The gathbandhan, the term in common parlance for the Uttar Pradesh alliance of the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), has left the big two of Indian politics rattled in the most populous state.
Over the past three days, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have betrayed their nervousness that a repeat of 1996 could be in the offing. The results of UP’s 80 seats could determine whether the BJP would make a comeback or struggle to get the requisite number of allies, as happened in 1996, and fails to prove its majority. In 1996, regional parties got together to form the United Front government with support from the Congress.
The Congress is trying to reach out to the BSP, with which it has had a cold war since the December Assembly polls in the Hindi heartland. The BJP has taken to warning the electorate about the Congress' record in withdrawing support to coalition governments and that only the BJP can provide a stable government. Opposition leaders have already started talking of a coalition government comprising regional parties and, unlike 1996, the Congress being part of the government led by a non-Congress prime minister.
The Congress has even convened a meeting of Opposition parties in New Delhi on May 21 — two days after the last phase of polling but 48 hours before the counting of votes.
The Congress leadership of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra threw in the towel earlier this week as far as the party's ambitions in UP are concerned. Priyanka on Wednesday and Rahul a day later had said the Congress was helping gathbandhan candidates against the BJP wherever its own candidates were not in the contest.
The comments stem not only from the Congress’s need for the BSP’s support in Amethi and Rae Bareli, which go to the polls on Monday, but also with the party’s eye on a post-poll scenario where the BJP falls way short of a majority. The Congress now feels it needs to keep BSP chief Mayawati in good humour.
On Saturday, it was the turn of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to let slip the desperation in his party in UP. In a speech in Pratapgarh, Modi suggested the SP and Congress were conspiring against BSP chief Mayawati.
Modi alluded to Priyanka attending an SP meeting in Rae Bareli, and sharing stage with the SP’s local unit leadership, while party General Secretary Jyotiraditya Scindia has effected defection of the BSP’s candidate from his Guna seat into the Congress — a development that had led Mayawati to threaten to withdraw her support to the Kamal Nath-led government in Madhya Pradesh.
“The SP is going soft on the Congress, but its alliance partner BSP chief Mayawati is attacking the Congress,” Modi said in an attempt to drive a wedge between the SP and the BSP. He said the Congress was a ‘vote katwa’, or fringe party in UP.
On Sunday, Mayawati hit back. She said Modi-led BJP is in deep trouble because of the gathbandhan, but the PM’s ‘divide and rule’ policy will not succeed. She said the BSP vote in Amethi and Rae Bareli will go to Congress candidates. Rahul Gandhi is the candidate from Amethi and Sonia Gandhi from Rae Bareli.
Modi recalled that the Congress had withdrawn support from governments at the Centre in the past, leading to political instability, and only the BJP could give a stable government.
The Congress withdrew support to the Charan Singh government in 1979, the Chandra Shekhar government in 1991 and the United Front government in 1997.
However, the PM’s comments suggested that the BJP could be mulling the possibility of a repeat of 1996 when it emerged the single largest party under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The president invited him to form the government, which he did but it fell 13 days later because several regional parties refused to support the BJP.
It is in this context that the Congress outreach to the BSP is important as is that of Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee to the YSR Congress and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS).
The BJP and other Opposition parties are reaching out to the YSR Congress, TRS, and BJD.
The BJP is also in touch with the YSR Congress and the TRS. And, a day after the polling ended for Phase four on April 29, BJP Odisha leader Dharmendra Pradhan had called on Biju Janata Dal chief Naveen Patnaik.
After her Sunday’s support to the Congress leadership, could Mayawati be in 2019 what H D Deve Gowda was in 1996?