The biggest political alignment ahead of the Lok Sabha elections — the gathbandhan between the Samajwadi Party and the BSP — unravelled Tuesday with BSP chief Mayawati’s unilateral announcement that the party would go solo in bypolls to 11 Assembly seats later this year.
Gathbandhan: Gains and losses
Mayawati has attributed the alliance’s poor showing to the drifting of Yadav votes away from the SP. She has referred to SP strongholds Budaun, Firozabad and Kannauj, lost by members of SP chief Akhilesh Yadav’s family. SP leaders, too, concede that their candidates did trail in Assembly segments dominated by Yadavs, but add this is not a trend that could be generalised to blame SP.
A comparison of the BSP’s vote shares in 2014 and 2019 in the 38 Lok Sabha constituencies it contested, however, reveals that the BSP candidates gained substantially in every seat except one (Fatehpur Sikri). This gain could not have been possible without SP supporters backing Mayawati’s candidates. Field reports during the campaign in Fatehpur Sikri, on the other hand, would suggest that the choice of the BSP candidate pulled the vote share down below the 2014 share as some Opposition votes also rallied behind the Congress’s Raj Babbar.
Trends also show that the 2019 vote shares of BSP candidates in 11 seats —Saharanpur, Bijnor, Nagina, Amroha, Meerut, Bulandshahr, Ambedkar Nagar, Ghosi, Salempur, Jaunpur and Machhlishahr – was more than the combined vote share of SP and BSP in these seats in 2014. Seven of 10 seats won by the BSP are from this set. SP leaders claim that the BSP could not have won seats like Jaunpur, Ghazipur and Lalganj near the Prime Minister’s constituency, Varanasi, without SP’s Yadav supporters voting for BSP candidates.
Mayawati’s stated reason was carefully worded on two counts. First, while blaming the dwindling of the SP’s Yadav support base, she did not blame the Muslim support base of the SP’s Muslim-Yadav (MY) coalition. Second, she kept a window open for a possible future alliance and did not attack Akhilesh Yadav.
With the BSP having emerged a bigger gainer than the SP in the elections, this provides it an opportunity to bolster its credentials among the state’s sizeable Muslim population as a more bankable party than the SP. Her remarks also sought to project that Yadavs are not as solidly behind the SP as Dalits are behind the BSP. The suggestion that Yadavs are not a cohesive unit in challenging the BJP can potentially create a wedge in the SP’s MY bank, in favour of the BSP.
Mayawati, for her part, has been trying to make further inroads into the Muslim base. She tried fielding the highest number of Muslim candidates in the 2017 Assembly elections, though it did not yield results.
Assembly elections in UP are due only in 2022, leaving both sides a long time to regroup. They would be hoping for anti-incumbency against the Yogi Adityanath government, but if the BJP appears to be strongly placed, the two parties may need to collaborate again. That explains why Mayawati has kept a window open by avoiding any remarks critical of Akhilesh Yadav.
Limitations of arithmetic
Mayawati’s repeated references to “base votes” underlined the limitations of the alliance’s ambitions of upsetting the BJP in UP, which contributes 80 seats to Lok Sabha. The fixation with this arithmetic was obvious from their call to the electorate during the Lok Sabha campaign as well. “Ek bhi vote na ghatne paye, ek bhi vote na batne paye (Not a single vote should go waste, not a single vote should be split),” was the slogan the SP-BSP-RLD alliance used in trying to consolidate a Muslim-Yadav-Dalit-Jat combine.
The results are a testimony to the failure of this arithmetic against the chemistry of BJP. While the BJP increased its vote share from 42.63% (2014) to 49.56%, the BSP-SP-RLD combine slipped from 42.98% (2014) to 38.89% – a difference of over 10 percentage points.
A comparison with the anti-BJP realignment’s success in the Bihar Assembly polls in 2015 can offer pointers to what was missing in the UP alliance in 2019. While the RJD-JDU-Congress alliance (mahagathbandhan) in Bihar in 2015, too, was based on the arithmetic of votes against the BJP-led NDA, the mahagathbandhan additionally had chemistry in the form of goodwill for Nitish Kumar as the chief ministerial candidate.
Bihar’s arithmetic-plus-chemistry formulation was reflected in the campaign. While RJD leader Lalu Prasad campaigned against the BJP on the issue of reservation arithmetic, Nitish campaigned on a governance platform, focusing on promises.
In contrast, the “Ek bhi vote na ghatne paye, ek bhi vote na batne paye” chant of the SP-BSP alliance appeared to be centred only on the arithmetic of “base votes”. This proved an inadequacy that alliances in Karanataka (Congress-JDS) and Jharkhand (Congress-JMM) have learnt the hard way in 2019, along with the SP-BSP alliance in UP.