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Opposition alliance unlikely to stop India's ruling party

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The SP-BSP hostility is both personal as well as political.

By: Aditya Sinha

Coming Sunday, the parliamentary constituencies of Gorakhpur and Phulpur in Uttar Pradesh, India, will elect representatives to replace Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and his deputy Keshav Prasad Maurya (they left to head India's largest state after the BJP swept the 2017 assembly election). The by-elections got interesting last Sunday, when former chief minister Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) declared she would support the candidate best placed to defeat the BJP, meaning the Samajwadi Party (SP). It was a surprise, given the bitterness between the two parties. It will not be enough, however, to defeat the BJP in those seats.

The SP-BSP hostility is both personal as well as political. Though the two joined hands in 1993 and won an election in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition on December 6, 1992, for which the BJP government led by Kalyan Singh was dismissed, their alliance fell apart on June 2, 1995. Hours after she withdrew her party's support to the government (led by Mulayam Singh Yadav) Mayawati was trapped in a state guesthouse in Lucknow, surrounded by a large mob threatening to kill her. Her bitterness with Mulayam never ebbed.

This bitterness also reflected the divide between the intermediate castes that the SP represents and the Dalits whom Mayawati represents. Historically it is the intermediate castes that did the upper castes' dirty work against Dalits; in agrarian disputes it is these two groupings which came into direct confrontation. UP, which has little industry or manufacturing, depends upon politics of patronage - the disbursement of government jobs, police appointments or public sector goodies - and the party in power favours its caste base; so outside of urban centres, these groups compete directly for those jobs.

The BJP's rise in UP - by chipping away at both intermediate castes and Dalit sub-groups - have made it clear to both the SP and the BSP that their survival is at stake. Fortunately for them, Mulayam has been marginalised from high politics by his son Akhilesh Yadav. It is said that Akhilesh persistently pursued the alliance for the coming by-elections.

While announcing the alliance, Mayawati said her party would be supporting the SP candidates for the two Lok Sabha seats as a quid pro quo for SP support for her election to the Rajya Sabha when a total of 58 members retire next month. Since being decimated in the last assembly election, Mayawati with 19 legislators does not have enough for an upper house seat. The Congress will support her but that is not enough; so the SP will help her become a parliamentarian again.

The Congress, which allied with the SP in the 2017 assembly election, is not part of the by-polls alliance. This makes sense: an alliance of all three would give Prime Minister Narendra Modi a large and a too easy target to attack. Some say that recently elected Congress president Rahul Gandhi didn't want the 2017 alliance anyway: it helped the SP more than the Congress. The Congress does not expect to do better than third place in either contest, and might even lose its deposit in Gorakhpur.

Despite the coming together of the SP and BSP, the BJP is unlikely to be dislodged from either Phulpur or Gorakhpur. The SP claims its chances are being undermined by a candidate contesting from jail, Atique Ahmed, a five-time MLA whose innings in the SP came to an end when Akhilesh took over the party and ousted him. The SP further claims the BJP has propped Ahmed to divide the SP's Muslim votes. In fact, Ahmed's candidacy will have no effect. Mayawati's nod to the alliance has galvanised the Muslims to line up behind the SP.

Still, it will not be enough to win. Modi remains popular with the 16-35 age group. It feels he is incorruptible and strong, even if his party is filled with incompetents and rowdies. Had the alliance come a month earlier, then the BSP cadre would have had time to fan out and spread the message. A week is not enough time for campaigning. If Maurya won the 2014 election by around three lakh votes, his replacement will win on Sunday by around 50,000 to 75,000 votes.

The whittling down of margin will embolden both the SP and BSP to work towards an alliance in the next parliamentary election, slated for 2019. That will be the BJP's main worry, and also future strategy to retain power: how to keep the SP and BSP apart.

  • Aditya Sinha is a senior journalist in India. Source: www.khaleejtimes.com

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