“The followers of Kanshi Ram and the descendants of Ambedkar and Lohia are going to come together. It will change politics,” a middle-aged Samajwadi Party worker in a kasba near Allahabad said. This was just before the SP and BSP had announced their alliance. On UP’s roads, one could see supporters of the SP and BSP on bicycles carrying flags of both the parties.
Many people in rural UP, who are not satisfied with the BJP told me, “Mahagathbandhan ko vote denge” (will vote for the mahagathbandhan). People have already formed a mahagathbandhan in their minds. But other than the SP-BSP alliance, the shape of the coalition is not clear. RLD may join it, but the party is yet to arrive at a final decision. Most importantly, without the Congress, the alliance will not be seen as a “mahagathbandhan” by the people.
The Congress’s strategy isn’t clear. But if the party emerges as a strong third force in the 2019 election, it will create problems for the SP-BSP front. There is speculation of an informal understanding between the SP-BSP alliance and the Congress on a few seats. But there is not much to substantiate such talk.
The SP-BSP gathbandhan does have its strengths, the most important one being that it is a coming together of two major social groups groups — Dalits and OBCs. The SP’s vote base is mostly among the Yadavs, the largest OBC community and the BSP counts the Jatavs and a few other Dalit communities as its supporters. If the arithmetic of vote-bases work out, it could have a multiplier effect on the votes polled by the two parties. At the grass roots level, it could mean a coming together of the cadre of both parties.
The alliance will give a psychological boost to opposition politics not only in Uttar Pradesh but also in other parts of India. But the alliance will face major challenges during the 2019 parliamentary polls. The first major task at hand is to create a work culture in which the cadre who have contested elections and campaigned against each other for at least two decades can work together. The second challenge is linked to the political economy of North India. On the ground, Dalits and OBCs have conflicting social and economic interests. In recent decades, the OBCs have emerged as a landed community in many parts of UP, while Dalits work as labourers on their fields. At the same time, the deepening of democracy means that Dalits are asserting themselves socially and politically. That is why there have been frequent clashes between the Dalits and OBCs.
Another problem for the alliance could be caused by the Congress forming an alliance with small parties like the Pragatishil Samajwadi Party (Lohia) led by Shivpal Yadav and Suheldeo Bharatiya Samaj party led by Om Prakash Rajbhar and the Mahan Dal. If this Congress-led alliance succeeds in attracting a section of Muslims, Brahmins and Dalits, the SP-BSP gathbandhan would find it difficult get the expected results. The Muslim community seems to be drawn towards the Congress because the party appears to be emerging as an alternative to the BJP at the Centre. The results of the Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan elections have sharpened this perception. A section of Brahmins in UP seems to be unhappy with the BJP and some Dalit groups have started to feel comfortable with the Congress. The recently-announced 10 per cent reservation for the economically weaker sections, though, could work in favour of the BJP. Triangular fights could minimise the BJP’s losses.
The polarising strategy of Hindutva politics poses another challenge. The BJP could accuse the SP-BSP gathbandhan of Muslim appeasement. BJP President Amit Shah recently announced that the BJP will counter casteism with Samagra Hindutva — the party would try to mobilise almost all Hindu castes and communities.
The gathbandhan did succeed in the recent parliamentary by-elections as well as in the assembly election to the Kairana constituency. Lets see how events pan out in 2019.
(The writer is professor, Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad)