Mayawati has put the Congress-led UPA on tenterhooks. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief told a jam-packed two-lakh capacity crowd at Ramabai Maidan in Lucknow that the next parliamentary polls would be held much ahead of 2014 and party workers need to start preparations for it on a "war footing".
And the clincher: she wants the party to ensure that the "UPA does not return to power". This statement is sure to ring alarm bells among Congress strategists.
Like Arvind Kejriwal, Mayawati has also learnt the art of media management by promising a bombshell on Wednesday. A meeting of the BSP National Executive on Wednesday will decide whether to continue extending support to the UPA at the Centre or not.
But she actually said two things in same breath: "We have been forced to call a meeting of the National Executive to review our support to the UPA", and, second, "it looks imminent that Lok Sabha elections will be held much before scheduled". She then detailed how the party has to be expanded to obtain more seats after the next elections. Her statements were thus open to many interpretations.
After the Trinamool Congress pullout, the numbers game requires UPA to ensure that at least one of the two—Samajwadi Party or the BSP—have to give the government full support. Even then it is touch and go. The Congress thus has to do a fine balancing act to make sure that neither SP nor BSP is antagonised - a tough job for floor managers and party strategists.
The BSP chief also indicated the kind of timeframe in which she expected the next parliamentary elections. "It has to be held early but before that there are two assembly elections, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, whose dates have already been announced." She chose not refer to any of the other assembly polls like Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chattishgarh and Delhi - which are due in 2013. This gave rise to speculation that the Lok Sabha polls may happen in the first half of 2013.
She dropped some hints that she may play the catalyst in advancing the elections.
"Since the formation of the UPA government it has been taking a series of anti-people measures." She referred to the diesel price hike, rationing of LPG cylinders and FDI in retail. While her position was clear on the first two, she did not come out clearly for or against FDI in retail. "For now we are opposed to it but we are watching the UPA assurances on FDI in retail closely; if it works out to be in people’s favour we may implement it later."
But then she warned her supporters that they should now wary about falling for the UPA's pre-poll populist measures. "You don’t have to fall into that trap, for those populist measures can’t be implemented in such a short period of time while they rule at the Centre," she said.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's remark that "money does not grow on trees" came for some very caustic rebuttals as also the references to various scams.
Party insiders say that her decisions on withdrawing support to the UPA will depend on how the SP will benefit from its links to the UPA, and whether Akhilesh Yadav's popularity is still holding up or not.
This time around she will be looking to expand her base and numbers beyond Uttar Pradesh. She made repeated references of Maharashtra where, according to her, BR Ambedkar was such a revered personality but this did not convert to votes for Dalit parties. Similar references were made to tribals and Dalits in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Rajasthan.
She focused half of her one-hour-long speech on the party’s core constituents in Uttar Pradesh by pointing out the follies of the Samajwadi Party government in UP. There was a clear attempt to drive a wedge between the social constituents that supported the Samajawadi Party in this year’s assembly elections. She tried to play on the sentiments of non-Yadav OBC castes. Special references were made to Brahmins blowing conch shells and Muslim reservations. Brahmins and Muslims - two socially important constituencies - are key to a Mayawati revival.
A key change noted in her demeanour was a consciousness that she needed an image makeover - especially on corruption and criminals. "Criminals and the corrupt who join our party at the time of elections only bring disrepute. We need to guard against them."
While she kept on naming Yadavs by caste—making it clear that she would not pamper them—she brought back her old slogan—Sarvajan Sukhai, Sarvajan Hitai (Welfare for all).
She made an indirect attack on Sonia Gandhi by calling her a reader rather than a leader. Unlike some other leaders whose speeches are prepared by someone else, I prepare my own speech based on my own experiences in public life, she said.
The big question is this: will she now pull the plug or grant a reprieve to the UPA with some riders? The UPA's managers must already be burning up the hotlines to Mayawati to ensure that she continues to play ball.
But then, the BSP chief is known to keep the suspense going till last minute. She likes springing surprises. UPA bosses are not going to have a good night's sleep tonight.