Battlefield 2018

Which Way Will Behenji Go?

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For now, Mayawati has decided to ditch the Congress in assembly elections for three states. But her 2019 plan is under wraps

NOBODY KNOWS HOW Mayawati thinks. “It is not a straight line; at best, we can draw inferences and hope we are right,” says a leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party. But much before she decided against a pre-poll alliance with the Congress in the coming Assembly polls in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, one man had been predicting exactly this. He had served as Mayawati’s principal secretary in 1995, 1997 and 2002, is now the general secretary in charge of the Congress in Chhattisgarh, and his name is PL Punia. He had parted ways with her and was elected from the Barabanki constituency in Uttar Pradesh on a Congress ticket in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. The BSP fared poorly in those polls and he was a special target of Mayawati’s invective in her addressals of party workers at the time.

But even as the BSP chief ditched the Congress, allying instead with Ajit Jogi’s Janta Congress Chhattisgarh (JCC) in Chhattisgarh, and deciding to contest all seats alone in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, her statement afterwards left enough room for an electoral arrangement with the Congress for the 2019 General Election. Even though she said the Congress was more interested in destroying her party than dislodging the BJP and described the senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh as a ‘BJP agent’, she said UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Congress President Rahul Gandhi had “honest intentions”.

On which party Mayawati will align forces with in 2019 only inferences can be drawn right now, just like the BSP leader said. But why hasn’t a pre-poll alliance between the Congress and BSP worked out? “One reason is that it is important for Mayawati that BSP be a national party,” says political analyst Badri Narayan, “and for that, its percentage of votes needs to be high; hence the BSP decision of fighting all seats in MP and Rajasthan [on its own].” Negotiations had been on between the two parties for seat sharing, but even as the Congress hoped for an understanding, Mayawati went ahead and announced her decision of not allying with the Congress. A Congress leader says Mayawati was asking for too many seats. “In Chhattisgarh, she was asking for 10, four of them from general constituencies,” reveals the leader. In the 2013 Assembly elections, the BSP won only one of the state’s 90 seats, getting just 4.3 per cent of the total polled votes. Its candidates lost their deposits in 84 seats. On the other hand, Ajit Jogi, who quit the Congress in 2016 to form his own party, said it took him three hours to have Mayawati agree to an alliance with his JCC. As part of this deal, the BSP will fight 33 seats, while the JCC will contest 55. Two seats have been left for the CPI, which hopes to win in the state’s Naxal belt.

Similarly, in Madhya Pradesh, according to Congress sources, Mayawati was demanding 40-50 seats from the party to contest, though the BSP has limited influence in MP. Its support base in the state lies in the Gwalior-Chambal region. Congress leaders say they also felt Mayawati had some sort of understanding with the BJP to cause their party damage. “Our understanding is that [the BJP] may have even used the fear of investigative agencies [pursuing cases against the BSP] to force her into this,” says a Congress leader.

There are other factors in play. BSP workers maintain it is important to keep the Congress in check because if it happens to score a few state victories, it could become overconfident before 2019. Also, they say if the BSP does well on its own, it will have more bargaining power in seat-sharing talks for 2019’s General Election.

It is not clear how Mayawati’s stance will influence Assembly poll outcomes, though. Both the BJP and Congress are saying that it will hurt the other. In Chhattisgarh, political analysts think it will help the BJP since the contest will become triangular and the BSP will eat into the Congress vote share. On the other hand, the BSP-JCC alliance hopes to have a good run in belts with significant Dalit votes, like the Janjgir-Champa region which has eight Assembly seats. It is here that Kanshi Ram fought his Lok Sabha election in 1984. Out of 10 reserved seats in the state, the BJP currently holds nine. “This time, it will be difficult for us to repeat 2013 in these seats,” admits a local BJP leader.

The BSP believes that if it does well on it own, it will have more bargaining power in seat-sharing talks for 2019

In MP also, the BSP is hoping to cut into the BJP’s vote share, given that many Dalits have been voting for the BJP. There are indications that even some of the state’s upper castes are unhappy with the BJP and want Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan to go. Their choice would be the Congress. “But if we had an alliance with the BSP, they would not have come to us, which would have caused us damage,” says a Congress leader.

In MP, the BSP is hoping to win just enough seats to play the role of a kingmaker. “Our calculation is that we will defeat the BJP on 32 seats and give them a close fight on 75 others,” says Pradip Ahirwar, the BSP’s state president. Mayawati is to hold eight public rallies in MP between November 18th and 26th.

If the BSP wins the seats it is aiming for, it will get the sway it wants in states beyond its home turf of UP that would allow it to firm up its plan for 2019. “Kanshi Ram used to say: ‘Mazboot sarkar nahin, majboor sarkar,’” says Narayan, referring to the BSP founder’s game of ensuring a weak and dependent government till such time that the party could achieve power itself. “The idea is to somehow have a foot inside the door of government formation and then expand from there,” says Narayan.

A recent analysis by Hindustan Times reveals that while the BSP has taken votes away from the Congress and BJP in MP in the last three elections, the losses Congress suffered were higher.

In Rajasthan, the BSP began its electoral journey in 1990. Its first success came eight years later, when the party won two seats there. Over the years, the party’s influence has spread in the eastern parts of the state where the Scheduled Caste population is significant. In 2013, its vote share dropped to over 3 per cent from over 7 per cent in 2008, but now the BSP is expected to improve its performance in regions such as the Alwar-Bharatpur belt.

That brings us back to 2019. How will it all play out next year? In UP, the BSP will have a likely alliance with the SP, with the Congress also a part of it. Political scientist Suhas Palshikar thinks that this alliance could be a game changer if the Congress joins it as junior partner. Badri Narayan points to a ground-up approach to partnerships. “In 2019,” he says, “power equations will be built up at regional level and then flow outwards to form equations at national level.” This is already happening between Rahul Gandhi and Chandrababu Naidu of the TDP in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, with the latter seen as playing the role of opposition unifier.

In all this, one thing will remain fundamental to Mayawati’s politics: Uttar Pradesh. In the last few years, the BSP’s voter base among Dalits, especially those who are not of her own Jatav caste, have shifted support to other parties. Mayawati lost a portion of her Dalit voters—16 per cent from her own Jatav caste and 35 per cent other Dalit voters in 2014 as compared to 2009, according to data put out by National Election Studies. The BJP was a major beneficiary, with its spectacular 2017 victory in UP partly the result of Dalit support; the party won 69 of the state’s 85 reserved seats.

Mayawati knows she cannot take Dalit votes for granted. She is wary of new Dalit leaders like Chandrashkehar Azad of the Bhim Army, who was released in September after spending 15 months in jail. Recently, Jai Prakash Singh, the BSP’s vice-president and national coordinator, whom Mayawati had sacked after he made a personal comment on Rahul Gandhi, joined the Bhim Army.

However, Mayawati is also aware that many Dalits who voted for the BJP in 2017 may not do so in 2019 because of an increase in violence against them, especially from members of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s caste group of Thakurs.

Still, there is no saying what Mayawati will do, come 2019. Party watchers say they will not be surprised if she dumps the SP at the last moment and joins hands with the BJP instead, just as she did once in 1995. “See, the SP-BSP alliance may have worked temporarily in Gorakhpur and Phulpur, but the fact remains that Dalits and OBCs are at loggerheads with each other. How do you expect them to vote for each other on the ground?” asks a senior police officer in UP.