Uttar Pradesh has always been riveting theatre, and now magnificently so, with the Samajwadi Party (SP) splitting, uniting and splitting again to the exasperation of commentators, many of whom have been severely tested on their understanding of this complex and politically most-watched Indian State. There have been so many googlies thrown that anyone cast as an expert on U.P. affairs will likely want nothing more than not to be one, especially with the Assembly election announced and punditry on high demand.
Will the SP reunite? Maybe, maybe not. Was the split scripted to foreground the newly dazzling Akhilesh Yadav? Not likely, but who knows. Will there be a grand alliance that upsets calculations? Keep guessing. Will the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have the last laugh? Hard to say. Will Rahul Gandhi finally prove himself? Ha ha. Will it be a BJP government this time? Well, probably.
PM’s party in front
On current evidence, and post the Nov.8, 2016 currency swap, it is the BJP that seems the front runner, and not least because it is the party with the largest war chest (not to be confused with the chest size of its leader). Indeed, the most striking aspect of this election season is that while the BJP has been able to hold ostentatious rallies with huge, bussed-in crowds, its cash-strapped opponents have all but been grounded. Yet in a situation of constant surprises, it would be unwise not to take into account factors that might torpedo the BJP: among them a change in popular mood brought about by the adverse effects of demonetisation and smart counter-strategising by rival parties.
Consider the battle lines. There is the BJP led by Narendra Modi. Always larger than life, the Prime Minister has assumed leviathan proportions post the note swap. But more fearfully for his opponents, there is no guessing when, where and how he will trip them up. There is no worse nightmare for Modi’s political foes than when he rubs his hands in glee and says in a conspiratorial, hushed tone, “Maine abhi apne poore patte khole nahin hai (I have still to reveal all my cards).” This, plus the BJP’s humongous 42 per cent vote share from U.P. in the Lok Sabha election of 2014 and Modi’s continuing if confounding popularity, gives the party a head start over its rivals.
The Samajwadi churn
The SP, till now in the control of patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav but deftly hijacked last week by son and Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, has zoomed back into the reckoning because the son has shown that he can shine without the father. This is rare in Indian dynastic politics where the norm is for the ward to live and suffer in the shadow of the clan head. Any assignment to junior necessarily came as a conferment from the elder. The former performed his designated role at the pleasure of the latter. Given this order of things, the power struggle within the SP, staged openly over several months, came as a shocker. Last week’s chaos on the streets of Lucknow exceeded the most dire predictions. It seemed surreal that the father could expel his Chief Minister son from the party. More jaw-droppingly, the son installed himself as the national president of the party evicting his father from the long-held post. Also despatched was Akhilesh Yadav’s uncle, Shivpal Yadav, who had been the State chief of the SP.
Of course, Shivpal Yadav himself was a usurper, having snatched the State party chief’s post from the nephew with the help of brother Mulayam Singh Yadav. That was in September 2016, and that edition of the family war had ended in a tenuous peace with the Chief Minister dutifully declaring his love and respect for his father while holding Amar Singh, the “outsider”, to be the villain of the piece. To those innocent of the SP’s previous history, Amar Singh is the same man who, courtesy of his enviable corporate-Bollywood links, once controlled the SP’s purse strings. Many in the SP, including Akhilesh Yadav, resented Singh’s clout in the party and the spell he seemed to have cast on the SP patriarch. Singh was seen to have taken the SP away from it socialist roots to its new avatar as a “Page Three” party. The saga had concluded with Singh being exiled, presumably through the efforts of Akhilesh Yadav.
So when Singh re-emerged, there were fireworks. Akhilesh Yadav, now Chief Minister, hit back by forming a team with his father’s cousin, Ram Gopal Yadav. There were also soulful interviews to the media about the “outsider” who had returned with a brief to wreck the party. As if in confirmation, the father openly sided with Singh and Shivpal Yadav while often scolding his son in public. Now what? There is a view in Lucknow corridors that the split, whether scripted or not, has changed the game for the Chief Minister. Indeed so, and the proof was in the rapturous young crowds that thronged the streets of the capital shouting their support for the son. The SP, which had been placed last in the election stakes before the split, found itself bumped up to the second if not first place with Akhilesh Yadav seizing control.
The fresh-faced Chief Minister has a lot going for him. In a November 2011 interview to me, the young Yadav had regretted that the SP had become synonymous with thuggery and lawlessness, and swore to rid it of the criminal elements that had sullied its reputation. One reason for the SP’s 2012 election victory was Akhilesh Yadav’s clean image. He seemed the antithesis of his goonish party. Five years on, the young man has miraculously retained both the clean image and the goodwill that brought him to power. To have been in office for five years and not be seen as corrupt is an achievement that cannot be overstated, more so in U.P. where a politician is by definition tainted. The split in the SP has embellished this quality and endeared the Chief Minister to young voters who like the fact that he is cut from the same cloth as them. Overall in U.P., everyone has a good word to say about Yadav Junior.
But will this suffice to give the SP a second term? The answer could lie in the challenges ahead for Akhilesh Yadav, starting with the possibility of his party requiring a new name and a new symbol. Second, it is unclear if he would be able to fully retain the SP’s vote base of Muslims and Yadavs. Muslims have an umbilical connection with Mulayam Singh Yadav and may not easily desert him. It might be useful to remember that in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, a section of Yadavs went away to the BJP. Will they return or will they be persuaded by Modi’s post-notebandi (slang for demonetisation) invocation of nationalism and promise of a bright future?
Akhilesh Yadav could overcome the vote deficit via a grand alliance with the Congress and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD). Akhilesh Yadav, Rahul Gandhi and Jayant Chaudhary, Ajit Singh’s son and general secretary of the RLD, would together be picture-perfect but it is not clear if they would be vote-perfect. Meaning, will they be able to transfer votes to one another? Besides, with Rahul Gandhi away in foreign lands, there is no word as yet on the alliance. Finally, notwithstanding saturation propaganda, there is also the SP’s patchy record in office.
Task cut out for Mayawati
Mayawati’s fortunes have been yo-yoing. The BSP suffered its most humiliating defeat in 2014 when it won no seats for a dismal vote share of 19.6 per cent. According to the National Election Studies data of the Lokniti programme of Centre for the Study of Developing Studies, the BSP lost 16 per cent Jatav and 35 per cent non-Jatav Dalit votes in 2014 as compared to 2009. There is reason to believe that Mayawati has regained her Dalit vote in the aftermath of the widespread anger over the Una atrocity in Gujarat. The BSP is banking on a unified Dalit-Muslim vote. Given the decisive presence of both communities across the State, this could be a runaway hit but only provided Muslims forsake the fractious SP. The BJP will also do all it can to thwart any Dalit-Muslim unity and its aggressive Dalit outreach policy is geared entirely towards this end. The Supreme Court-imposed bar on appealing to religious and caste sentiments will also affect Mayawati more than her rivals. She needs to overtly seek the votes of Dalits and Muslims unlike the BJP, which can play divisive politics by stealth.
The BJP’s multiple advantages are obvious, among them Modi’s own towering presence and demonitisation, which he has expertly spun as a class war. Thus far, the Prime Minister has had the crowds sway to his every command and every change in narrative. But they could start asking why the rich are getting away and what makes the BJP itself so rich. With mounting rural distress and no sign of the promised pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, there is a real danger that the demonitisation story could derail. Besides, where is the BJP’s chief ministerial face?