Mahagathbandhan at stake as adamant Mayawati nearly abandons Congress ahead of key state elections

Hardly four months ago, in a rare photo op, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo Mayawati had come together on stage in Bengaluru at the swearing-in ceremony of HD Kumaraswamy as Karnataka chief minister and displayed bonhomie that was rarer still.

The reticent Sonia, who is not known for public display of emotion, was seen totally at ease in Mayawati's company as the two seemed to share a disarming laugh over something. Congress president Rahul Gandhi also joined the duo and waved at the public with a smile, probably giving a message they were on way for a successful grand alliance (Mahagathbandhan).

 Mahagathbandhan at stake as adamant Mayawati nearly abandons Congress ahead of key state elections

Congress leader Sonia Gandhi and Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati during the swearing-in ceremony of JD(S)-Congress coalition government in Bengaluru. PTI

The importance of the moment had not been lost on political pundits as that photograph lent credence to speculation that the Congress and the BSP may be on road to a strong alliance for the 2018 Assembly polls and 2019 Lok Sabha election.

On Thursday, however, that Sonia-Mayawati photograph was recalled by many who reacted with surprise over the latter's decision to not join hands with the Congress but with the first Chhattisgarh chief minister Ajit Jogi's Janta Congress in Chhattisgarh for the upcoming state Assembly elections.

The field is now open to conjecture about the possible alliance in the poll-bound state of Rajasthan, as BSP has also announced its first list of 22 candidates in Madhya Pradesh that it will contest independently (as of now) in the upcoming state Assembly elections.

This move by the BSP, on choosing to enter the poll fray without an alliance with the Congress, puts a big question mark on that elusive Mahagathbandhan, which the collective Opposition has been attempting to put together against the BJP for the past several months.

Why did Congress fail to strike the right chord with the BSP?

Right from local leaders in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh to Rahul Gandhi – all had hinted from time to time that ‘talks were on towards a possible alliance and seat sharing’.

While the failure at stitching an alliance has dampened Congress’ winning prospect in Chhattisgarh, it has put the ruling BJP a step ahead of others; it may be considered as a victory for the BJP in preventing the alliance from being formed.

Whenever the discussion on the issue of an alliance has surfaced, Mayawati has always been clear about her stand – the BSP will contest elections as part of a coalition government only if it gets a respectable number of seats.

In the 90-member Chhattisgarh Assembly, BSP will contest 35 seats and Janta Congress on 55 seats.

The past six months, the Chhattisgarh Congress party leaders have contemplated a possible seat-sharing formula. The issue also came up during the last visit of Rahul to Raipur to inaugurate the new Congress Pradesh Committee’s headquarters ‘Rajiv Bhawan’.

“Sharing seats with the BSP was a sticky situation as Chhattisgarh Congress leadership wasn’t comfortable with the number of seats BSP demanded. Congress could have hardly benefitted out of it,” a Raipur-based Congress leader told Firstpost.

A similar indecisiveness prevailed in Madhya Pradesh as well.

During its initial rounds of pre-poll alliance discussions, the Madhya Pradesh Congress offered 30 seats to BSP, but Mayawati insisted upon 50. Meanwhile, the upper caste (Savarna) agitation broke out in Madhya Pradesh against the amendments in the SC/ST (Atrocities) Act.

Considering it as an apt opportunity, the BSP recently announced its first list of 22 candidates for Madhya Pradesh.

The state president of BSP, Pradeep Ahirhar said that the party would field candidates on all the 230 seats. In the last Assembly election in 2013, the BSP had fielded 227 candidates and barring a few exceptions, they had performed badly. Currently, the BSP has four MLAs in the state.

Out of the 22 seats on which BSP has declared its candidates, five are ST reserved seats. It may prove damaging for the Congress. Post-Savarna agitation, a section within the Madhya Pradesh Congress believed that an alliance with the BSP, would antagonise ‘Savarnas’ and dampen the winning prospects of Congress.

Meanwhile, in a surprise move to win over the Savarnas, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan on Thursday announced that without prior investigation, no one would be arrested under the SC/ST (Atrocities) Act.

“This announcement is a kind of safeguard that the chief minister has taken to prevent his image which he has built over the last 14 years as an unbiased leader who doesn’t indulge in narrow caste and minority politics. In the practical sense, it doesn’t matter as the state doesn’t have the power to over-rule an Act passed by the Parliament unless it’s amended. But, Chouhan announced it to win over Savarnas, OBCs and minorities, who’re at present against SCs and STs due to the Act,” Bhopal-based journalist Prabhu Pateria said.

“Moreover, if Congress-BSP alliance doesn’t materialise, the BJP will undoubtedly be benefitted,” he said.

Similarly, in Rajasthan, the BSP has been trying hard to make inroads in the desert state. The Dalits account for more than 17 percent of votes in Rajasthan, which is crucial in forming the next government in the state.

In the 200-member Rajasthan Legislative Assembly, 34 seats are reserved for the Scheduled Caste. Barring two, rest of the seats are with the BJP at present.

The local Congress leadership in Rajasthan is divided over a possible alliance with the BSP. A section strongly feels that there’s no need to form an alliance. And, it all depends on Mayawati whether BSP would agree to Congress’ offer if at all it’s made.

Is an alliance in the future possible?

The future of Mahagathbandhan or a grand alliance with Congress and BSP on the same platform depends largely on the outcome of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan Assembly polls.

The Uttar Pradesh Congress leadership is confident that a grand alliance will formalise in the state ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election to take on the ruling BJP. But, one would recall that during the last Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls, Congress could enter an alliance with Samajwadi Party only. The BSP stayed out of it.

Needless to say, it has been the efforts of Sonia that have always brought other opposition parties together with the Congress. Whether it’s Mayawati or Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo Mamata Banerjee, they have never overlooked Sonia’s call.

However, Congress president Rahul doesn’t seem to inspire same faith among the opposition leaders. Unlike Sonia, who has managed to bring the opposition parties together on particular issues against the Narendra Modi government from time-to-time, Rahul’s surprise move to meet the prime minister along with senior Congress leaders on the farmers’ loan-waiver issue in 2016 bypassing the other opposition leaders created a flutter in their ranks.

Rahul’s decision to go solo on an important issue didn’t seem acceptable to the regional satraps who command a huge base within their regions, such as TMC and BSP, and whose presence is absolutely necessary for any Mahagathbandhan to take place.

The failure in striking an alliance in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh would have an impact on the Congress party’s strategy for all upcoming elections.

Updated Date: Oct 26, 2018 18:03:04 IST