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Why BJP should say 'thank you' for Mayawati's tight slap

Did the BJP blow it all by immaturely targeting Mayawati’s stand on foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retailing?

The answer is yes and no.

On the face of it, Sushma Swaraj’s charge that Mayawati had been influenced by Congress’s misuse of the CBI seems to have triggered the Bahujan Samaj Party’s about-turn on the FDI vote. Swaraj also pointed out during the Lok Sabha debate that Mayawati had no problems approaching a “communal” BJP when it came to it seeking support for quotas in promotions for SCs/STs, but that when it came to returning the favour on the FDI vote, the same BJP became 'communal'.

The BSP tigress gave it back in spades during the Rajya Sabha debate when she dismissed Swaraj’s statements as a case of “sour grapes”. She also counter-alleged that it was the NDA regime under BJP that first used the CBI against her in the Taj Corridor case.

The slap she delivered to the BJP’s face is something the latter should cherish. It should see it as a wake-up call.

So, yes, in this sense the BJP’s statements on Mayawati could have triggered the latter’s decision to vote with the government on FDI, using the figleaf of “secular” logic for validating this abrupt change of stance. In the Lok Sabha debate, the BSP had opposed FDI and walked out, effectively enabling the Congress to win the vote.

But there is no case for believing that Mayawati merely acted out of pique. She shifted her strategy as much to spite Mulayam Singh Yadav. Her stand has made Yadav’s stand irrelevant to the Rajya Sabha vote on FDI today.

The slap she delivered to the BJP’s face is something the latter should cherish. It should see it as a wake-up call.

The prime lesson the BJP needs to learn from this episode is not that Mayawati is a slippery customer, but that she respects only power, not entreaties or empty threats. Her politics – and possibly that of Mulayam Singh Yadav – rely on creating a vote bank that only she can own. In short, she will do a deal with the BJP only if the latter can show it has its own votebank.

Nothing epitomises Mayawati’s political approach better than what she said to counter the BJP’s observation that she didn’t seem to have problem with communalism when she wanted the party’s support to form a government in UP.

She told the Rajya Sabha: "In 2003, BJP said it was in favour of contesting elections along with BSP. I said we can form the government but cannot contest elections together because of ideological differences. I refused to contest elections (together) and they said they will withdraw support.”

What the BSP chief says is crystal clear. She will not sacrifice her own base of Dalits and other lower OBCs by entering into an alliance with anyone, but once this base is left intact, it can ally tactically for power after any election.

But even while sharing power, Mayawati does not believe in playing by the rules. In 1997, when neither BJP nor BSP had enough MLAs to rule UP on their own, they entered into a deal whereby Mayawati would be CM for six months, and the BJP’s Kalyan Singh for the next six. Needless to say, Mayawati did not honour her part of the bargain when her term ended.

We can rail here about the immorality of politics, but this is the Indian reality. Political parties become relevant only when they can get the numbers. Else, they do not matter. Only power matters.

If this is the case, what is the lesson in it for the BJP – or any other party for that matter?

First, the BJP’s political untouchability is as much a myth as Mayawati’s secularism. If the BJP is in a position to bid for power, it will find the right partners after making a few verbal concessions. This is what enabled Vajpayee to rule from 1998-2004. Even a Nitish Kumar will fall in line if the BJP has the seats. Without the seats, everyone is free to talk about secularism. Whatever his reservations against Narendra Modi, the fact is he remains in power with the support of another Modi – Sushil Modi, who has been a part of the Sangh Parivar since the age of 10. So Nitish Kumar is clearly wearing blinkers on secularism. He can see communalism is distant Gujarat, but not in his own backyard.

Second, if the BJP’s attractiveness as a political partner has to improve, it simply has to improve its numbers in the Lok Sabha. An important key to its revival lies in Uttar Pradesh, and this is where the lesson taught by Mayawati should come in useful. From being the overwhelming power in UP in the 1990s in the wake of the Ayodhya movement, the BJP started losing ground under Vajpayee. In the 1991, 1996 and 1998 elections, the BJP obtained 47, 50 and 55 Lok Sabha seats from UP. In 1999, even after Kargil, it fell to 28. In short, Vajpayee lost UP for the BJP and the party never recovered from this blow.

The BJP, by trying to tap-dance with Mayawati and playing to the secular gallery, lost its clout in the state, and is now playing third fiddle – to SP and BSP. Both Mayawati and Mulayam have eaten into the BJP’s core voter base.

The BJP’s winning formula till 1998 was a strong combination of upper castes and non-Yadav OBCs – a coalition built during the Ayodhya movement.

This coalition has to be rebuilt if the BJP is to lose its untouchability nationally and reach 180 seats in the next Lok Sabha, or even the one after that.

The dilemma for the BJP is simple: how can it recreate the 1990s magic without reigniting the fires of destructive Hindutva once more?

The short-term answer lies in the third M – beyond the first two, Mayawati and Mulayam.

The BJP has experimented with soft Hindutva under Uma Bharati, but got nowhere. The logical answer is Modi – the third M.

If Modi wins Gujarat this month, and assuming he will have a greater say in the party at the national level, his primary focus has to be on UP. Without this state – which sends the largest contingent of 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha – the party has no way of equalling Vajpayee’s record of 182 seats – which is what enabled him to lead the NDA coalition. It is sham analysis to say that it was Vajpayee’s secular credentials alone that did the trick. The truth is, neither Nitish Kumar nor Chandrababu Naidu deserted the NDA between 2002 and 2004. It is power than builds coalitions, not ideology.

Without at least 30 seats from UP, won on its own steam, the BJP may not be able to form the next government. This is the lesson that Mayawati really taught the BJP in the 1990s, and sent them a sharp reminder about yesterday in the FDI debate. Without a perch in UP, she could not care less about the BJP.

Will the BJP get 30 seats in 2014 from UP? It will have to recreate a more sensible version of the Kalyan Singh coalition, this time probably under Modi. As a strongman, and an OBC himself, Modi can well try to attract not only the non-Yadav OBCs, but also the upper castes who have drifted away from the BJP to Mayawati and even Mulayam in the recent elections.

The injection of Modi into the UP game can have interesting consequences for the other two M’s of UP. It will force Mayawati, Mulayam and Congress to fight for the fourth M – the Muslim vote.

The results could be interesting for everybody.