If the BSP loses its second successive UP Assembly election, then it may well face an existential crisis.
In less than a month, India will begin yet another round of pulsating Assembly elections. The polling cycle is such that the Uttar Pradesh and Punjab elections — being held along with elections in Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur — herald an almost non-stop political season that concludes in 2019, with the general elections and shortly afterward the Maharashtra and Haryana elections.
In a sense, the government in New Delhi gets a respite — if such a term lends itself for use in Indian politics in the first place — only for about a year or 18 months following the summer of coming to office. This makes governance a challenge, but that is a familiar story that need not detain us here.
What do the coming polls hold for us? They herald a set of elections where, in several major states, it is usually the Congress and the BJP that are locked in direct competition. Both parties are in the fray in Punjab (the BJP with its ally, the Akali Dal) and have alternated in power in Goa and Uttarakhand. Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, which vote in November-December, are also bipolar, as is Karnataka, which has elections in early state 2018. The winter of 2018 sees a contest in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where again the two national parties are in the reckoning.
Much of that is getting ahead of the story. Indeed, depending on how Punjab and Uttar Pradesh go, perceptions of future Assembly elections could also change. In both those provinces, a settled bipolarity is being disturbed, throwing up still more imponderables.
Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh have seen a BSP-SP fight since the beginning of the century. Now, under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the BJP is in the fray. The India Today-Axis opinion poll gives the BJP 33 per cent of the vote, a massive seven per cent ahead of the other two (locked at 26 per cent each). The ABP-CSDS poll puts the incumbent SP ahead of the BJP and predicts a terribly hung Assembly.
Common to both assessments are two findings. First, the BJP is much stronger than in 2012, when it won 47 seats in a house of 403. Second, the BSP is failing to capture the incremental vote — above its solid dalit base — that gave it a majority in 2007. The urban middle class and Brahmin/upper caste slice that had moved to the BSP in 2007 and was being targeted by the Congress till a few weeks ago seems to be staying with the BJP and staying true to Mr Modi.
Three caveats need to be entered here. One, chief minister Akhilesh Yadav is clearly more popular than his warring party. Can he overcome internal conflict and create a rainbow coalition? Frankly, this depends much on how his rupture with his parent party and particularly with his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, is perceived.
The junior Yadav won new voters for the SP in 2012, and took it to a thumping majority. Even so, he essentially built on the party’s Yadav-Muslim base. If that base is divided or its loyalties are split, Akhilesh will find it that much more difficult. Mulayam has been the paramount Yadav leader for some 40 years now and the SP has been built as an expression of Yadav identity.
The community will put its heart and soul into a campaign for the patriarch’s son — but only with the patriarch’s blessings. Akhilesh cannot hope to take on his father publicly, and yet win an overwhelming segment of Yadavs. If that Yadav base splits, nothing — no incremental vote, no media chatter, no alliance with an anyway downcast Congress — can rescue Akhilesh. If, however, he has the Yadavs behind him, it could be a different story, despite the anti-incumbency. One suspects though the inner-party bickering and Akhilesh’s “revolt” against the old guard and a familiar circus of “uncles” has come too late in the day.
The BSP faces its own dilemma. Numerically, a dalit-Muslim alliance is formidable. Nevertheless, just as the urban middle classes and brahmins have not quite dumped the BJP, Muslim voters, while worried about the Yadav civil war, still seem to prefer the SP to the BSP. Of course, a massive last-minute shift is always possible — though improbable. Should it happen, it could also lead to a counter-mobilisation for the BJP on caste and religious lines.
If the BSP loses its second successive Assembly election, then it may well face an existential crisis. It would mean that the appeal of its supreme leader, Mayawati, has plateaued and may even be in decline. In the absence of an alternative mascot, what would this mean for the party?
The BJP is banking on the popularity of Mr Modi and of demonetisation sustaining into the second week of March — when the election concludes — and making up for the absence of a chief ministerial candidate. It believes the urban vote and the upper caste and non-Yadav OBCs coalition is numerically bigger and more robust than in Bihar and this will help it pull ahead. Bringing in a chief ministerial candidate at this point could trigger an internal caste feud. Even so, no party has won a majority in Lucknow since 1991 without presenting a chief ministerial face.
Punjab is the other state where a traditional two-way battle — Congress versus Akali Dal-BJP — has been disrupted with the arrival of the AAP. Arvind Kejriwal’s party was the clear favourite of opinion pollsters even a few months ago but seems to be neck-and-neck with the Congress today. A freak result has been predicted by at least one opinion poll, wherein the Akali Dal will retain its Jat peasantry base even while losing overall vote share and come up ahead because the Congress and AAP will undercut each other. While that is theoretically possible, it would appear unlikely.
Mr Kejriwal is attempting to do a Modi in Punjab in that he is not projecting a local face. This is a big gamble because Mr Modi is an MP from Uttar Pradesh — though a native of Gujarat — while Mr Kejriwal is a complete outsider in Punjab. Also, many remain sceptical that Punjab is ready for a (proxy) chief minister who is not a Sikh. That is what Amarinder Singh is betting on, even as he faces challenges within his own Congress, sections of which are propping up an overrated Navjot Singh Sidhu as a rival.
Where will it all go? We’ll know on March 11.