The impetus that Opposition unity seems to have gained in the last few days might have been hard to imagine had Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati – the most powerful voice of Dalits in North India – not announced her willingness to join an anti-Bharatiya Janata Party front on April 14. And it was Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad who played a key role in persuading Mayawati to give up her apathy to pre-poll alliances, a fact that has gone unreported and unnoticed all these weeks.
According to some leaders in the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Lalu Prasad had a long telephonic conversation with Mayawati two days before she declared a shift in her party’s position on pre-poll alliances, which till then she dismissed as nothing but “politics of opportunism”.
“Mayawati agreed with Lalu’s arguments that if she accepts the idea of an alliance with the Samajwadi Party and becomes part of a grand secular alliance, all the constituents would succeed in augmenting their respective support bases and make a lasting political impact in the country,” a leader close to Lalu Prasad told Scroll.in.
That was not the only time Lalu Prasad spoke with Mayawati: he followed it up with several more conversations.
Members of the Bahujan Samaj Party confirmed the “frequent talks” between the two leaders in past weeks.
This was also underlined by Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Tejashwi Yadav, who said on Wednesday that his father, Lalu Prasad, had been in talks with several non-BJP leaders, including Mayawati. “Everyone knows we have set an example by forging an alliance under difficult circumstances and emerged successful [in Bihar],” Yadav said of the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s partnership with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United). “RJD chief Lalu Prasad has been making serious attempts to replicate Bihar’s grand alliance at the national level.”
The grand alliance, or mahagathbandhan, of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Janata Dal (United) and Congress had defeated a strong showing by the BJP in the 2015 Bihar Assembly polls.
Clearing a major hurdle
Mayawati’s announcement on April 14, the birth anniversary of Dalit icon BR Ambedkar, that her party “has no reservations in taking the help of anti-BJP parties in its fight against EVM [electronic voting machine] tampering and the BJP”, has set the ball rolling to give a formal shape to a grand secular alliance ahead of the next Lok Sabha elections in 2019.
The very next day, Akhilesh Yadav, who heads the Samajwadi Party – the Bahujan Samaj Party’s arch rival – advocated the formation of a mahagathbandhan in Uttar Pradesh and other parts of the country to take on the BJP. He also echoed Mayawati’s allegations of the rigging of electronic voting machines in the February-March Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, which the BJP won with a massive majority.
Simultaneously, senior leaders of the Congress, Janata Dal (United), Nationalist Congress Party, Trinamool Congress, Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Left parties intensified their efforts to form a united front.
The flexibility shown by Uttar Pradesh’s traditional rivals, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, has removed one of the biggest hurdles in the way of a grand alliance, for which Opposition leaders had started informal discussions during Parliament’s budget session that commenced on January 31. Uttar Pradesh – with 80 Lok Sabha seats – is critical for the success of any grand alliance.
Building on Lalu Prasad’s efforts, Congress president Sonia Gandhi is expected to hold a meeting with Mayawati, as well as Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress and MK Stalin of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, in the course of the next few days, according to Congress leaders. Discussions will centre around evolving Opposition consensus on common candidates for the presidential and vice-presidential elections, scheduled in July and August, said media reports.
Many in the Opposition parties say the process of giving a final shape to the proposed grand alliance has to be slow so as to take along all secular forces. However, they agree that the presidential election in July will be a big stepping stone and a major test of the viability and scope of the secular front.