Heartland churn

Foes turn friends in Uttar Pradesh bypolls

By Manini Chatterjee
  • Published 12.03.18

The toppling of Lenin's statue in the small town of Belonia, followed by copycat desecrations of statues of other icons in different parts of the country, may have been the most visible fallout of the Bharatiya Janata Party's victory in Tripura this month. But another development took place in the victory's aftermath - something far less spectacular than vandalizing a statute, and far too low-key to grab national attention, and yet laden with political potential.

Last Sunday, while the media were still marvelling at the BJP's invincible election-winning machine, a small announcement came by way of a tweet. The spokesperson of the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, Pankhuri Pathak, tweeted: "BSP to Support @samajwadiparty in the LS By-Polls in Phulpur & Gorakhpur. Much awaited decision by Mayawati ji. Looking forward to contesting together & creating a larger Bahujan secular alliance."

For those who have followed the politics of the Hindi heartland, this was momentous news indeed. The Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party have been bitter enemies for long. The two parties had come together to form a coalition government in 1993 to keep out the BJP which had emerged as the single-largest party in the Uttar Pradesh assembly in the elections held after the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

That alliance proved short-lived and ended in a cloud of violence and abuse over the infamous "guest house incident" on June 2, 1995 when Mayavati accused SP supporters of locking her inside a guest house and manhandling her. Mulayam Singh Yadav became her sworn enemy after that. The BSP supped with different political forces over the years - allying with the Congress in 1996, and then heading the state government with Mayavati as chief minister three times with the backing of the BJP, before sweeping to power on its own in 2007.

After heading wobbly coalitions, the Samajwadi Party, too, won a big majority of its own in the 2012 assembly elections. In 2017, in the face of a resurgent BJP, the SP was not averse to tying up with the BSP as well as the Congress in a replication of Bihar's mahagatbandhan. The SP was now headed by the youthful and affable Akhilesh Yadav, who referred to Mayavati as his bua (paternal aunt) and bore no personal hostility towards her. But Mayavati preferred to go it alone. The division of the secular vote between the SP-Congress and the BSP facilitated the BJP's huge victory in UP a year ago.

It is against this backdrop that the BSP's decision to openly back the candidates of its arch-rival in two crucial by-elections, with the avowed aim of defeating the BJP, assumes significance. But more significant, perhaps, is the manner in which leaders on both sides have tried to underplay the import of this historic rapprochement.

There was no joint press conference to announce the decision, no plans to hold joint rallies, and no promise of a "grand alliance" to take on the BJP. On the contrary, the BSP supremo, Mayavati, went out of her way to underline the limited, tentative and transactional nature of the deal.

Her party, she said, never contested by-elections, but her supporters did go out to vote. This time they had been asked to vote for the SP candidates since they were in the strongest position to defeat the BJP.

In exchange for the BSP's support, the SP would give its extra votes to help a BSP candidate win a Rajya Sabha seat, Mayavati said. This agreement did not mean they had formed an alliance yet. "If an alliance is to happen for the Lok Sabha elections, it won't be a secret matter. It will be very open," she said.

The SP was also circumspect. Akhilesh Yadav did not issue any statement at all, his father kept silent, and local leaders echoed Mayavati to say that it was too early to talk about 2019; for the moment the focus would be on the elections that took place on March 11 in the two constituencies in eastern UP.

Given the complexity of caste equations in Uttar Pradesh, where the SP's Yadav support base has frequently clashed with the BSP's Dalit following, and the bitter relations between the two parties for the past two decades, such circumspection could well be a shrewd strategy. And it is all the more welcome for that.

Instead of a top down approach where the leaders announce an alliance and force the party rank and file to grudgingly implement it at the grassroots, the reverse seems to have happened in Gorakhpur and Phulpur. Reports indicate that it was the local leadership of both parties who were keen on a deal and Mayavati agreed to it.

The high-profile status of the two seats certainly played a role. Hindutva hothead, Yogi Adityanath, won five consecutive times from Gorakhpur and had to vacate the seat on becoming the chief minister.

Phulpur, famous for having been Jawaharlal Nehru's constituency, long ceased to be a Congress bastion and was won by the BJP's Keshav Prasad Maurya in 2014. The seat fell vacant because of the appointment of Maurya as deputy chief minister of the state.

In 2014, the BJP won both seats by a huge margin. The combined vote share of the SP and BSP fell way short of the 51.8 per cent secured by Adityanath in Gorakhpur and the 52.4 per cent that Maurya got in Phulpur.

In the 2017 assembly elections, too, the BJP did phenomenally well again. But statistics show that in case there had been a Bihar-style SP-BSP-Congress alliance in place, then it would have defeated the BJP candidates in four of the five assembly segments in both Gorakhpur and Phulpur.

That does not mean, of course, that the mere fact of the BSP officially backing the SP candidates this time will result in their victory. For one, the Congress is not part of the equation and fought both seats on its own. Moreover, plain arithmetic seldom works in elections. Also, by-elections do not enthuse voters in the way a full-fledged election does - and in this case, the winning candidates will be MPs for barely a year before fresh elections take place.

The significance of the BSP-SP deal goes beyond arithmetic and lies in the realm of chemistry - which is by far more important in politics. The very fact that BSP workers actively canvassed for the SP candidates is remarkable. It could mark the first steps towards a genuine bahujan resistance to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's Hindutva offensive.

The BSP founder, Kanshi Ram, envisioned the bahujan samaj as the majority of the labouring and downtrodden castes and classes in India that included Dalits, adivasis, minorities and OBCs. Much before the British practised the divide-and-rule policy, the Hindu upper castes had honed it into a fine art by pitting the lower castes against one another; and the RSS-BJP has continued that tradition with aplomb.

The RSS's goal of samajik samrasta (social harmony) is fundamentally at odds with the demand of samajik nyaya (social justice) espoused by Dalit and backward caste leaders. If the first hopes to preserve an unequal and unjust status quo, the second seeks to destroy it.

The forces of "social justice" that held sway in North Indian politics in the aftermath of the Mandal agitation fractured over time - their leaders losing the fire in their belly after acquiring power and wealth that came to the likes of them for the first time. The BJP managed to take advantage of these fissures. Combined with the tactic of communal polarization, the division in the ranks of the bahujan has played a key role in the party's spread across the Indo-Gangetic plain.

But the Modi-Shah combine's unseemly haste and undemocratic zeal for an "Opposition- mukt" Bharat is bound to bring about a backlash. The pact in Gorakhpur and Phulpur - regardless of the result - is part of this backlash; as is the return of Jitan Ram Manjhi to Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal, and other realignments between erstwhile foes. A new churning has begun in the heartland and the by-elections yesterday only provided the first glimmer...