Ever since Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati got into campaign mode two months ago for the upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh, she has furiously sought to wrest Muslims from the Samajwadi Party.

The crisis in the Samajwadi Party, stoked by the feud in the family of party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, has fuelled the buzz that the crucial Muslim vote in the state may finally leave the party after almost 25 years.

However, if a grand secular alliance under the leadership of the Samajwadi Party takes shape, it may not be possible for Mayawati to capture the allegiance of this minority community so easily.

The Muslim factor

Mayawati appears to be relying heavily on the Muslim factor this time. What happens if she fails in her effort?

Mayawati’s electoral strategy so far has been quite impressive. Her constant effort to make Muslims realise that they can no longer trust the crisis-ridden Samajwadi Party, and that aligning with Dalits was now the only effective way to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party out of power in Uttar Pradesh, has yielded good results.

In a state where Dalits, the core vote base of the Bahujan Samaj Party, account for nearly 22% of the population, and Muslims account for over 18%, a combination of the two may prove to be formidable. In 2007, when Mayawati got an absolute majority in the state Assembly, her party’s vote share was 30.4% – much less than what she can expect if a Dalit-Muslim alliance works out.

This time, Mayawati cannot rely upon the Brahmin caste – which had played a critical role in helping her expand her core vote base and secure power in 2007 – as the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress, the two natural claimants of this section of voters, are wooing Brahmins more actively than they did previously.

Therefore, the only way Mayawati can expect to sail through this time is by trying to create a split in the M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) combination – traditionally the core social base of the Samajwadi Party – and by sewing up a new social alliance of Dalits and Muslims in the hope of making it the new core of state politics.

Political alignments

As of now, Mayawati appears to be comfortably placed.

The Samajwadi Party is yet to emerge from its crisis, and the possibility of the state witnessing a four-cornered election early next year – among the Bharatiya Janata Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party and the Congress – is still high.

But the state of Uttar Pradesh’s politics still remains unsettled. Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav’s massive preparations ahead of his proposed state-wide yatra, which begins on November 3, and hectic activity between the Samajwadi Party and the Congress to sew up a grand secular alliance have opened up the game once again.

On Tuesday, Prashant Kishor, the Congress strategist in Uttar Pradesh, held a meeting with Mulayam Singh Yadav. According to people in the know in the Congress, the meeting took place after Kishor received a formal nod from Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s daughter Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who has started taking a keen interest in the party’s affairs in the politically crucial state.

Although what transpired in Kishor’s meeting with the Samajwadi Party chief could not be ascertained, people in the know in both parties claim that they are attempting an alliance that may also have Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal as a partner.

Risk for Mayawati

It is this effort that is threatening to upturn Mayawati’s entire strategy.

From the point of view of Muslims, a shift in their allegiance may not be required or even make sense if they feel that the Samajwadi Party is no longer in crisis mode, and if any alliance it leads has the backing of not just Yadavs but many more sections of voters. Muslims will remember their experience in the 2014 Lok Sabha election when their vote was split between different parties, helping the BJP win a whopping 72 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats in the state.

In the event of a secular alliance being formed, if Muslims decide to stay with the Samajwadi Party, Mayawati may lose all the gains she has made so far. The going may become quite tough for her without the support of Muslims or a section of upper castes.

The Assembly election, which is due early next year, is crucial for Mayawati. It offers her an opportunity – perhaps the last – to regain lost ground and reclaim her party’s image as one of the main contenders of power in Uttar Pradesh.

The vote share of the Bahujan Samaj Party has been constantly falling – from its peak share of 30.4% in the 2007 state elections to 27% in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections to 25% in the 2012 Assembly poll to a little over 19% in the 2014 general elections. A failure to reverse this trend in 2017 may leave even her core Dalit vote wobbling.

The data for this piece is from election surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.