Akhilesh Yadav is India’s most under-rated politician.
Here is a man who has dethroned his own father, snatched the party organisation from his powerful uncle, and yet faced no public disrepute for it.
He has made sure the Samajwadi Party (SP) is now seen more in terms of the development work undertaken by him than the goonda image it enjoyed earlier.
Most recently, he has pulled off the impossible: a pre-poll alliance with one of the most difficult politicians anyone can deal with, someone who has long been his party’s rival: Mayawati.
The question is: what does the SP gain out of its alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)? Isn’t the SP giving a life-line to the BSP, which won zero seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha, and only 19 of the 403 seats in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections
The Samajwadi Party has done badly in two consecutive elections in Uttar Pradesh. It won only five of the 80 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. These five seats were in Yadav-dominated constituencies, so that does not mean much. In the 2017 Vidhan Sabha election, the SP won only 47 of the 298 seats it contested in an assembly of 403.
Both these poor performances were despite the fact that the party’s vote share has remained largely stable — between 22 per cent and 28 per cent. Should the SP perform poorly in the forthcoming general elections, it would be the third successive damp squib of an election.
A third washout in a row is the sort of stuff parties can’t afford. It is dispiriting for party leaders, workers, supporters and traditional voters.
That is why the SP needs this alliance as much as the BSP – it helps both.
It is true that Mayawati’s BSP fared worse than the SP in both 2014 and 2017, but the BSP’s vote-share remains significant even if it has been falling. Which other party in India can win zero seats with a 20 per cent vote share? And the BSP’s vote-share in UP hasn’t gone below 20 per cent in 20 years.
The SP was gasping for breath after 2017. As was the BSP. This alliance in Uttar Pradesh is not the SP giving oxygen to the BSP. It’s more like both parties supporting each other so that both could reach out for the oxygen. Even if the SP wins a modest 15 of the 37 seats it is contesting in the Lok Sabha elections due in two weeks, it would be better than winning five seats.
Frustrated at missing the alliance bus in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress is unable to understand the logic of joining forces to survive. The Congress party’s unofficial slogan is the Hindi saying ‘Hum tou doobenge sanam, tumko bhi le doobenge’ (I will drown and take you down with me). That is what the Congress did with its alliance with the SP in 2017, which bombed for both.
A Yadav is not a Gandhi
Akhilesh Yadav is among those regional leaders who are not vying for the prime minister’s chair. His eyes are on the chief minister’s chair in Uttar Pradesh, which he could next take a shot at in 2022. It is thus important for him to chip away at the BJP’s aura of invincibility as well as its formidable caste arithmetic.
He managed to begin doing so two years ago in March 2017 when his candidates defeated the BJP in the Lok Sabha bypolls in Gorakhpur and Phulpur with the support of the BSP.
It is no mean achievement to have defeated the BJP in its fortress of Gorakhpur, the constituency of chief minister Yogi Adityanath. The last time a non-Hindutva leader won the Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seat was in 1984. It is also not a small achievement to have won the Phulpur Lok Sabha bypoll since it was deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya’s constituency, which the BJP leader had won by a margin of over 3 lakh votes in 2014.
Had Rahul Gandhi defeated the BJP in Gorakhpur bypoll, the sycophantic Lutyens’ Liberals would have called him The Second Mahatma. But a Yadav can never inspire the kind of fawning adoration that the Gandhi family does.
The fall of Gorakhpur and Phulpur sealed the SP-BSP alliance, making it clear that the BJP would find it impossible to repeat its 2014 and 2017 sweep in India’s most important state. It was from this point onwards that the BJP began to be seen as unlikely to win a Lok Sabha majority on its own in 2019. Even today, those who feel Modi will find it tough to reach 272 on his own begin with their assessment of Uttar Pradesh.
Maximising strike rate
Why was the SP-BSP alliance even possible? After all, everyone knows of the animosity between Dalits and Yadavs, and the historical discord between the two parties.
The alliance was made possible because Dalit and Yadav voters both wanted it. The BSP in UP has only once before entered into a pre-poll alliance, with the SP in 1993. This time, it was the pressure from her own voters that made Mayawati do it.
In wanting and supporting the alliance, Dalit voters acknowledge that Akhilesh is not Mulayam. Akhilesh Yadav has, since 2014, changed his party’s image from that of a goonda party to one that focuses on development and populism. Had it been father Mulayam heading the party, this alliance wouldn’t have been possible and we would have been looking at the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance winning 73 out of the 80 seats once again in UP.
Akhilesh has shown humility before Mayawati, accepting her as the taller leader. Mayawati agreed to contest an equal number of seats with the SP (38 each) but Akhilesh gave away one seat from his party’s quota to the Rashtriya Lok Dal. Furthermore, the ticket distribution between the BSP and the SP shows that most of the difficult, BJP-stronghold seats came to the SP. The BSP’s point was that since it has a greater ability to transfer its votes, it should contest more of the ‘winnable’ seats. Sounds fair.
It’s the sort of politics of accommodation that baffles the All India Congress Committee. ‘Why would he throw away seats to others and not to us?’ the dying Congress party probably wonders.
It’s because Akhilesh Yadav is focusing on winning more seats, even if that requires contesting fewer of them. It’s not how many seats you contest that matters but how many you can actually win. This runs counter to the Congress’ philosophy, which wants to save its honour in seat-sharing with allies.
Regardless of what the result is, Akhilesh Yadav is already a winner in the 2019 race, having shown how to pull off a difficult alliance with an erstwhile opponent, having shown how the BJP can be defeated, and kindling some hope in the opposition nationwide.
2022 is still far
It is bunkum to say that Akhilesh Yadav’s alliance with Mayawati runs any risk of losing Yadav votes, or that Yadav voters listen to Mulayam over Akhilesh. The son dethroned his own father and the entire party shifted its loyalty to the son. Yadav voters care about access to power, and so do Jatav voters. They are not getting that from the BJP, and so they are happy to come together for now.
What happens in 2022 is an open question. What the SP-BSP relationship will look like after 2019 will depend on the results on 23 May.
In the unlikely event that Mayawati becomes the prime minister, she would be heading a weak coalition government in which the SP would be one of the allies. Mayawati will then have to keep her promise of supporting Akhilesh Yadav for the CM’s post in UP, otherwise she won’t remain in the PM’s chair.
Without such compulsion, the SP-BSP alliance will likely not survive until 2022 since both Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav would want to be the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
But here’s what Akhilesh Yadav is achieving from a 2022 perspective. He is keeping up the morale of his party, the sort of thing Rahul Gandhi doesn’t think is important. Akhilesh is projecting himself as a very un-Yadav leader, who is humble and accommodating. This is the sort of image that will help him win the votes of non-Yadavs in 2022.
What happens in 2019 is more important than building castles in the air about 2022. Rahul Gandhi recently said that he was aiming to win the 2022 assembly election in Uttar Pradesh. This has become one of the ‘Pappu’ jokes in the state. In 2022, Rahul will say he is aiming for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Having lost UP even before the election has begun, the Congress party is reduced to spreading canards about the SP-BSP alliance.