On January 1, residents of Uttar Pradesh’s Lucknow woke to interesting hoardings that had sprung up across the city. “New Year’s Heartiest contingency-Shri Akhilesh Yadav, Auspicious Akhilesh, Happy UP, Happy India,” stated the hoardings put up by the Samajwadi Party (SP), the largest regional political group in Uttar Pradesh.

The message was aimed at establishing the SP’s Akhilesh Yadav, former Chief Minister of Uttar Praesh, as a national leader who may possibly play the role of king-maker if there was no clear verdict in the general elections expected to be held in April-May.

Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati, a Dalit leader, aims to become prime minister. A four-time former chief minister of the state, she is now a member of the Upper House of Parliament.

The two arch-rivals are now closer to contesting the Lok Sabha polls jointly for the first time “in order to keep the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) out of power.” The leaders of the two parties held a joint press conference on Monday to “condemn the BJP’s attempt to harass the opposition through CBI cases.”

“Their proposed alliance could upset the BJP’s vote arithmetic in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most politically significant state, which holds maximum number of elected seats in the National parliament – 80 out of 543,” a senior BJP minister said.

The BJP lost the Gorakhpur and Phulpur seats during polls in Uttar Pradesh in 2018. Losing both the seats was a big blow to the BJP as they were held by current Chief Minister Ajay Singh Bisht, popularly known as Yogi Adityanath, and deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya.

The SP-BSP, together, wield considerable power among Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Dalits and Muslims, which constitute about 85% of the state’s population.

While the SP and BSP now hold seven and zero seats in the Lok Sabha respectively, their vote-share was about 41%, on par with the BJP’s 42%.

The SP-BSP solidarity has the potential to restrict a division of the opposition votes, something which had given an edge to the ruling BJP in 2014 polls. The BJP had won 71 of 80 parliamentary constituencies in Uttar Pradesh.

Kingmakers 

The 2018 assembly elections saw the BJP losing the key states in the main Hindi belt. The party lost Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan to the opposition Congress party.

The BJP’s strength in parliament has also shrunk from 282 to 271 since 2014 mainly due to anti-incumbency. In the current scenario, regional parties are expected to play a major role in the formation of the government after the 2019 general elections.

Political analyst Ramesh Dixit told Asia Times: “Winning just 30-odd seats will make a difference for this alliance in case of a hung parliament or if the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) comes in a position to form the government.”

The SP-BSP rivalry reached a flash-point in 1995, when SP supporters attempted to assault then chief minister Mayawati in Lucknow. She has withdrawn support from SP supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav’s government after much conflict.

The drubbing in the 2014 general elections and 2017 state polls was an eye-opener for both parties. To make matters worse, the SP split in two following a family feud, while Mayawati lost her top aides like Swami Prasad Maurya and Nasimuddin Siddiqui to different parties, weakening the BSP.

“Mayawati and Akhilesh both need each other’s assistance to survive in the time when BJP’s Hindutva rules the country and Uttar Pradesh,” said political analyst Shailendra Singh.

Secret meetings, hidden agenda

On January 4, both leaders met in Delhi secretly to finalize details of the proposed 2019 pre-poll pact, as reported by Asia Times.

They are likely to contest 78 of the 80 seats – 37-37 seats to be contested by the SP and BSP each, three by Rashtriya Lok Dal and one by the Nishad Party.

SP leader Sunil Yadav said: “Two constituencies – Amethi and Rai Bareli held by Congress chief Rahul Gandhi and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi – are left for Congress in a goodwill gesture.”

Congress has not responded to this gesture so far, giving rise to more speculation.

There has been speculation about an SP-BSP-Congress alliance in the state to unseat the ruling BJP. These parties have similar ideologies and vote bank.

The SP-BSP wanted Congress on their side only to defeat their common rival. The Congress party was reportedly offered just eight seats – two which it won and six where it was runner-up in 2014 – to contest in the state.

Congress considers this attempt by the regional parties to not only humiliate Congress but also suppress its revival in the key state.

After victory in three states in December, Congress seeks to contest as many seats as possible in teh state, cashing on anti-BJP sentiment. The party now holds only two seats in UP but its tally was 21 in 2009.

Congress hopes to repeat 2009’s success by going solo in Uttar Pradesh. The matter is stuck as neither SP-BSP nor Congress is ready to open their cards as of now.

A congress leader said: “UP Congress chief Raj Babbar and few others want to go with the alliance if offered at least 25 seats to contest. Rest of the party seeks to contest separately.”

Despite being snubbed by Congress, Mayawati and Akhilesh extended support to the party in Madhya Pradesh, where Congress fell a whisker short of a majority.

This was viewed as their attempt to woo Congress ahead of the general elections, but days later Mayawati threatened to pull support if cases against her party’s workers were not quashed.

Yadav too followed Mayawati’s footsteps and expressed his displeasure as his lone legislator was not made a minister in Madhya Pradesh cabinet.

Meanwhile, SP leaders vouch that they don’t need Congress in the alliance.

The duo has maintained a similar distance from the non-BJP, non-Congress “third front” proposed by Telangana’s K Chandrashekhar Rao of Telangana Rashtra Samiti.

CBI tussle

Even before the SP-BSP make their alliance public, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on Saturday conducted raids at several locations in Uttar Pradesh in connection with illegal mining during the SP regime.

The First Instance Rreport names some SP and BSP leaders. The agency is also likely to investigate the role of Akhilesh Yadav in this case.

 The CBI is already probing the sale of 21 public sugar mills at cheap prices during Mayawati’s regime from 2007-2012, allegedly leading to a loss of Rs 1.2 billion to the exchequer.

Both leaders have reportedly decided to fight the CBI cases.