Anti-incumbency, family feud make Samajwadi Party a poor option in UP

Regardless of how the feud in the Mulayam Singh Yadav clan ends, 40 days of turmoil and squabbling on the eve of the crucial UP assembly polls have done incalculable harm to the Samajwadi Party’s (SP) electoral prospects. Hopes of a last-minute compromise crashed after a key meeting in Lucknow on Monday ended with the three main protagonists in the family drama — Mulayam, son Akhilesh and brother Shivpal — shouting at each other in full view of a galaxy of party MPs, MLAs and workers.

Akhilesh broke down and accused Shivpal and Amar Singh of plotting against him. Shivpal snatched the mike from his nephew and called him a liar. Mulayam stomped off after berating his son for getting too big for his boots. After such high drama, it doesn’t matter whether or not SP formally splits.

The war in the family has reached a point of no return despite protestations of loyalty to patriarch Mulayam. The chasm between uncle and nephew runs so deep and wide that the party is irretrievably broken into two.

And like Humpty Dumpty, it cannot be put back together again, even by a wily, domineering leader like Mulayam who is, after all, a lion in winter now. The virtual collapse of SP a few months before the state polls is not only unexpected, but it will also dramatically alter the electoral landscape. The battle for UP started out as a four-horse race in which the SP and the BSP were leading favourites and the BJP and the Congress also-rans.

The Congress surprised everyone by being first off the block. It announced a chief ministerial candidate in Sheila Dikshit with an eye on the Brahmin vote and managed to create a little buzz around itself through Sonia Gandhi’s successful roadshow in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency of Varanasi. The momentum petered out after Sonia fell ill during the roadshow, had to be rushed back to Delhi and, from all indications, will not be available for future campaigning.

Rahul Gandhi tried to step into her shoes but his kisan yatra got off to a shambolic start. It nosedived when he struck a wrong chord with his “khoon ki dalali” charge at the Modi government. And with Gandhi favourite Rita Bahuguna Joshi switching camps to the BJP and lambasting Rahul’s leadership, the challenge from the Congress appears to be fading.

Now, another horse seems to have fallen behind. The upheaval in the SP’s first family has left the party looking weak and unstable. Already burdened by anti-incumbency, the SP increasingly looks a poor option, especially to two significant groups that made up its winning social alliance in the 2012 polls.

One is the non-Yadav OBC groups that are always on the lookout for winners. The other is the Muslim community that has been so spooked by rampaging saffron groups that it could well consolidate behind a force most capable of combating the BJP.

The battle for UP then is boiling down to a straight contest between the BJP and the BSP, both of which look set to gain from the troubles in the SP. Mayawati is already wooing Muslims frenetically and has announced at least 100 tickets for candidates from the community.

The BJP is frantically chasing non-Yadav OBC votes while trying to hold on to its traditional upper-caste voter. Just how successful it is in juggling the opposing forces for an equitable representation in the party will be visible when it announces its candidate list. A bipolar fight in UP has its own dynamics.

It certainly makes for a tougher election by raising the bar for a winning vote share. In a multi-cornered contest, a 30% vote share is enough to sweep. The BSP won a majority in 2007 with just under 31% votes, and five years later, the SP bagged a bigger majority with just over 29%. In a bipolar face-off, the winner will need a vote share close to 40%.

The weakening of the SP is both an advantage and a disadvantage for the BJP. It is likely to get greater traction with the creamy layer of the non-Yadav OBC groups. At the same time, it has to worry about a Muslim consolidation behind Mayawati.

The arithmetic makes for a formidable challenge from her. Dalits comprise 20-22% of the votes, while Muslims account for 18-20%. Taken together, Mayawati should be very close to the required 40% winning figure.

No party has watched the turmoil in the SP with greater apprehension than the BJP. It had counted on the SP being a strong challenger so that the Muslim vote would be divided. Now that this scenario is fading rapidly, it has fallen back on Hindutva and ultranationalism to effect a polarisation on communal lines.

But the real problem for the BJP could well be its failure to project a chief ministerial candidate. Like it did in Bihar, it is depending heavily on Brand Modi to counter the challenge from a regional satrap. But as Bihar showed, can a PM lead his party to victory in what is after all a state election?

– Arati R Jerath


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