The stand-off between Mayawati and Sonia Gandhi over the allotment of land for a railway coach factory in Rae Bareli is but a proxy power battle between India’s two most powerful women leaders. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader’s national ambitions and the Congress party’s cozying up to rival Samajwadi Party for survival have started permanent hostilities that will play out until national elections and beyond.
To realize her ambition to become India’s first Dalit prime minister, Mayawati knows she has to expand the BSP’s base outside Uttar Pradesh (UP) while keeping a firm grip on the state that sends the most parliamentarians to the Lok Sabha. So far, other than playing spoilsport, the BSP seems to be making limited headway outside its home base even as its stranglehold there loosens a bit.
In both the Gujarat and Karnataka assembly elections, the BSP’s performance was dismal. It secured less than 3% of the popular vote and didn’t win a single seat. Still, the BSP is expected to register impressive vote gains in elections to state assemblies of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi. Early indications show that the BSP may double its vote share in all these states and poll around 10% of the popular vote.
Even with such impressive vote gains, the BSP cannot be expected to pick up any seats outside UP as Mayawati’s support is not enough to actually win. For Mayawati to have any realistic chance of becoming prime minister, she will have to secure a big win for her party in UP’s 80 Lok Sabha seats.
But the BSP’s electoral fortunes appear to be somewhat sliding in her home state too, potentially grounding her in UP.
Mayawati is drawing a lot of flak from UP’s electorate on the governance front. Unending construction of Ambedkar parks, posting of state officials of certain communities in key positions, zealous implementation of the law on atrocities against Harijans in some areas, and a growing perception among upper caste voters of having received a raw deal from the BSP government are contributing to this slide.
But Mayawati’s loss, still, is not Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav’s gain. That party is making little headway even as the electorate seems to be in a mood to favour national parties, such as the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Lok Sabha polls. It is early but I suspect that both the BJP and the Congress may register impressive gains in terms of votes in the next Lok Sabha polls there.
For the BJP, the situation may seem ripe to make a strong comeback as upper caste voters are once again looking up to the party. But the party appears to be missing out on the opportunity yet again, mired as it is in internal troubles and seemingly crippled by a lack of viable candidates for most Lok Sabha seats.
Rahul Gandhi helping
Despite rearing inflation and the spectre of terrorism, which have been major negatives for the UPA government at the Centre, the Congress party has made significant gains in the recent past.
Rahul Gandhi’s efforts in improving party prospects in last year’s assembly elections in the state may have bombed, but his repeated travels to UP are finally paying off.
For the first time, there is a growing confidence among the Congress cadres that the party is on the road to recovery. Indeed, the Samajwadi Party’s desperate attempts to stitch an alliance with the Congress are mainly intended to benefit from this growing Congress influence in the state. If the Congress-Samajwadi Party alliance does come about, this could benefit the Samajwadi Party more and may potentially jeopardize the Congress’ growth plans in the state.
While the BSP is facing some rough weather, it is early and Mayawati could spring some surprises. The much talked about Muslim factor may yet alter the political equations in the state. So far, many Muslims are rooting for the BSP only in constituencies where the BSP is fielding Muslim candidates, while elsewhere, they are siding with the Samajwadi Party and the Congress. Mayawati has been trying to attract Muslim voters by painting the Congress and the Samajwadi Party in a negative light over the recent arrests of many Muslim youth for their alleged involvement in some terror strikes. If her efforts succeed, Mayawati could still emerge a big winner.
To have a serious shot at becoming India’s next prime minister, Mayawati needs a strong performance—winning at least 50 or more seats. Right now, neither Indian voters nor those inside UP appear ready to make her India’s first Dalit prime minister.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of a Delhi-based research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also read G.V.L. Narasimha Rao’s earlier columns