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Turn votes into political clout

After a series of successful elections the 1998 results have come as something of an anticlimax for the BSP. Its modest group of MPs in the ...

Written by Andrew Wyatt |
April 13, 1998

After a series of successful elections the 1998 results have come as something of an anticlimax for the BSP. Its modest group of MPs in the Lok Sabha has been cut from 11 to 5. All of the seats in Punjab and Madhya Pradesh were lost. In Uttar Pradesh the BSP suffered a net loss of 2 seats. The only consolation was the election of the first BSP MP from Haryana.

As a consequence of this setback the BSP was marginalised in the negotiations to form the new coalition government, and things may get even worse. There have been reports of tension, both before and after the election, between Kanshi Ram and Mayawati. While the party has survived splits led by middle-ranking leaders a division at the top would be far more serious. It is also a problem in a period of coalition politics. The formation and maintenance of coalitions become considerable more complicated if the parties involved are destabilised by factions pulling in different directions.

The BSP is a useful partner to have because it is relativelydisciplined. If the leadership takes a position the party falls into line. It is not at all clear how the party would respond in a coalition arrangement if the relationship between Mayawati and Kanshi Ram does not improve. Thus far, Kanshi Ram has had to accept Mayawati’s veto over electoral alliances in UP. However, if the BSP is to move forward it has to engage in coalition politics. After all, the simple lesson of the 1998 elections was that alliances count. The BJP laid the groundwork for its 1998 breakthrough with a series of intricate regional alliances. Similarly, the BJP-Shiv Sena were routed by the Congress-led alliance in Maharashtra.

In an earlier article I predicted that the BSP would lose seats in the general election. I also argued that the BSP could count the elections a longer-term success if it increased its share of the vote. The headline figures only offer a little comfort for the party leadership. In Madhya Pradesh the share increased from 8.18 per cent to 8.7 per cent. The figures forHaryana and Punjab are misleading because changes in electoral alliances conceal the genuine allegiance of voters to the BSP. In Rajasthan the BSP moved from 1.35 per cent to 2.12 per cent. In Uttar Pradesh the vote share remained constant with the BSP settling for the same 20.6 per cent it achieved in 1996.

This consistent performance is unsurprising because of the short space of time between elections and the strong loyalty of Dalit voters in the party’s strongholds. A more detailed reading of the UP results demonstrates that the BSP is down but not out. It remains crucial to the outcome of any election in the state. The BJP took 57 seats with 36.4 per cent of the vote and the SP took 20 seats with 28.3 per cent of the vote. The BSP came second in 16 seats but was beaten into third place by the SP and the BJP in most other seats.

The fairly even geographical distribution of the BSP vote was bad news in terms of seats won. The first past the post system is particularly unkind to third parties that do notconcentrate their vote in one region. However the BSP remains an attractive coalition partner. In an analysis carried out by the author it emerged that the BSP’s share of the vote was larger than the winning margin in no less than 64 of the 81 seats where the BSP did not win. Of these 64 seats the BJP won 40 with a total less than the combination of the BSP-SP vote. Similarly the SP won 18 seats with a total less than the combined vote of the BJP-BSP. This means that the BJP has every interest in keeping the BSP and the SP apart in any future elections. The future of BJP-led governments at the national and the state level depend up a divided opposition in the critical state of UP. This situation also means that the BSP is in a potent bargaining position. The shift from the politics of stalemate to BJP dominance in the state may encourage a reconciliation between the currently estranged SP and BSP.

The immediate prospects for the BSP are mixed. The party is in an uncertain position in the Lok Sabha. Itrebuffed overtures from the BJP prior to the confidence motion. The BJP clearly views the smaller party as a potential ally in case the ruling coalition should lose the support of one its smaller allies. If this eventuality should arise the BSP will be forced to make a choice between short-term advantage and the demands of a longer-term electoral strategy. Given that the BJP has the current advantage in UP the BSP is likely to opt for the latter and remain a vocal element on the Opposition benches. The situation in UP is finely balanced. Kalyan Singh has to contend with an enormous cabinet, unease in his own party and truculent allies. The emergence of a BJP dominated government at the centre has eased some of the pressure on the state administration. The Lok Sabha election victories will have lifted morale in the party and the appointment of a new governor will make life easier for the Chief Minister. Any mid-term election is now more likely to be on the terms dictated by the BJP. By the same token this willmake life more difficult for the BSP in the state.

However, for the reasons outlined above the BJP cannot be certain about its future in the state. The Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections may enable the BSP to end the year on a brighter note. The Congress won in only 92 of the 330 Assembly segments in the Lok Sabha elections in the state. Congress, capturing 39.4 per cent of the vote, trailed behind the BJP who secured 45.7 per cent. Without an alliance with the BSP the Congress is heading towards defeat. The crucial choice for Kanshi Ram is between allowing the Congress fragment in the Opposition or being prepared to let the BSP join the state government as a junior partner.

One of the theoretical explanations for fragile coalition governments is that in periods of political instability parties seek to extend their vote share at the expense of potential coalition partners. This fight for survival is hardly conducive to consensual politics. This would provide a partial explanation for the BSP’s reluctanceto forge lasting electoral alliances. It may be too early to call but the consistency between the 1996 and 1998 vote share figures suggests that the BSP has reached the limits of its political growth. If this is the case there is little to be gained from seeking to undermine the larger parties. On the contrary, there is much to be had from converting the BSP’s voting power into political power. In order to do so the leadership has to preserve party unity and begin to make some durable political alliances.

The writer is an Associate Lecturer in Politics at the Open University in the UK

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