The index of Opposition unity for the 2019 polls may just have suffered a crucial blow. BSP chief Mayawati has attacked the Congress, calling it communal, casteist and arrogant, declaring she will not ally with it in the upcoming assembly polls. Or it may have taken only a strategic hit for now, in order that it can raise its head later, once state elections are out of the way.
After all, the calculations that political parties make, the games they play for the assembly elections are often dissimilar from those for the Lok Sabha polls. Then again, it could be that Mayawati’s scathing critique of the Congress showcases a power shift in the Opposition ranks — from the national to the regional, from the Congress to parties like the BSP that draw their strength from particular states. Or it might not, given that the BSP itself is fighting a battle for survival over the past decade or so in UP and other states where it has a presence.
The Congress’s decline is spotlighted but the downward journey of Mayawati’s party is no less striking. Today, the party which at one time seemed to be growing from a Dalit to a Dalit-plus force is compelled to defend itself in both its core and non-core bastions. If the BJP’s success in propagating a subaltern Hindutva is making a dent, Dalit discourse is also far more divided by the emergence of movements and leaders in the non-party space.
In the shadow play, it may not yet be clear, therefore, whether the BSP’s break-up with the Congress, even before an alliance with it, is short-term strategy or more enduring than that. One thing, however, seems certain: The Congress-BSP relationship is driven, from both sides, mostly by calculations of arithmetic, and this is a pointer to a larger Opposition predicament and failure.
As they come together or go their separate ways, parties of the Opposition are yet to make even a minimal effort so far to persuade anyone, themselves or the voters, that they intend to fight the BJP armed with something more than a mix of self-interest and anti-BJPism. For all the hype about the Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) next year, the Opposition hasn’t yet found a united story to take on the BJP’s. In 2014, the BJP rode a narrative of hope and fear, Hindutva and aspiration, change and nationalism, and it has only honed its layered message since. By all accounts, the Opposition hopes to fight this carefully calibrated appeal with a bareknuckled politics that depends only on expectations and calculations of the electorate’s antipathy to the BJP.
Ahead of 2019, the question is not whether Mayawati’s BSP will ally with Rahul Gandhi’s Congress to take on the BJP. It is: Do the BSP and the Congress have a shared story to tell to the voter, more persuasive than the BJP’s? A story that can engage and enthuse her while also convincing her that they both believe in it.