The coming together of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in a pre-poll alliance in Uttar Pradesh is a moment bristling with possibilities — and challenges. It can be located in a sequence that began with the defeat of the ruling BJP in the by-polls in Gorakhpur and Phulpur in UP last year in March. At that time, the humbling was especially bitter for the BJP and the taste of victory particularly sweet for Mayawati-Akhilesh Yadav, who had joined forces, because it happened in the constituencies of the incumbent chief minister and his deputy. The trouncing of the BJP in the recent assembly polls in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, this time by the Congress, has further chipped away at the veneer of invincibility that the BJP has so aggressively cultivated and contrived since its sweep to the Centre in 2014. In this backdrop, for the Opposition, the pre-poll pact between two long-standing rivals in the politically crucial state of UP augurs happy possibilities in the general election a few months away. But that is only half the story.
The other half goes back to the year 1993 when the SP and BSP first came together to defeat the BJP. That experiment of backward caste solidarity — envisioned by both Kanshi Ram and Rammanohar Lohia — collapsed in June 1995 after the humiliation of Mayawati by SP goons in the infamous “guest house kaand (incident)” that Mayawati mentioned at least twice in the joint press conference she held with Akhilesh Yadav in Lucknow on Saturday. It has only become more challenging to resurrect backward caste solidarity since. At ground level, workers of both parties must now surmount more than two decades of mutual sniping and hostility. Then, the BJP has spread wider and deeper since the early 1990s. Today, it juggles several balls in the air. It is the party of Hindutva plus. It tailors its appeal to the aspirational classes in all groups, including the backward castes. Today, the BJP has both a formidable machine and a story, though fraying, to tell the voter. Mayawati and Akhilesh represent important constituencies but they will need to make a credible case and narrative for their alliance — counting on anti-incumbency against the BJP may not be enough in times when, despite the piling up of unkept promises, the BJP still shows the will to power that helped it occupy the Centre in 2014.
At the same time, the BJP cannot afford to disdain or dismiss the pact announced in Lucknow on Saturday. It’s a choice between a “majboor (hapless)” and “majboot (strong)” government, said Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his party’s national council meet in Delhi on the same day. For one, the BJP needs to show more respect for its political opponent, be it the Congress or the SP-BSP. Also, amid the perceived shrinking of space and autonomy of institutions in the past few years and the general force-feeding of nationalism, the adjective “strong” for a government is not seen to be an untainted one.