Wednesday, March 19, 2008

CONGRESS-SP, BJP-BSP: FULL CIRCLE IN UP?

Only last year, the Congress and the Samajwadi Party were on the same side of the fence in UP. But, months before the elections, the Congress became the latter’s sworn enemy, vowing to defeat it and end Mulayam Singh Yadav’s “Gunda Raj” in the state.

What brought about this sudden U-turn? I suspect that the induction of Rahul Gandhi into UP politics and his decision to actively campaign for the Congress as its star campaigner was the key factor. Disconnected “loyalists”, helped by similarly placed media moguls, probably had visions of the latest Nehru-Gandhi taking the state by storm, just like his illustrious ancestors had done. He would, they believed, single handedly attract enough additional votes to at least ensure that no one could form a government in the state without the critical support of the Congress.

In the event, not only did the strategy backfire badly, the vote percentage of the party also actually declined! The hold of the dynasty had almost gone, possibly irretrievably. That did not stop party mouthpieces from claiming a ‘victory’ because the party had succeeded in defeating the Samajwadi Party! In reality, Mayawati stunned everyone by not only defeating the SP but also getting to power entirely on her own, something which no party had been able to do in UP for a long time.

Then began a honeymoon between Mayawati and the Congress, which the Congress thought would bring it some advantage beyond winning the Presidential elections. I had then itself warned that Mayawati’s hug was the hug of death from which only the Congress would emerge a loser. But the realization took a long time in coming.

The successive defeats faced by the Congress in the other state elections that followed, made the party sit up and realize that the BSP was taking away enough voters everywhere from the Congress, to ensure the defeat of many of its candidates by that critical margin. Mayawati was then called a “spoiler”, again an erroneous assessment as she is clearly focused on winning enough seats in parliament to ensure that she becomes the PM in quick time. The spoiling part is only an incidental fallout of her strategy to grab the top post.

Of late, the Congress has started coming to grips with the enormity of the threat posed by Mayawati. In a recent interview to Arnab Goswami of Times Now, Congress leader Digvijay Singh was candid enough to admit that Mayawati was a competitor. The logical deduction is that the party has to escape from her hug if it has to have any realistic chance of reclaiming at least some lost ground.

The first real signs of the Congress readying to take on the BSP in UP are beginning to emerge. Rahul Gandhi has rightly decided to attack Mayawati in her seemingly impregnable dalit fortress in a positive, non-divisive manner. His recent visit to the family of dalits who had been killed and his announcements of steps to take care of them, is the first aggressive step taken by the young Congress leader to reclaim the party’s primary vote bank from the BSP. Mayawati is visibly concerned as she too rushed to the spot to take the sheen off Rahul Gandhi’s effort. The Congress has to show a much greater involvement and understanding at the grassroots level if it does not want such efforts to be dismissed by dalits as insincere, reactive steps which will leave them as un-empowered as they were before Mayawati burst on the scene.

What is the other latest development which is taking place as the Congress readies to take on Mayawati? The party is preparing to re-embrace the very Samajwadi Party which it had shunned just about a year back! The latter will only be too keen to get the critical number of votes it needs from the Congress to get enough MPs into parliament in the forthcoming general elections.

Who will be the real loser if the Congress and SP get together again to form an opportunist, immoral alliance?

The answer to this question is, to my mind, almost identical to the one about an alliance with Mayawati. But does the Congress, with a vote share of around only 8 per cent, have a choice? The same question needs to be answered by even the BJP if it is thinking of hitching on to Mayawati again, even though it has a much larger vote share.

UP is a key state for both the national parties, both of whom have been trounced by caste-specific regional parties with strong charismatic leaders. SP’s hold is limited to UP only, though it will and should try to exploit the Yadav vote bank in Bihar too with the help of Laloo Yadav. Mayawati is the real pan national threat.

Both the Congress and the BJP have to bite the bullet and go it alone in UP, even if they are trounced there in the ensuing general elections. Any pre-poll alliance with the SP or the BSP by them will only further erode their credibility as well as vote bank. That will be far more debilitating in the long run than any Pyrrhic victory that such an alliance might bring in the next elections.

But, knowing the total focus that our politicians have on winning the next elections alone, ‘whatever it takes’, the wheel might just come full circle in UP. It looks like Mulayam Yadav will embrace the ‘kid’, as he had recently called Rahul Gandhi, as an able and trustworthy ally. The BJP might then just panic and rush into the crushing arms of Mayawati!