A politician who drew a blank in 2014 could make or break the outcome of the elections in 2019. Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati – whose political obituary has been prematurely written several times over by the media – has shown that she can still set the terms in national politics and no one dare protest. In effect, Mayawati has all but declared herself as a contender for prime minister. If the Congress was hoping for a Rahul Gandhi-led Opposition coalition, Mayawati’s tough love will now define the contours of any relationship going forward.
Her announcement of a solo fight in Madhya Pradesh and a partnership with Ajit Jogi in Chhattisgarh is a warning to the Congress, which remains mysteriously complacent about its capacity to build alliances. In Chhattisgarh, the triangular contest definitely hands over the advantage to the BJP. Assembly elections have been won and lost in this state by wafer-thin margins. The BSP picked up a little over 4 per cent of the vote in the last election; alongside Jogi, it is likely to nibble away at the Congress vote bases.
In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress believes all is not lost yet with Mayawati even though she has unilaterally announced 22 candidates. Kamal Nath, who had gone public with his confidence of an imminent deal, may still be able to keep a channel open for communication and another round of seat-sharing talks.
But there is no doubt that the project of Opposition unity has been stalled, at least for the moment. The Congress, in particular, has been jolted and the whispers have started. One Congressman told me conspiratorially that while Mayawati will not openly support the BJP or Narendra Modi, she can dramatically pull out of the elections right on the eve of polls citing mistrust in the electronic voting machine. Another is convinced that Team Modi has already conveyed its willingness to make Mayawati deputy prime minister to disrupt the Uttar Pradesh alliance with Akhilesh Yadav.
Take the resurrection of Amar Singh and the PM’s jocular reference to him at a meeting of industrialists or the breakaway faction of Shivpal Yadav carved out from his brother’s party. Both underline the focus that Amit Shah has placed on undoing the gains of an Opposition alliance in UP. The BJP is likely to deploy its trademark mix of persuasion and the threat of punitive action. Mayawati’s brother is being probed by tax authorities for an alleged 18000 per cent jump in profit over seven years. But if that is the stick, the carrot of a deputy PM post can always be part of a complex political negotiation. And then there are murmurs that the Modi government will announce a Bharat Ratna for Kanshi Ram, Mayawati’s mentor and founder of the BSP, further shrinking the space for her hostility to the Modi government.
The Opposition is desperately hoping that Mayawati will see 2019 as a battle for survival and not flip sides. Also, new Dalit leaders are emerging – Jignesh Mevani in Gujarat and Chandrashekhar Azad of the Bhim Army in UP – and may slowly occupy any vacuum she chooses to leave open.
The BSP recognises all of this, but at the same time is aware that so far the house of the anti-BJP front is built on the edifice of a single foundation stone: that of a union between her and the Samajwadi Party. Like in a game of Jenga, if you take that piece out or even loosen it a bit, the whole structure comes crashing down.
Regional groups already had an advantage over a weakened Congress; its failure to craft any wider coalitions, and the refusal to move more quickly, has given Mayawati the clear edge in national negotiations. By now Rahul Gandhi and his team should have made efforts to assuage the sentiments of former Congressmen – Jagan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, Ajit Jogi in Chhattisgarh and Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra. And the party should have been courting some new partners – Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi, Naveen Patnaik in Odisha, DMK in Tamil Nadu and KCR in Telangana.
At the moment, it is Mayawati who is stitching together a state-by-state patchwork quilt of partnerships – the Gowdas in Karnataka, Jogi in central India and the Indian National Lok Dal in Haryana. In Uttar Pradesh, she will concentrate on her talks with Akhilesh Yadav and Ajit Singh with the Congress being a fourth and bit player in that most critical of equations. Her politics has always been unpredictable; her alliance with Ajit Jogi took both the media and politicians by surprise.
Much could change in the run-up to next year, but one thing is clear: If Mayawati does opt to remain on the side of the Opposition, the next election is not Rahul Vs Modi; it is Mayawati vs Modi.