The larger opposition parties in Uttar Pradesh (UP) appear disinclined to enter into pre-poll understandings for the upcoming assembly elections in the state. Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav has kept his doors open for smaller parties but has ruled out any truck with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) or the Congress. The BSP and Congress on their part do not appear enthused about a formal tie-up with the SP either.
The larger parties’ reluctance to work together is understandable at one level. Fingers have been burnt in recent years. The combined charms of Akhilesh and Rahul Gandhi failed to sway UP voters in the 2017 assembly election, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) receiving an unprecedented mandate. A supposedly game-changing SP-BSP alliance in the 2019 parliamentary elections came a cropper too, presenting no serious challenge to the BJP’s re-bid for power in Delhi.
Given this history, there are obvious questions around the on-ground chemistry of big party alliances in UP and whether such alliances could actually be triggering consolidations in the BJP’s favor.
However, there are reasons why opposition parties must contemplate joining hands.
These arise from the post-2014 opposition experience of taking on incumbent BJP governments and, more importantly, the changed ground conditions in present-day UP.
The Case for Larger Party Alliances Albeit With A CM Face
In relation to the former, we focus on medium and large states (for this piece, states with ten or more parliamentary constituencies) with multi-party contexts. Because this is the backdrop of the UP election, and because elections in other situations—in smaller states with two-party contexts and/ or where the BJP is a challenger—have a different dynamic.
The experience with six assembly elections across five states during the Narendra Modi years—Assam (2021), Bihar (2015, 2020), Haryana (2019), Jharkhand (2019), and Maharashtra (2019)—suggests that a pre-poll coalition of larger opposition parties, like in Bihar (2015) and Jharkhand, has better chances of usurping the BJP.
Such coalitions signal the availability of meaningful alternatives to voters especially undecided voters, pool opposition-leaning votes, and enable optimal utilisation of (depleted) opposition war-chests.
But all this happens only when the coalition is spearheaded by a credible face such as Hemant Soren or Nitish Kumar once was. Assam rejected a faceless Congress mahajot recently despite the spirited campaign the mahajot mounted.
Solo Challengers, Smaller Outfits Unlikely to Make a Dent
Meanwhile, challengers going solo or with smaller outfits have found it tougher to contend with the BJP’s election and propaganda machinery and skills at leveraging incumbent power to soothe disappointed constituencies.
Anti-incumbency, unpopular chief ministers and internal bickering do not seem to damage the BJP’s prospects irretrievably when it has no alliance or only truncated alliances to grapple with. Recall how the party recently retained Bihar and did better than other major contenders in terms of seats won, vote shares, and strike rates in Haryana and Maharashtra despite this mix of circumstances.
While larger party alliances have worked elsewhere, is that good enough reason to think about them once again in UP? Especially after the results of 2017 and 2019? There’s a case for sure.
The UP of now is different from the UP of 2017 or 2019 – for one, the air is no longer redolent with the promise of vikas and the end of Jungle Raj - and from other states where the BJP fought well despite an indifferent performance while in power.
Three Challenges Facing the BJP in UP
A: Charges of thakurvaad are ungluing the Hindutva bond and reawakening jati sentiments Hindutva had cleverly subsumed.
B: Pandemic mismanagement and the tragedies it has left in its wake have inflicted difficult-to-forget wounds. Whether these are forgiven will depend on how resonant the BJP’s now-unfolding counter-communication proves and how compellingly the opposition links the suffering to governmental bungles.
C: In a rare occurrence, the BJP’s in-party dissonance, at least in popular perception, has touched the Prime Minister, uneasily juxtaposing him with CM Yogi Adityanath.
Adityanath has managed to retain his position for now but recent developments suggest that things are far from settled. A new state vice president known to be close to the PM has been installed and there are noises about Chief Ministership options being open.
Cumulatively, these mean that the BJP would not be entering the 2022 contest as the expansionary aggressor of 2017 and 2019 but in salvage mode.
The party is not going to bat on the front foot but the back foot (though it may not abandon its reflexive swagger), saddled with concerns over the re-emergence of caste factors it had papered over. There are also sections of voters eager to dole out punishment for pandemic-time lapses amidst inner disquiet in the BJP.
This, in turn, translates into a more conductive time for opposition forces coalescing. Such centrifugal forces were not evident in 2017 and 2019, and nd now that they are at play, a joint opposition effort has better chances of capitalizing on social disaffections and popular upset.
SP’s Akhilesh Yadav Might be the Best Bet for Opposition in UP
In this, the leadership issue is relatively easily addressed. With the BSP steadily losing direction and traction and the Congress lacking the organization to back the moves it has been making, Akhilesh is the best bet. The Nitish of 2015 may have had a better reputation as a sushashan mascot and Hemant may have better grassroots connect, but the SP boss, with the right positioning, could well present himself as an acceptable mix of the two.
Crucially, the SP, despite electoral setbacks it has seen post-2014, remains the most stable and tight-knit and the most capable of challenging the BJP on the ground among UP’s opposition parties. The party’s recent performance in local body elections could be the sweetly timed shot in the arm for a challenger confronting a behemoth's needs.
But What Will a Joint Opposition Look Like?
There still remains the question of what form a joint opposition effort could take. Pre-poll alliances are likely to have the strongest signaling effect but parties may not want to risk loss of face again. Tacit seat-level understandings could be face-savers in the event of setbacks but may not signal the clear alternative that needs to be projected. The possibility of two of the three larger parties (SP and Congress, more likely) and several smaller parties with pockets of influence coming together is another option.
The larger point remains unchanged though: larger opposition parties in UP must start talking to each other. If in doubt whether these conversations will yield anything useful or if conversations get stuck on issues of what form their partnership could take, there’s one key question to be asked.
At this juncture, what would the BJP like to see: a cohesive opposition or a divided one? Even an unclear answer should be a green light.
(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and crime fiction writer and can be contacted at @ManishDubey1972. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)