Uttar Pradesh

BSP joins battle

Print edition : August 19, 2016

BSP supremo Mayawati interacting with the media on the political developments following her party's spat with the BJP, in Lucknow on July 24. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Dayashankar Singh, whose abusive remarks against Mayawati led to his dismissal from the BJP. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Congress president Sonia Gandhi with party vice president Rahul Gandhi. The party is in regroup mode following the recent political developments in the State. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav. Observers say the Akhilesh government has an impressive development record. Photo: PTI

The BJP’s plans of making it a straight fight with the S.P. in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections unravel after a State-level leader’s remarks against Mayawati bring the BSP back into the electoral reckoning.

“FOR four months it was drilled into us, senior- and middle-level party workers of Uttar Pradesh, that one of the primary political and organisational tasks in relation to the forthcoming Assembly elections was to marginalise the Bahujan Samaj Party [BSP] much before the election process formally started. Top leaders both at the Centre and in the State, including Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] president Amit Shah, were involved in driving this message home. After all that, look what has happened. The BSP has bounced back to centre stage on the strength of one lousy statement from one of our leaders and the way in which the media and the political class responded to it. This only goes to show once again that the best-laid plans can go awry in politics.” This was a summing up of the political situation in Uttar Pradesh in the last week of July by a visibly frustrated senior BJP leader from Lucknow and a potential candidate from one of the constituencies there.

This leader and a significant number of his colleagues from the party in the State, including Lok Sabha members, were of the view that things were on course for the BJP since early April, when Amit Shah made forays with public as well as intra-party meetings to chart out overt campaigns and organisational manoeuvres. The thrust of the campaign was to pitch the Assembly elections as one between the BJP, which swept the last Lok Sabha elections in the State, and the ruling Samajwadi Party (S.P.), leaving out the BSP even from election-related discussions. All this was working according to plan until BJP leader Dayashankar Singh’s utterances against BSP leader and former Chief Minister Mayawati as a person who sells the party ticket to the highest bidder and equating her to a sex worker. This remark by no less than the vice president of the party’s State unit evoked widespread condemnation, including in Parliament, and, according to the State BJP unit, shattered the party’s meticulously built political plank.

A rattled BJP central leadership came up with fervid measures within a matter of hours. It removed Dayashankar Singh from the office-bearer position and later dismissed him from the party itself. Leader after central leader condemned Dayashankar Singh, and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley apologised to Mayawati on the floor of the Rajya Sabha. Information and Broadcasting Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu went a step further and castigated the statement as one “born out of insensitivity and arrogance and utter stupidity”.

He was categorical that Dayashankar Singh’s abusive remarks against Mayawati were unacceptable.

According to the senior leader from Lucknow and his associates, the net result of all this was that the BJP squandered the gains that were accruing to it through the systematic operations it began in April.

The party had evolved plans that divided Uttar Pradesh into six organisational divisions. These were Kashi, or eastern Uttar Pradesh regions around Varanasi; Kanpur-Bundelkhand comprising mainly Bundelkhand and some areas of central Uttar Pradesh; Gorakhpur, or eastern Uttar Pradesh adjoining Bihar; Awadh, or central Uttar Pradesh; Braj and Paschim, comprising the Agra-Mathura areas, and western Uttar Pradesh. These organisational divisions and the political plan for them were based on the realistic premise that it would not be possible for the party to retain the stupendous gains it made in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

The enthusiasm of 2014 was, in the party’s own assessment, missing from a large number of supporters on account of the unimpressive track record of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre. Equally importantly, the party had recognised that the electorate voted on different parameters for Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. In 2014, the BJP won 71 of 80 seats in the State. In terms of Assembly seat projections, this translated into leads in a whopping 324 of the 403 seats. Even in April, the BJP leadership was clear that it would be impossible to repeat this performance. Still, party workers were being goaded to ensure success in at least 220 seats.

It was asserted repeatedly in the regional brainstorming sessions of the BJP that the consolidation of all Hindu communities behind the BJP was essential to reach the target of 220 seats. During the Lok Sabha elections, a sizable chunk of voters from the Yadav community and the Other Backward Classes (OBC) and a large section of Dalit voters had rallied behind BJP candidates on account of two factors: the communal polarisation that engulfed the State following the Muzaffarnagar riots and the developmental promises of Modi.

In the brainstorming sessions, leaders admitted that both these factors did not possess the same appeal today. In their perception, a majority of the Yadav voters would return to the S.P. fold in the Assembly election. The same was true of the dominant Dalit Jatav community that is primarily affiliated to the BSP in an Assembly election. In such a context, the BJP plan was to target non-Yadav OBC communities and non-Jatav Dalit communities. At the level of realpolitik, the tactic was to project the BSP as a party that had lost its relevance as non-Jatav Dalit communities had moved away from it.

This tactic was supplemented with the BJP facilitating the desertion of important BSP leaders from the Mayawati fold in June-July. Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly Swami Prasad Maurya and influential regional activists R.K. Chaudhary and Ravindranath Tripathi resigned from the BSP in protest against Mayawati’s “high-handedness”. The campaign on the BSP’s irrelevance gathered greater momentum and there was a palpable sense within the BJP that they were making early gains in terms of the strategy they had visualised for 2016. It is this confidence that has been shaken by the Dayashankar diatribe.

Delicate balance of power

At the broader level, the developments had the effect of hastening the State’s movement into election mode in the past three months. The July developments also led political activists and observers to the unanimous conclusion that the three principal players in the State, the S.P., the BSP and the BJP were in a delicate balance of power with each having its own share of strengths and weaknesses. The BSP has bounced back from its steady decline and the BJP has struck a plateau after riding high for some time. The consensus is that both parties can build from this situation. The BJP is hopeful that the Dayashankar issue would blow over soon. The party leadership thinks that it can put this episode behind it in the approximately six months between now and the election.

Political observers also agree that the S.P., with its strong OBC Yadav support base and deep roots among minorities, has a fighting chance. One notable factor in their unanimous opinion is that the anti-incumbency quotient of the Akhilesh Yadav-led government is considered to be much lower than what is usually faced by governments in Uttar Pradesh. They point out that the Akhilesh government has an impressive development record, especially in terms of building road connectivity even in rural areas and improving the power situation. However, the government continues to receive considerable flak on account of the law and order situation and also faces multiple pressures and pulls in terms of governance. Still, unlike parties of the past, the S.P. is not being seen as a pushover.

The Congress, the fourth and not-so-dominant pole in the Uttar Pradesh polity, is admittedly in regroup mode and has launched a number of political and organisational campaigns under the guidance of professional election strategist Prashant Kishor. The moves guided by Kishor include the surprise projection of Sheila Dixit, three-time former Chief Minister of Delhi, as the chief ministerial candidate and of extensive ground-level campaign and interaction with people. Besides Congress president Sonia Gandhi and vice president Rahul Gandhi, the hitherto reluctant campaigner Priyanka Gandhi is expected to play a major role in these ground-level initiatives.

The Congress is hopeful that these manoeuvres will cumulatively result in the accrual of a sizable number of Brahmin votes to the party. Apparently, Kishor and the State party leadership are hopeful that this will lead to a section of Muslims also rallying behind it. The Brahmin community, considered to be approximately 10 per cent of the population, were originally Congress voters. This changed with the Ram Mandir agitation in the mid-1980s and early 1990s when the BJP successfully weaned away a significant section of this community. However, in recent years, the BJP’s Brahmin vote share has been shrinking, a fact that was evident in Assembly elections too. This is apparently due to the lack of influential Brahmin leaders in the State BJP and the dominance of leaders belonging to the Thakur community, such as Rajnath Singh and Yogi Adityanath. Disillusioned sections of the Brahmin community have apparently turned to even parties like the S.P. and the BSP. It is here that the Congress sees a chance.

Evidently, politics in Uttar Pradesh has been in a state of flux since the eruption of the controversy over Dayashankar Singh’s utterances. All three major players have the potential to correct course and advance, while the fourth player has the chance to emerge as a crucial factor if the same situation continues after the election too.