Less than a year before Uttar Pradesh goes to polls, no party appears to have a clear edge. There is little doubt, though, that the election will be a do-or-die battle for both the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. While the ruling SP is grappling with anti-incumbency, the BSP has suffered several electoral reverses over its five years in opposition. This election, thus, is a matter of survival for the party. In fact, Mayawati's future politics would largely depend on her party's performance.
Since the BSP lost power in UP in early 2012, its electoral influence has suffered in other states as well. It could not win a single seat in the 2014 general election. In this scenario, another rout in 2017 could be fatal. The astute politician she is, Mayawati is well aware of this prospect. That's why she has been preparing for the election so diligently, and silently. She's paying attention to every seat, and finalising candidates after extensive deliberations.
The other contenders, too, have sounded the bugle. Most have worked out their campaign strategies, and are busy identifying candidates. But the BSP appears to have taken the lead in making the preparations."We have decided candidates for most seats. Our leaders are visiting every constituency to assess the situation on the ground. We sense that the people are disillusioned with the current dispensation," says BSP elder Swami Prasad Maurya.
Another leader Munkad Ali adds, "About 100 of our candidates will be from the Muslim community. We're giving representation to every community. We care about the interests of Sarva Samaj."
It is not difficult to understand why the BSP is courting Muslims. The party's strategists believe the community is alienated from the SP government and, if persuaded to switch loyalties, could make a near-unbeatable alliance with its traditional Dalit vote base. "There was not a single riot during BSP's rule. Both Dalits and minorities were safe when Mayawati was chief minister. Mulayam Singh Yadav's party has deceived the Muslims and they are definitely going to vote for the BSP this time," says Munkad Ali
Along with Muslims, Mayawati is wooing the powerful Brahmin vote bank as well. This was evident at BSP's latest rally in Lucknow, where Nasimuddin Siddiqui and Satish Chandra Mishra were projected as the most prominent faces of the party. So confident is Mayawati of getting the support of these communities, she is inclined to go in alone and not take the risk of allying with the Congress.
The BSP leadership believes that UP's Muslims are disgruntled with both the SP government and the Narendra Modi regime, not least over Muzaffarnagar communal carnage and Dadri lynching. They hold the Akhilesh Yadav regime responsible for failing to protect the community in Muzaffarnagar, while the lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri for allegedly eating beef is seen as having been orchestrated by the BJP. It's likely that Muslims might vote as a block to prevent the BJP from gaining victory and the BSP could be their first choice.
"It's true that Muslims seem inclined towards the BSP. The party could get their votes in large numbers this time," says Mahmood Madani of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind. Dalit activist Ashok Bharti agrees with this assessment. Given that Muslims and Dalits "share the same agony", he argues, it is only natural for them to come together. Bharti, however, cautions against making predictions about the "success of this social alliance at this stage".
Muslims comprise around 18.5% of UP's population and Dalits 20%. The BSP leaders argue that both communities feel "disenchanted with BJP and SP, which leaves the BSP as the only option for them". The party is further augmenting its strength by including other castes into this equation. Tickets are being distributed on the basis of caste equations and the influence of the candidate over these vote banks.
The SP has its own calculations. The party's leaders maintain that Muslims are not going to trust the BSP because it has been in alliance with the BJP in the past. They also enumerate several initiatives undertaken by the Akhilesh regime for the welfare of Muslims to dispel the notion of their alienation.
The BJP is wary of Mayawati's strategy, and it could soon begin work on countering it. The BJP and the RSS could rake up the issue of the minority status of Aligarh Muslim University, for one. The party is also seeking to divide Dalits, Muslims and Other Backward Castes by raising the issue of "the perceived discrimination in the recruitment process of the university".
The RSS has been actively working among Dalits for quite some time now. It's trying to indoctrinate them with its ideas of "Hindu Asmita" and "Hindu Nationalism". The BJP is also crying foul over Mayawati's attempt to attract upper caste voters. Both the SP and the BJP have reasons to be optimistic. Mayawati's electoral arithmetic might seem invincible, but the battle is not so easy on the ground.
BJP president Amit Shah has declared that his party's main fight is with the ruling SP. The BSP, he has claimed, poses no direct challenge. This is part of a meticulous plan. Disavowing a challenge from the BSP is proverbially akin to ignoring the elephant in the room. BSP's strength stems from the fact that it's the most viable option for anti-BJP voters. Undermining the party's claim, therefore, could work in favour of the saffron party.
Mayawati has stuck to traditional campaigning, keeping a distance from the media. She has, however, also kept away from public platforms so far. Her foot soldiers are actively working on the ground. It appears the people are eager to listen to what Mayawati has to offer, but she's patiently waiting for her rivals to make the first move.
Her reticence, though, might prove counterproductive. A leader has to lead from the front. Mayawati needs to be more aggressive in winning the trust of Muslims and aligning with castes other than those that have traditionally supported her. For this she has to go out and talk to them, privately and publicly.