The most hopeful sign for the opposition as they prepare for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections is the maturity and wisdom displayed by Bahujan Samajwadi Party’s Mayawati and Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav, who were the main rivals for power in Uttar Pradesh until the BJP staged a comeback in the state.
The BSP had won a majority in the state assembly in 2007, leading to Mayawati becoming the chief minister for the fourth time. In 2012, the SP secured a majority and Akhilesh became the chief minister. His father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, had held the post thrice earlier. Last year, probably riding what was left of the Modi wave, BJP obtained a majority and after a 15-year gap, Uttar Pradesh has a BJP chief minister in Adityanath.
The state with the most seats in parliament, UP made the biggest contribution to Narendra Modi’s win by giving the BJP 71 of its 80 seats and another two to its ally, Apna Dal. The party benefitted immensely from the SP-BJP rivalry. Its vote share of 42.63% was just a wee bit above the combined poll of SP and BSP, which was 42.13%.
With its 22.36% vote share, SP got five seats. The Congress, which polled 7.53% votes, won two seats – those of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. BSP had a vote share of 19.77% but it did not get any seats. It became the only recognised national party to draw a blank. This experience appears to have prompted Mayawati, who as a rule has stayed out of alliances, to re-think her party’s strategy.
BJP and its ally won 20 seats with less than 40% of the votes polled and 37 with between 40-50% of the votes. Several of the 16 seats it won with more than 50% 0f the votes were those of star candidates like Modi, Murli Manohar Joshi, Rajnath Singh, Adityanath, Maneka Gandhi and actor Hema Malini. Some others were from places in and around Muzaffarnagar where there was organised violence aimed at communal polarisation.
The opposition’s by-election successes in Gorakhpur and Kairana, which were among these 16, show that even in constituencies where BJP polled more than 50% of the votes in 2014, it may not be in a position to withstand a combined opposition assault.
Opposition unity in the by-elections was easy to achieve as BSP, which did not enter the contest, extended support to SP in Gorakhpur and Phulpur and to Rashtriya Lok Dal in Kairana.
From the time BSP was formed, it began putting up candidates on a large scale all over the country. In the initial phase, it was able to make a mark in a few northern seats. Later its influence shrank to UP, but it continued fielding candidates across the country. Although the bulk of its candidates forfeited their deposits, it gained recognition as a national party in terms of the norms prescribed by the Election Commission.
Apart from some symbolic acts, there has so far been no concrete step to forge opposition unity ahead of the 2019 elections. Some regional parties have been talking of a Federal Front. The Congress is said to have already come to an understanding with the Janata Dal (Secular), its coalition partner in Karnataka. A lot of work remains to be done at national and state levels to put in place a united opposition capable of taking on BJP and its allies.
Seat sharing will not become a problem if the parties approach the issue rationally. A rule of thumb could be to treat the 2014 vote share as the basis for allocation of seats. If the subsequent by-election or assembly election results indicate a significant improvement in the strength of a party, it can seek a change in the formula and the matter can be settled through negotiations.
In UP, SP was ahead of BSP in the Lok Sabha elections. But in the assembly poll, BSP, with 22.23% votes, was slightly better placed than SP, with only 21.82% votes. Whichever way one looks at it, they are equal forces with a common interest – keeping the BJP at bay, whose ideology is inimical to the interests of the social and economic groups who constitute their support base.
As parties which grew in opposition to the Congress, SP and BSP have a long anti-Congress tradition. However, at the moment, there is a concurrence of interests since all three agree that the constitutional principles of democracy and secularism are under threat and they must safeguard them at any cost.
A fair formula for seat-sharing in UP will be for the opposition parties to keep those that they hold in the present house and to allot the other seats to the parties which were runners-up in the last elections.
Under the first part of this formula, SP will get the seven seats it now holds (including two won in by-elections), the Congress the two it won last time and the Rashtriya Lok Dal the one it snatched from BJP in a recent by-election. Under the second part, BSP will get 33 seats in which it was BJP’s closest rival, SP 30, Congress six and RLD one. Thus BSP gets 33, SP 37, Congress eight and RLD two.
This is not suggested as an inflexible formula. It can be seen as a basic framework which can be modified suitably through negotiations.
The Congress may seek a larger share of seats this time. Both BSP and SP are parties which have been trying to make a mark in other states. It may not be a bad idea for them to accommodate the Congress’s wishes in UP in exchange for its support for their candidates in other states.
Mayawati’s alliance with H.D. Kumaraswamy’s JD(S) in the Karnataka elections enabled BSP to get its first MLA in a southern state, one who is a minister in the state’s coalition government. This is a breakthrough for the BSP and should encourage Mayawati to look for more such opportunities elsewhere.
SP, BSP, Congress and RLD had a combined vote share of more than 50% in both the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and 2017 assembly elections. It will be possible to severely restrict BJP’s strength in the new Lok Sabha and optimise their own position if BSP and SP can settle for 33 or 34 seats each and accommodate Congress and RLD in the rest.
B.R.P. Bhaskar is a senior journalist.