Even if the outcome remains difficult to predict in a state known for its volatile electoral history, the announcement of a pre-poll alliance between the Samajwadi Party and the Congress brings some clarity on the major contestants between whom stark battle lines are drawn for the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. The two parties have formed an alliance with the avowed aim of keeping out “divisive forces like the BJP” and forming a government “above caste and religion”.
In the highly competitive political arena of UP, where the bases of parties overlap and where each party poaches on opponents hoping to gain at the expense of the other, the formation of an alliance is itself a major achievement. The SP will contest 298 of the 403 assembly seats while the Congress will stand from 105 constituencies. Formed after protracted and tough negotiations. it is still unclear which seats both will contest, though the SP has laid claim to the 10 constituencies, which the Congress was not keen to give up, in Rae Bareli (represented in the Lok Sabha by Sonia Gandhi) and Amethi, where Rahul Gandhi is MP. Both sides remain wary of each other as witnessed in Akhilesh’s unilateral announcement of a list of candidates, which forced the Congress to drop its earlier demand of 150 seats and the refusal by the Congress to announce the alliance at the SP headquarters in Lucknow.
There are some advantages for both sides: the alliance can check the division of anti-BJP votes, help consolidate Muslim votes and weaken a strong rival, the BSP. The Congress-SP alliance could win at least a total of 30% of the votes – the SP had gained 22.4% and the Congress 7.4% in the 2014 election – a figure which has in the past enabled parties to form the government in UP. Moreover, the SP, emerging out a long-drawn dynastic war (whether real or orchestrated) has been able to reinvent itself, shedding its feudal, corrupt, and criminal mafia image. Akhilesh, till recently was seen as a young, educated leader who was unable to stand up to the older generation within the SP, provide development and prevent incidents like the Muzaffarnagar riots. He has now acquired the image of a post-identity, post-globalisation leader, who has cleverly managed to alter the electoral contest into a plebiscitary fight on his achievements. Part of this effort is a media campaign targeted at young voters using the appealing jingle Kam Bolta Hai (work speaks) showcasing Akhilesh’s efforts to provide laptops, build roads, hospitals, the metro etc. The Congress has acquired the image of having woken up to its imminent decimation and attempted to form an alliance to improve its fortunes. The role of Priyanka Gandhi in the negotiations and hopes of her campaigning extensively in UP have also rejuvenated its cadre.
Much will depend on how the campaign is carried out on the ground by the alliance partners and whether they can project a joint face. Their social base is competitive and their cadres have long fought each other, changing which will require much effort. The SP will depend on the Yadavs, Muslims, OBCs and a section of the Thakurs. The Congress in the past depended on the Muslims and upper and lower castes. The former deserted the party after the destruction of the Babri Masjid though they have softened in recent years, while the latter moved to the BJP and the BSP. The Yadavs have never supported the Congress and the RLD, which could have gained Jat votes in western UP, has been kept out of the alliance as it would anger the Muslims. Many critics have held that the alliance was stitched-up too late, leaving little time for adjustments and joint strategies and could help the SP, but not necessarily the Congress. Problems have already arisen; media reports point out that Rahul Gandhi did not participate in the negotiations, sending emissaries which angered Akhilesh who took an active interest. It was only when the SP signalled that negotiations were breaking down that Sonia Gandhi intervened and the Congress agreed to the SP’s demands, choosing survival rather than oneupmanship.
BSP still a factor
A deciding factor will be whether despite the formation of the SP-Congress alliance, the BSP can consolidate the Muslim vote. Reports from the ground suggest that the first choice of Muslims, particularly the younger generation, is for Akhilesh. Mayawati has given tickets to 97 Muslim candidates, mostly in constituencies which also have a substantial Dalit population – hoping to build a strong Dalit-Muslim combine and, with the addition of some upper castes, gain a majority. Earlier, Muslims were wary of supporting Mayawati as she has in the past formed coalition governments with the BJP, but they now realise that this strategy is no longer possible. Muslims are waiting and watching whether Mayawati is able to get back the support of the Jatavs, which would make it worthwhile supporting her, as this would give her a majority. Also wherever Muslims feel Mayawati’s candidate can defeat the BJP candidate, Muslims may move towards her rather than the SP-Congress alliance. Much before other parties, Mayawati held a number of well-attended rallies across the state to invite Dalits and Muslims to support the BSP. BSP rallies have been announced from February 1 starting from Meerut to other districts.
Until recently, the BJP seemed to be the best placed to win the UP elections given the strong revival of its organisation prior to the 2014 elections. Today, the demonetisation policy and the SP-Congress alliance have introduced new concerns for the party. Demonetisation has affected rural areas more than urban, affecting the livelihood of the poor, Dalits, farmers and workers. The Dalits, particularly, may in this scenario move back to the BSP. However, Narendra Modi has made ‘note-bandi’ a moral fight against the rich to remove black money that he promises will be used to help the poor, which could induce these groups to vote for the BJP. BJP leaders view the SP-Congress alliance as less of a threat than the consolidation of Muslims and Dalits behind Mayawati. If the Muslims support the alliance in order to defeat the BJP, they feel that Hindus including the OBCs will en masse gravitate to the BJP.
Western UP has emerged as the major challenge for the BJP as the Jat khaps in the Shamli-Muzaffarnagar-Kairana belt are angry over its failure to provide reservation and also because of rising agrarian distress due to lack of payment by sugar factories, stagnant minimum support price for crops, crop loan debts and the impact of demonetisation. Many khap panchayats have jointly declared they will defeat the BJP this time. They also accuse the BJP of spreading communal hatred and riots which have put their sons in jail and regret not supporting the Rashtriya Lok Dal, which they see as their own party. Yet they do not appear keen to vote for the SP-Congress alliance and have never supported a Dalit party like the BSP. Local BJP leaders feel they will eventually vote for the BJP. The sharp electoral contest is best seen in Sardhana – which has a large population of Muslims and Dalits, apart from upper castes – in the high pitched contest between BJP leader Sangeet Som active in the Muzaffarnagar riots and Yakub Qureshi of the BSP; while Som aims to consolidate the Hindu vote, Qureshi hopes to build a Dalit-Muslim combine. A third candidate, Atul Pradhan of the SP, will make it a three-way contest, a situation visible in many parts of western UP. It remains to be seen if the BJP can, in changed circumstances, attract Hindu votes through an aggressive communal campaign and sweep the region as in 2014.
The 2017 electoral contest has emerged as a critical election with the potential to transform the politics of UP and possibly the country. The fortunes of a number of tall leaders hinge on the outcome. If the BJP does not win in UP, it will affect the future career of Narendra Modi and of the BJP too, weakening the party in the run-up to the 2019 elections. Moreover, while the main contest is between the BJP and SP-Congress alliance, Mayawati remains a strong contender. In the first phase, which consists of the sensitive western districts, the main contest is between the BJP and the BSP and if the latter is perceived as having performed well, it could influence the remaining rounds. But if the BSP performs poorly, it would be a setback for Mayawati – possibly affecting her status as a major player in UP and the country. If the SP-Congress alliance is able to gain a majority it will make Akhilesh a national leader and revive the flagging image of Rahul Gandhi and the Congress. More important, for UP it could mean a change of direction – hopefully towards a less polarised, developmental politics under a younger dispensation. Yet, given the highly charged campaign and competitive contest, the chances of a hung assembly leading to more difficult times for the state, also remains a possibility.
Sudha Pai is a National Fellow of the Indian Council of Social Sciences