Congress president Rahul Gandhi asked Akhilesh Yadav, the Samajwadi Party chief, to jointly contest this Sunday's by-elections in Uttar Pradesh's Phulpur and Gorakhpur. Gandhi suggested Yadav pick whichever seat he thought was more winnable and leave the other for the Congress. Yadav was not amenable. He eliminated the Congress from his calculations and used all his persuasive powers to draw Mayawati, Bahujan Samaj Party supremo, into a limited alliance against the all-conquering BJP for the two seats which are being seen as a dry run for the epic battle for Uttar Pradesh's 80 Lok Sabha seats in general election season.
Perhaps the BJP's conquest of the North East nudged both Yadav and Mayawati into a reality check: that they would have to bury the animosity of 23 years the last time the two parties allied and formed the government in UP in 1993 or risk political oblivion as the BJP grabs large chunks of their respective vote banks. The BJP can also bank upon the charisma of Modi and Yogi currently being projected by the party as a pan Indian "Hindutva
icon" to continue its winning streak across UP.
BJP chief Amit Shah, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Prime Minister Narendra Modi (File photo)
The BJP in the state election held last year has appropriated large parts of the Yadav vote. Mayawati finds herself in a similar predicament - even her assured Jatav vote bank has been shifting loyalties. The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) data shows that the BSP's Dalit support base went down by about 23 percent in 2014 and has not recovered since then. Mayawati also witnessed a 16 percent decline in her core Jatav support base in 2014. Her losses were the BJP's gain.
The BJP has morphed from being considered a largely upper caste party in UP to being a magnet for all castes. The RSS and Modi have steadily tried to co-opt Dr BR Ambedkar into the Sangh
pantheon and this has paid dividends among Dalit voters. Separately, the upper castes are thrilled that Adityanath, a Thakur, is Chief Minister, though as a Yogi
(monk), he has no caste (having given up the trappings of caste according to traditional Hindu beliefs after becoming a monk) as the BJP projects.
Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav and BSP supremo Mayawati have teamed up to combat the BJP
With Mayawati being reduced to a bit player in 2014 as also the last two state elections in her home state, the cracks of being out of power are showing in a steady strain of defections from her party. In May 2017, she expelled close aide Nasimuddin Siddiqui; last month, he joined the Congress.
Mayawati was characteristically blunt while announcing the tie-up with Akhileh Yadav, describing the strategy as "ek haat le, doosre haat de"
(you have to give a little, take a little). The experiment hopes to move her voters towards Yadav Junior who calls her "bua"
(aunt) for the by-elections; in return, he will help her win one of the 10 Rajya Sabha seats that will be decided later this month (the BJP is certain to win eight).
Mayawati has only 17 votes in the state assembly; the Samajwadi Party has 46
The idea is to see if this arrangement can be expanded into a much more aggressive alliance for the general election. In 1995, Mayawati was confined to a guest house in Lucknow for hours to avoid Samajwadi supporters outside. Just hours earlier, a coalition government between her BSP and the SP had crashed. She vowed never to work with the SP again. What is different now is the sheer weight of the BJP's appeal and the fact that it's Akhilesh Yadav and not his father, Mayawati old rival Mulayam Singh Yadav, who is running the Samajwadi Party.
Mayawati has also managed to get the Congress to support her Rajya Sabha candidate in exchange for supporting the Congress' choice in Madhya Pradesh for the Upper House.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi had decided to go and meet his grandmother in Italy when the news of the North East defeat came in last week. This would have been familiar to erstwhile ally Yadav, who last year had to address a press conference solo after the Congress-SP combo failed miserably in the Uttar Pradesh state election.
The BJP decimated the Samajwadi Party-Congress combine in Uttar Pradesh last year
The Congress has also refused to withdraw its candidates in the two by-elections after Yadav spurned the offer to take one seat and leave the other to the Congress.
But the Congress is in no position to call the shots. It needs to act as a catalyst of a grand UP alliance to take on the BJP, similar to what the opposition managed to achieve in Bihar when Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav came together in 2015 in a "Maha-gatbandhan"
brokered by the Congress. The BJP was defeated.
If the SP and BSP succeed in winning Phulpur, then the alliance will look urgent and attractive and will also ensure that the Congress plays ball. Gorakhpur, however, is pretty much a Yogi fiefdom and he is ensuring with his non-stop campaign that it remains with the BJP as it has from 1991.
So it is the Phulpur result which will indicate what next for the most politically strategic state in the country. In some ways, it is even more of a bellwether than the Karnataka polls. Results will be known on March 14.(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.