Is Maya's Chhattisgarh gamble the first blow to Cong?

Mayawati. PTI file photo.

Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo Mayawati’s surprise decision to get into an alliance with Ajit Jogi in Chhattisgarh underlines the mercurial nature of the former Uttar Pradesh CM, her raw ambition, and her ability to hurt the prospects of a Congress trying desperately to become the nucleus around which a national Opposition unites.

Things could get worse from here, as the Dalit leader is in talks with a clutch of non-Congress parties in Rajasthan, has announced candidates in many seats in Madhya Pradesh after getting a tepid offer from Congress, and has indicated her willingness to go with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in Punjab if it breaks up with the Bharatiya Janata Party. These are all states with a substantial Dalit population, Mayawati’s core constituency.

From the Congress’ point of view the alliance with Jogi bears uncomfortable similarities with the BSP’s tie-up in Karnataka with the Janata Dal (Secular) a few months ago. That deal cost the Congress in seats where there was a substantial Dalit population.

The following logic appears to underlie Mayawati’s calculations and her cockiness.

The emerging arithmetic suggests that the BJP could find it very difficult to repeat its 2014 tally, and Congress is unlikely to hit the 150-odd seats it needs to command the complete loyalty of its partners. In such a situation, the second-largest party in the Opposition ranks becomes significant. The rationale appears to be that with 35-45 seats, Mayawati could be in a better position than another feisty lady, Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee. The latter’s voice, after all, does not carry much beyond her state, whereas Mayawati could legitimately claim to represent Dalits across India.

So, slogans of “Mayawati for PM” raised by her supporters are not as grounded in fantasy as the Congress might like to believe.

While the BSP scored a duck in the last Lok Sabha polls despite getting around 20 percent votes, its tacit support to the SP in the Lok Sabha bypolls in March led to BJP defeats in Gorakhpur and Phulpura big jolt to CM Yogi Adityanath and his deputy Keshav Prasad Maurya.  

With those two important battles done and dusted, Mayawati is clearly looking beyond UP. The image of Congress boss Sonia Gandhi hugging her during the swearing in of Karnataka CM H D Kumaraswamy had triggered speculation of a possible Congress-BSP tie up at national level.

But Maya has cannily played hard-to-get.

Negotiations for a Congress-BSP pact in Madhya Pradesh have made little progress, and the Congress has dithered on whether a tie-up in Rajasthan would best serve its interests or not.

After protracted negotiations and hard bargaining, Mayawati – a strong character who has been CM of Uttar Pradesh four times and allied with both BJP and SP in the past -- chose to take her own decision in Chhattisgarh.

The language of her joint statement with Jogi, issued by the BSP from Lucknow, seemed to be calculated to rub salt into the Congress’ wounds.

“Due to dependence on Delhi for decisions and the helplessness and inactivity of local leaders of BJP and Indian National Congress, the interests of people of Chhattisgarh have always been compromised,” the statement says underlining the need for a “strong regional representation and leadership.”

Predictably, Congress leaders have alleged that Mayawati acted under the influence of the BJP.

While she kept away from the September 10 Bharat Bandh called by opposition parties in saying her party “did not participate in Congress-sponsored bandh”, Mayawati also held both Congress and BJP responsible for the rise in petrol prices, calling them two sides of the same coin.

That Mayawati is charting an independent path away from the chorus of larger Opposition unity was clearly visible earlier as well.

The pre-poll tie-up in Karnataka was the first such alliance that the BSP entered into with any party since the 1996 tie-up with the Congress in Uttar Pradesh.

Two months later, BSP and Om Prakash Chautala’s Indian National Lok Dal announced their tie up for both the 2019 assembly polls in Haryana as well as the next Lok Sabha polls. Chautala’s son Abhay Singh was quick to proclaim that a non-BJP and non-Congress Third Front would be formed under the leadership of the BSP supremo.

Now INLD  and BSP are also learnt to have been in talks with other smaller parties like SP and RJD for an alliance to contests assembly polls in Rajasthan, where the ruling BJP is locked into a tough fight with the Congress.

 Dalits constitute 16 percent of the voting population in Chhattisgarh, where the BJP shaded Congress by a wafer-thin 0.75 percentage points in the last election. In MP, where Congress is hoping to eject BJP CM Shivraj Chouhan after three terms, the SCs are 15 percent of the population. The BSP has in the past got around a six-percent vote share.

Dalits make up a fifth of Haryana’s population. In the 2014 assembly elections there, the BSP had secured a vote share of 4.37 percent and won one seat.

 In Punjab after Congress came to power in 2017, both BJP and SAD had blamed each other for the defeat.

 For Congress BSP entering into an electoral fray in Punjab in a big way could be a huge jolt as Punjab is the birthplace of Mayawati’s mentor and the architect of Dalit politics, Kanshi Ram.  Scheduled Castes make up a massive one-third of Punjab’s population.

 BSP had an electoral alliance with SAD in the past, which had broken in 1996 after the former allied with Congress.  Indicating a realignment on cards, BSP Punjab affairs in-charge Meghraj Singh said last month that his party was open to ally with SAD if the later broke away from BJP.

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Is Maya's Chhattisgarh gamble the first blow to Cong?

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