Uttar Pradesh has always been the highway of Indian politics and it may well provide to be the proving trail for Opposition unity. After being shut out from the grand alliance in the state by the big hitters, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP), the Congress is hitting back.
On Wednesday, Congress vice-president Priyanka Gandhi, in charge of the political and electoral campaign in eastern Uttar Pradesh, met Bhim Army chief Chandrashekhar Azad at a hospital in Meerut. Apparently, Azad was in hospital for breaching the Model Code of Conduct by organising and participating in a rally. If such infractions are to be dealt with by imprisonment, let all delinquents be jailed. It doesn’t happen and won’t until the Election Commission becomes an independent body. For now, we must recall that Azad has been mobilising Dalits for more than a couple of years under the banner of the Bhim Army. He has been hunted and jailed before as well.
Azad and his ‘army’ have presented to Dalits, especially in Uttar Pradesh, a more radical approach to fighting injustice and iniquity than the mainstream Dalit organisation, Mayawati’s BSP. Last year when Dalit anger seemed to be boiling over, the Bhim Army was in the vanguard of mobilisation. It wasn’t exactly centuries of exploitation and dehumanisation that provided the context.
The proximate causes for the seething was a Supreme Court order diluting the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which topped a series of clashes between Thakurs, much emboldened by the nomination of a member of their ilk to the chief ministerial chair, and Dalits over symbolic issues, including the attempted denial of the right of a Dalit groom to ride a horse to his wedding and the defacement of a bust if BR Ambedkar. The clashes over symbolic acts themselves topped a renewed and vicious attack on Dalit rights and livelihoods, not to mention ‘bare life’, initiated by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dispensations after the party’s spectacular showing in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, which led to the formation of the particularly obnoxious government we are now labouring under.
Without going into further well-known details, it should do well to note that Azad and the Bhim Army were getting sufficient traction to rattle Mayawati, already somewhat under the cosh politically and electorally. Azad then assured the BSP boss that he had no ‘political’ ambitions, he did not want to ‘emerge’ as Mayawati’s rival and that he would be supportive of her ambitions. Mayawati was less than convinced (or amused, in the best Victorian manner). She has since maintained a political and personal distance from Azad and the Bhim Army.
Given the shut-out, the Congress took a kind of Weaver’s stance, declaring it would contest all 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh. Reams of print and a substantial chunk of the ‘airwaves’ and cyberspace has since been devoted to figuring out whether the Congress will hurt the Opposition alliance more or the BJP. These reckonings need not detain us here at the moment; let us just assume that both will be hurt.
The point is that following the Congress' decision, Mayawati has taken an increasingly tough position. On Tuesday, she announced that she would not have anything to do with the Congress, period. Not in Uttar Pradesh, not in Madhya Pradesh, not in Chhattisgarh, not in Rajasthan. Never mind Opposition unity. We shall get to probable reasons for Mayawati’s inflexibility on this score.
For the moment, we can say that it would not be too fanciful to assume that Priyanka’s visit to call on a hospitalised Azad was not just out of concern for his health. Priyanka is making a statement – one that Rahul Gandhi, her brother and Congress president, has made before. We are prepared to fly solo, where we must. Trying to bring Azad onside is of a piece with the Congress’s strategy to incorporate young activism-driven leaders – think Jignesh Mevani, Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakore.
Mayawati and SP chief and former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav were reported to have met after Priyanka’s hospital visit and the former is said to be contemplating fielding candidates against the Gandhis in Amethi and Rae Bareli, earlier declared off limits. One can presume that Mayawati’s notoriously mercurial mood was not brightened by Azad’s stated intention to contest the Varanasi seat against Prime Minister Narendra Modi after Priyanka’s visit.
And, finally, on Wednesday, the Congress released a list of candidates, which included 16 candidates from Uttar Pradesh, including Kaisar Jahan from Sitapur in the eastern part of the state. That Jahan recently left the BSP to join the Congress will be another sticking point. With the SP and Akhilesh caught in the middle, it behooves both the Congress and BSP to behave more sensibly, if (a biggish one) they are serious about opposition unity.
The Congress must take the lead in sorting out this mess, if only because Mayawati won’t. A strategy of escalation will help only one player – the BJP. So, what is happening here that we are not getting. The theory that Congress votes won’t get transferred, doesn't wash in the Uttar Pradesh context. Does the problem, then, derive from Mayawati’s perception that in addition to the transfer problem, the Congress can eat into its Dalit base or split the Muslim vote for traction? Neither seem to be, on the face of it, legitimate fears.
At any rate, Priyanka’s ‘outreach’ should help clear minds on both sides. Others, too, could help bringing about a common approach. An inclusive coalition is imperative if obviously common goals have to be attained.