Originally Published 2016-07-29 13:40:56 Published on Jul 29, 2016
Uttar Pradesh heating up for next year's Assembly elections

Politics in Uttar Pradesh, which sees elections in the early summer of 2017, has perked up, particularly following the distasteful remarks made by Dayashankar Singh, the now-expelled state BJP vice president, about Mayawati, the leader of the BSP. In the course of alleging that Mayawati was selling her party symbol to candidates — an old charge — Singh turned abusive. Given Mayawati's Dalit identity, the issue became an embarrassment for the BJP.

Subsequently some of the moral high that the BSP had gained was lost by party leaders training their megaphones on Singh's wife and daughter, who had nothing to do with the matter. While this indicates the loose tongues and misogynistic culture that runs through Uttar Pradesh politics, across parties, what does it suggest in hard political terms?

It is here that the story gets a little complicated. Uttar Pradesh is set for a fascinating election in a state where power has been won and lost in recent years by parties that have formed innovative and dynamic social coalitions. Indeed, it is possible to identify families, particularly in urban areas, that have voted for all four major parties in the past decade: the BJP (2014), the Congress (2009), the BSP (2007) and the SP (2012).

The controversy triggered by Singh's remarks has consolidated Dalit voters (especially the Jatav community) behind the BSP. This is Mayawati's bedrock. It gave her party a 20 percent vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, even though the BSP won zero seats. In contrast, the BJP led alliance won 73 seats of 80.

Assembly elections are a different battle. In recent times, the Congress (in 2009) and the BJP (2014) have done better in parliamentary elections in Uttar Pradesh than in state elections. The latter were won by the BSP in 2007 and the SP in 2012, with both parties getting absolute majorities in the 403 member assembly.

In 2017, the SP faces an uphill task. By common consensus, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav has been outmanoeuvred by his "uncles", a euphemism for the brothers, cousins and political associates of his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who, like Mulayam himself, remain active in politics and have undercut the chief minister. Further, in cities and towns, the sense that SP backed criminal syndicates and favoured police officers are collaborating is working to the ruling party's disadvantage.

In the normal course, Mayawati would be expected to capitalise on the anti-incumbency sentiment, present herself as chief ministerial candidate and the only regional alternative of consequence and win. This is what she did in 2007, when the BSP formed the first full majority government in Uttar Pradesh since 1991. With luck, she could repeat that. Either way, however, conditions are different.

In 2007, Uttar Pradesh saw two contests. In the first, Mayawati competed with the BJP to gain the affection of the urban middle classes, largely Hindu but motivated by economic factors (in a national election) or crime and law and order (in a state election) or a combination. The other group she reached out to were Brahmins, who moved away from the BJP for the first time since the early 1990s and the Ayodhya movement.

The second contest was between the BSP, with the novel social coalition Mayawati had built, and the SP. Mulayam Singh Yadav lost power and the BSP won 206 seats, more than double the SP's tally. The BJP was reduced to 51 seats, a sizeable segment of its urban and Brahmin voters having migrated to the BSP. It took till 2014 and Narendra Modi for the BJP to recapture those constituencies.

In between, in 2012, Akhilesh Yadav led the SP to victory, winning 224 seats and reducing the BSP to less than half that number. The SP too managed to construct a rainbow coalition, though incremental and bandwagon voters came because of a lack of options and not because the Yadavs assiduously put together a new caste alliance with a political strategy in mind. The BJP remained in the 50 odd seats category and the Congress seat share stayed in the twenties.

While this is the state of play, what does it signify for 2017? First, unlike 2007 or 2012, the BJP is stronger and more active. True, it is not optimally placed and the investments, particularly in younger leaders and office bearers, that Amit Shah and Narendra Modi have made may bear fruit only in the 2020s — in that sense 2017 may be too early. Nevertheless, the BJP is in the fight. In comparison to 2007, it is not surrendering Brahmins and urban middle classes to the BSP almost by default.

Indeed, the Dayashankar Singh episode has seen a consolidation of Rajputs behind the BJP, just as Dalits have coalesced that much more vigorously behind the BSP. The feeling that Mayawati's governments tend to be heavy handed with using Dalit protection laws exists and has a political implication. This is not a value judgement, it is a realistic, cold-blooded assessment of voter perceptions.

What this means is that while Mayawati may well triumph in 2017, her social coalition will need to be different from that in 2007. As such, she is appealing to Muslim voters far more than earlier, promising 100 Muslim candidates (of 403). In theory, a Dalit Muslim combine is formidable, perhaps unbeatable. Yet, this could mean Mayawati alienating some of those voter groups that were with her in 2007 and 2012. It could also lead to a counter-mobilisation on caste lines and in pockets religious lines.

For instance, the BJP's traditional base among Kurmis and the less advantaged, non-Yadav OBCs could be solidified. Yadavs themselves were divided in the 2014 parliamentary election and younger Yadavs opted for Modi. If the SP is seen as slipping, some Yadavs could turn to the BJP in a state election too. Brahmins are said to be substantially with the BJP, as are urban middle classes, though the Congress hopes to play spoiler with Sheila Dikshit.

What is the big picture? In 2007 (or even in 2014), it was a case of either the BSP or the BJP taking on the SP, as the party of the lotus and the party of the elephant both targeted key voter groups. In 2017, social alliances are changing. It may well be a BSP versus BJP battle, with the SP pushed down the ladder.

This commentary originally appeared in NDTV.

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