| Mayavati at a news conference in New Delhi. (PTI file picture)
The Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections of 2003 may well prove a turning point in one respect. They will demonstrate whether the Mayavati-led Bahujan Samaj Party will successfully emerge as a decisive force in the central Indian state.
In 1998, the Congress beat the BJP by 2 per cent, but netted a comfortable majority. The BSP had cornered 6 per cent of the votes. A cent per cent addition of the Congress and the BSP votes, a near impossible task, would have wiped the BJP off the map.
In fact, the devil is in the detail. The 1998 polls saw the BSP contest only 121 seats, but in these it managed to corner more than one in 10 votes.
These hold the key if — and only if — the party manages to transfer its votes.
Mayavati will also have to contain any damage by Phool Singh Baraiya of Gwalior, the former state unit chief who has parted company. Gwalior lies in the Vindhya Pradesh region. It is here and in Madhya Bharat that the BSP has actually grown into a formidable force. In addition to Dalit youths, it has managed to reach out to sections of the backward classes.
These are all part of the Congress’ traditional vote bank and any accord with the BSP, however partial, will take the heat off the ruling party. There is ample scope of a tie-up on the ground. The BSP won seven seats and came second in 11. These 15-20 seats may well be no-go zones for the Congress.
The BSP in turn may be willing to pull out in about 40 seats. Here, it polled less than 5 per cent of the votes, or finished in fourth or fifth place. Its own votes would not be sufficient to build a base for victory. But they could be critical in ensuring the party falls in line with its leader Mayavati’s newfound dictum: defeat the BJP at all costs.
Hurdles remain, especially in the 58 seats where the smaller party finished in third spot. It is here that there will be a lot of hard bargains to be done. It is only by contesting more seats that it can hope to increase its MLAs.
Ideally, the party would like to have the Congress reliant on the BSP to form and run a government. Power can only come within its grasp if Mayavati can play kingmaker.
But the Congress in turn is no pushover. It would try bowing to the smaller party but only up to a point. The Congress would hope to win a secure majority but draw in the BSP to beat back its arch rival. If the BSP gets more seats in the bargain, it is fine by the Congress. But the fragmentation of the polity beyond a point will also harm the Congress’ prospects in Madhya Pradesh in the long run.
Unlike in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, the party has been alert to the aspiration of Dalits. The Dalit Agenda two years ago has been followed by the largest land reform programme in any north Indian state. This makes any tie-up with a Dalit- led party of a finite nature.
There is a meeting of minds at the juncture due to the bitterness in the BSP leadership after the recent break-up with the BJP in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. This has given the Congress just the chance it was looking for.
There is still a hint of anxiety about an open alliance. The reasons are both tactical and strategic. In 1993, an alliance in Uttar Pradesh brought little cheer to the Congress and actually contributed to erosion in its ranks. Local leaders denied tickets had little incentive to stay on in the party.
In Madhya Pradesh, the party is far stronger than in Uttar Pradesh. After all, it has been in power for all but four years since 1980 when led back to office by Arjun Singh.
The problem is that the Congress is a multi-class, umbrella party that cannot afford to lose out on the support of the upper castes and the Other Backward Classes. It is still unclear whether they will vote for a BSP candidate or not.
An open alliance would actually enable the BJP to reap the benefits of an anti-Dalit backlash. It is to avoid this that Mayavati and Digvijay both favour a tacit accord to an open alliance.
It is still too early to say whether this move can ensure another spell in power for the Congress.
The fact is, the election is being fought on caste and community lines. Unlike in his first term, the chief minister is not confident of banking on his record of governance. This has opened up space for ties with the BSP. These may well see a sea change in state politics with the advent of a third force in electoral politics.