It’s news when someone dares call Mayawati an elephant in her own state or when she dismisses Rahul Gandhi as a yuvraj who shamelessly promotes poverty tourism. It’s news when the latter sneaks into Bhatta-Parsaul to lend moral support to farmers in their fight over land against the chief minister and when she launches a blistering attack on the Congress-led UPA. So far, the upcoming assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh has been painted as a direct fight between the two.
However, in the shadow of the high decibel battle between the Congress and the Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP), there’s a dark horse in the running. Out of the media glare, the Samajwadi Party (SP) is slowly, silently but surely rebuilding its depleted base.
There is much at stake for the Mayawati-led BSP that is seeking a re-election, and the Congress, which is trying to create a strong launch pad for party general secretary Rahul Gandhi’s leap into national politics. But the stakes are equally, if not more, big for the SP too. For the moment, the second biggest contender for power in the country’s most politically important state has been virtually written off by the popular media.
For all the hype around Rahul, the Congress is a minor force in the state. It has not managed a majority in a quarter of a century. The last time the party won close to 100 seats was nearly 20 years ago. In election of 2007, it managed just 22 seats. If, after Rahul’s dogged effort, it doubles the number it would be a commendable achievement. But in a 403-member house it’s not even a respectable presence for a national party.
In a state of so many complex equations, the party’s is crippled by the lack of strong home-grown leaders -- faces the electorate could identify with and relate to. The biggest ones -- UPCC president Rita Bahuguna and Union minister Veni Prasad Verma -- fell way short of top leaders in other parties in terms of appeal and charisma. Worse, the party neither has a sturdy organisation to fall back on nor a core support group.
Basking in the reflected aura of Rahul won’t take the Congress far. The party had surprised itself in the 2009 general elections by winning 22 out of 80 seats. But repeating that would be quite a feat since assembly elections are a different ball game altogether.
The BSP, which had been on the ascendant since the late 80s, appears to have hit the plateau. Its fortune has been on a downward spiral since 2007 when it notched up 206 seats in the assembly. The party saw a dip in its vote share in 2009 general elections - it fell to 27.4 percent as opposed to 30.43 percent in 2007 poll. From 206 seats in 2007, BSP slid to 100 assembly segments (21 Lok Sabha seats) in 2009. With a slew of corruption charges against the chief minister and the widespread anti-incumbency sentiment, it would be an uphill task for Mayawati in 2012.
Her rainbow vote bank is losing its sheen. The urban middle class is disenchanted with her, and so are the Bhramins and members of the backward castes. The rebellion by former minister, Babu Singh Kushwaha, is symbolic of how the caste equations are turning against her. Kushwaha represents the key MBC (Most Backward Classes) communities such as the Nishads and the Kushwahas. The Dalit and the MBC voters are unhappy with her outreach to the upper castes. Numbers are not in her favour.
Sensing disenchantment in 2009, Mayawati began appeasing the Dalits while snubbing the Brahmins. Her closest Brahmin confidant SC Mishra was shunned and accused of providing state patronage to his family. But she is hard at work to rebuild the magic mix of social extremes -- Dalits and Brahmins. Mishra is back in the fold with Mayawati.
But will this ensure her a majority? It is difficult to predict at the moment.
The BJP appears to have lost the caste battle already. The only reliable caste which could go with it -- Brahmins -- is hopelessly fragmented and not numerically dominant to provide the party an edge anywhere. It swings between pandering to the Hindu sentiment and the development agenda, looking convincing in neither. It’s not Ram Mandir the party is talking about now -- though it has not stopped using religious-cultural symbols -- but Ram Rajya. There are not many takers for that. In most likelihood, it would end up competing with the Congress for the bottom rungs.
That leaves the Samajwadi Party. In a churn over the last few years and jumping from one strategic error to the other, it witnessed steady loss of ground to other players in the electoral arena. The 2007 assembly elections were disastrous as was the polls of 2009. Its vote bank lay in tatters with important groups shunning it for the Congress and the BJP.
It has been working earnestly to rebuild and re-energise its Muslim-Yadav base. Muslim voters moved away from the SP in 2009, with the entry of Kalyan Singh into the party's fold. Kalyan Singh was the BJP chief minister in the state during the Babri mosque demolition in 1992. Later that year, on May 17, 2009, the Muslim face of the party, Azam Khan, was expelled from the party for six years. Mulayam Singh's plan to repackage himself as a Hindu icon did not go down quite well with the party's supporters.
He is out to undo all that. He dumped Kalyan Singh in 2009 and brought back the Muslim face of the party, Azam Khan, back into its fold. He criticised the Supreme Court's judgement on the disputed land in Ayodhya, and termed it as an act of deception on the Muslims of the country. The aggressive wooing of the Muslim vote bank has started working. He has also consolidated his hold on his core vote bank -- the Yadavs.
With the exit of Amar Singh, the party has toned down a lot. Missing is the parade of film stars and glamour to overawe the electorate. It is back to the good old jan sampark (people contact) now. The party has gone micro in its approach, consciously shunning big, unintelligible ideas of growth and development.
By the time cameras focussed on Rahul Gandhi and his yatra, Mulayam Singh's son, Akhilesh, had covered over 110 assembly constituencies meeting and speaking to people at large meetings and street corners. He has made his presence felt wherever his two-and-a-half month yatra has touched. It works in his favour that he is more accessible compared to the Congress general secretary.
It has been a hush-hush affair for the party so far. But there is no doubt that the SP is out to make a strong statement in the coming polls. The response to Akhilesh’s campaign has been subdued but well-received.
UP elections could spring a surprise. Watch out for the dark horse.