SP-BSP alliance in UP reduces options for BJP, ensures 2019 polls will not be referendum on Narendra Modi

Some time in the summer of last year, weeks after the Bharatiya Janata Party lost the Kairana Lok Sabha bypoll, a senior party leader was informally asked what would be the party's "nightmare situation" in the Lok Sabha polls. His answer was simple: "Not being able to contest one election, but being dragged into multiple elections."

He elaborated, "We won in 2014 because there was one single national narrative. This time, if we are forced to fight different alliances on separate issues from one state to another, it would make things very difficult for us."

Elections in India in the past have often been termed by psephologists and analysts as an aggregate of multiple polls, broken down to state, sub-regional or even constituency levels. Wave elections are the only occasions when this has been prevented, as in 1971, 1984 and 2014. All other polls, barring the initial three, witnessed multiple narratives. Even in 1977, despite the installation of the first non-Congress government, southern India did not reject Indira Gandhi the way the north did.

By announcing their alliance, the Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party have ensured that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will find it very difficult to get into a singular contest. This will dramatically impact his chances of securing another term in office. Hereafter, the BJP and its leadership will increasingly find it difficult to present a single narrative to the voters.

 SP-BSP alliance in UP reduces options for BJP, ensures 2019 polls will not be referendum on Narendra Modi

File photo of Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav with Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati. PTI

The BJP had hoped to reduce the impending elections into a Modi versus Rahul contest. Over the past year, Modi and his colleagues used the word 'mahagathbandhan' more often than the Opposition parties. The intention was clear — convert this poll into a virtual referendum on Modi. If that would be the case, the assessment was, Modi would win hands down because in terms of personal popularity, he was tough to beat.

Not only does the decision of Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav to keep the Congress out of their alliance prevent this, but it also opens the doors for other strong regional leaders to follow suit — either keep out the Congress or include it in a state-level alliance grudgingly. The message is clear — you do not need to be a "national alternative" to tie down Modi to almost insurmountable state-level contests.

On paper, the BSP-SP alliance forges a potent caste and community combination of Dalits, OBCs, and minorities, especially Muslims. In the 1993 Assembly elections, the only occasion when the two parties entered into a state-wide alliance, they defeated the BJP despite the post-Babri Masjid demolition elation and the rise in the saffron party’s vote share. Politics in the state has undergone a sea change since, but caste fissures have deepened as aspirations have risen even among sub-castes.

The 2014 Lok Sabha election was indisputably when the performance of Opposition parties touched the nadir. Yet, even in their bleakest election, the vote share of the SP was 22.3 percent and that of the BSP's was 19.8 percent. Collectively, their vote share was 42.1 percent, marginally below the BJP's vote share of 42.6 percent. Presently, the ruling party would have slipped down a percentage point or two, if not more.

The BSP demonstrated in the bypolls last year that it has the capacity to transfer its loyal votes to the SP. Akhilesh Yadav's open endorsement of Mayawati's candidature as prime minister and declaration that respect or disregard for her from his cadre would be reverence or insult to him too, has ensured that SP supporters back BSP nominees in seats left for the party under the pact. Moreover, there is still time to strike direct as well as tacit ties with other Opposition parties and even the Congress.

Options for Modi have reduced after this development. The first challenge is to find ways to overcome the challenge in Uttar Pradesh. Presently the strategies are disjointed — the biggest being that the party can play on past animosity between Dalits and the dominant OBCs. But the problem is the undisguised resurgence of savarna politics within the BJP in the wake of Yogi Adityanath becoming the chief minister.

Modi has tried to address upper-caste dismay with its politics with the quota for economically weaker sections. But this increases the risk of falling between different stools — every section feeling that the BJP is appeasing others.

Likewise, much expectations have been raised among Hindutva votaries for decisive steps on building a Ram temple in Ayodhya. However, not only does the matter continue to remain mired in the legal imbroglio, but Modi has categorically declared that no further steps will be taken till the Supreme Court pronounces its verdict.

Much hype has been created around the Kumbh Mela and there are expectations of sentiments being escalated at the Dharam Sansad at the end of the month. How Modi balances between the copy book and Hindutva belligerence is to be watched.

Additionally, talk of precipitating communal polarisation has been so rampant that any such outbreak, whatever be the cause, may also not be to the BJP's benefit.

In recent months, the BJP has begun publicising various achievements of the government, but the "glass half-full" has limitations as a poll strategy to upturn a rising sentiment. The government's decisions, including announcing economic sops, over the next seven weeks, when the dates of the polls are likely to be declared, would determine if Modi still has the capacity to script a new political narrative.

Akhilesh Yadav reminded people that Uttar Pradesh has often elected the country's prime minister. It is still early to say if the next premier will be from this state or not. But the people of the state surely have the power and capacity to decide who will not be prime minister.

Updated Date: Jan 13, 2019 17:15:50 IST