oppose Mulayam Singh Yadav. Either way, its options will narrow down. To win more seats, it may have to resign itself to playing second fiddle. On its own, it is not able to make it past the fourth spot in the race.

The real turn of the tide will come if and when the BJPís vote bank in UP begins to fragment and decline. It is in expectation of such a process that the Samajwadi Party and the BSP have both dropped sharp anti upper caste rhetoric. Each is busy wooing different interest groups among the upper castes, promising them a share of patronage in return for a subordinate place in politics. The wheel has come full circle.

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