Gathbandhan Politics: Can the SP–BSP Alliance Succeed in Uttar Pradesh?

While an opposition alliance defeated the BJP during the 2018 Lok Sabha bypolls, it remains to be seen if the SP-BSP combine can win a majority in this year’s general elections.

Can the alliance between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the  Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) consolidate the anti-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) vote in Uttar Pradesh (UP)? The Indian National Congress’ decision not to field Priyanka Gandhi from Varanasi also suggests that the SP–BSP alliance is the more popular challenger to the BJP in UP. 

The  SP draws its support primarily from the Yadav community and the minority Muslims—Mulayam Singh Yadav’s stance on the Babri Masjid has enhanced his and the party’s image among the Muslim population; the BSP has traditionally drawn support from Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other BackwardClassess (OBC) in Uttar Pradesh, by spreading the message that they were the “Bahujan” or the majority. Whether both parties can maintain their core base and consolidate this caste–community demographic to remove the BJP from power, however, remains to be seen: in 2014, the SP won only five Lok Sabha seats out of 80 in the state, while the BSP failed to register a single win. The 2017 assembly elections were also disappointing for both parties: the SP and BSP won 47 and 19 seats respectively, compared to the BJP’s 312 seats. 

While this alliance may have shown initial gains by winning three seats in the 2018 Lok Sabha bypoll, an anti–incumbency sentiment may not be enough to wrest UP from the BJP. 

This reading list looks at the SP and BSP’s support base and relevance of political ideology, and their electoral prospects.       

1) Will the Muslim Community Vote for the Alliance?

Muslim voters in UP have been traditionally reluctant to vote for parties whose agenda is primarily to appease their community, with the younger generation of voters now demanding to be seen as equals. Rahul Verma and Pranav Gupta write that while the Muslim community considers the presence of the BJP before voting, they can no longer be seen as a single voting bloc, as issues of price rise, employment and corruption affect them just as much as any other voter. The authors also argue that campaigning along religious lines could be detrimental for the SP and BSP, as it could consolidate the non–Muslim vote in favour of the BJP.

The party is likely to use the recent triple talaq issue to create a rift within the Muslim electorate. While this issue is not likely to yield any benefit to the BJP among Muslim voters, it may be used to further consolidate Hindu vote. And if the BJP succeeds to consolidate its gain among the non-Yadav OBC and the non-Jatav Dalit, they are likely to repeat their 2014 Lok Sabha election performance.

2) Is the Alliance’s Support Base Intact?

Sudha Pai argues that Mulayam Singh Yadav’s decision to incorporate a greater number of Muslims in government after winning the 2012 assembly elections had a negative effect on the community, by crowding out moderate Muslim politics. Further, Pai accuses the SP government of failing to adequately address skirmishes that built up to the Muzaffarnagar riots, suggesting that it may have been deliberate. 

Yadav seems to have believed that low-intensity communal tension would ensure that the Muslims did not once again vote for the Congress or move towards the BSP. However, he did not expect that the riots would assume the proportions they did, leading to Muslims fleeing to camps in large numbers and refusing to return to their villages …  Communal mobilisation and the Muzaffarnagar riots and their aftermath have resulted in a churning within the Muslim community, which was moving towards a new development-oriented politics. The SP could lose much of its Muslim base, both due to the riots and the partisan manner in which it handled them.  

Further, A K Verma writes that Dalits, OBC and Muslim voters are now unwilling to be seen as political pawns, arguing that the SP and BSP favoured them only when it was necessary to dislodge the Congress from power.

Today, these groups aspire for power, position, and development. They prefer to bet on a party that promises better returns than one which is centred around identity. This was demonstrated in 2014, when they all voted for the BJP that promised development. Even Muslim identities are sharpening on social, economic and sectarian lines as the socially and economically backward Pasmanda Muslims position themselves against the dominant elite Muslims (Ansari 2013).

3) Does the BSP Still Work for the Marginalised?

With zero seats won in the 2014 general election and only 19 won in the 2017 assembly election, Anand Teltumbde writes that while the BSP may have initially reinforced faith among Dalits in the present political system, Mayawati—who was once considered a prime ministerial hopeful—sacrificed principles for political power when she became chief minister in UP. She turned “feudal, arrogant and narcissistic,” argues Teltumbde, and took her dalit support base for granted to “further her political expedition.” Teltumbde also criticises Mayawati for now attacking Modi and the BJP for their communalism, even though she formed an alliance with them to come to power.

When the entire world condemned Modi’s role in Gujarat carnage of 2002, she had gone and campaigned for him in Gujarat …  She now speaks of Hinduisation by the BJP, but it was she who had handed over educational and cultural institutions to the BJP during her coalition rule and launched a drive for Hinduisation herself, through the slogan “haathi nahi Ganesh hai, Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh hai” (not an elephant, it is Ganesh, Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh).   

A K Verma also argues that support for Mayawati from the Dalit communityin UP is waning: less than half of the state’s Dalit population vote for the BSP, and in the 2012 Assembly elections, the BSP lost Dalit votes in every region of UP. 

Dalits felt left out by Mayawati who allegedly favoured Jatavs/Chamars, neglecting ati-Dalits like Balmiki, Pasi, Khatik, Kori and Dhobi, etc. These ati-Dalits, especially Pasis, are showing a clear preference for the BJP. 

4) Is There an Alternative to the Alliance?

Radhika Ramaseshan writes that Dalit rights no longer feature prominently for Mayawati. The community in UP currently stands at a crossroads: they have become more vulnerable under the BJP, while the SP is not an option for them due to the antagonism between them and the Yadavs. However, Ramaseshan argues that there might be another alternative.

The “Hinduised” Dalit sub-castes, subsumed by the BJP, are unlikely to leave the party in a hurry. The bruised and battered Congress, that had coaxed Dalit fealty for several decades, does not know what kind of social alliance it wants. Little wonder then that young and politically conscious Dalits are being drawn to the “Bhim Sena,” an organisation that has shot to prominence after the violence in western UP. 

5) Will the Congress Throw a Curveball?

With the Congress unwelcome to the alliance in UP, Manjur Ali argues that the party now has two goals in the state: to limit the alliance’s share to below 60 seats so that they cannot bargain hard if they form an alliance at the centre, and to also create its own organisational presence in the state, which would come at the cost of either the SP or the BSP.

That [building organisational presence]] is a distant dream since the Congress has no stable social group as its support. Therefore, it has allied with the Mahan Dal and Apna Dal (Krishna Patel). It has also been in touch with the Pragatisheel Samajwadi Party of Shivpal Singh Yadav and the Peace Party. Bringing Priyanka Gandhi into the state’s electoral politics is a strategy of the Congress to play on the “front foot.”

Read More:

  1. Why Did Dalits Desert the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh? | Oliver Heath and  Sanjay Kumar, 2012
  2. Political Prospects in UP | A K Verma, 2002
  3. Castes, Communities and Parties in Uttar Pradesh | Christophe Jaffrelot and Gilles Verniers, 2012
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