A divided opposition has given the Bharatiya Janata Party virtually a walkover in the upcoming bye-elections to Phulpur and Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh.

The seats fell vacant when Gorakhpur MP Adityanath Yogi and Phulpur MP Keshav Prasad Maurya resigned to take over as Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister and deputy chief minister, respectively. Voting is scheduled for March 11.

Soon after the BJP registered a resounding victory in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election early last year, chastened leaders of the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samajwadi Party and the Congress publicly declared their willingness to put up a united fight against the saffron party. Had they worked on their initial resolve, the three parties could have demonstrated their combined strength in these bye-polls. But a year later, the two main opposition parties are singing a different tune. Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav has said his party would prefer to go it alone while the Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati has ignored all calls for opposition unity. Interestingly, she has formed a pre-poll alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular), headed by former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda, for the Karnataka Assembly election later this year, but has not said a word about a possible alliance in Uttar Pradesh, where a united opposition could hurt the BJP.

The Samajwadi Party has now fielded Santosh Nishad in Gorakhpur and Nagendra Patel in Phulpur. They have been carefully picked with an eye on the caste composition of the two constituencies. While Gorakhpur has a large presence of the Nishad community, Phulpur has a substantial population of the Kurmis. Left to fend for itself, the Congress has fielded Surheeta Chatterjee Karim in Gorakhpur and Manish Mishra in Phulpur. After internal discussions, Mayawati decided her Bahujan Samaj Party will not contest these elections, leaving the field open to the other three players.

The disunity in the opposition’s ranks clearly benefits the BJP, which also has the advantage of being in power. Of the three opposition parties, only the Congress was keen on an alliance in these bye-elections. As a small player in Uttar Pradesh, the party has little to gain by contesting on its own. But if the opposition had put up common candidates, it would have sent out a message that a united opposition is ready to take on the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Trying to put up a brave face after failing to secure the cooperation of the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, Congress leaders argued it was actually unwise to have an alliance for bye-polls so close to a general election as it would demoralise the party’s cadre. “These bye-elections are an opportunity for all political parties to test the waters and energise their workers for the coming big election,” remarked a senior Congress leader. An alliance, the leader argued, would be seen as an admission of weakness and workers will either start looking for greener pastures or stop working.

Unpredictable Mayawati

While the Congress believes an alliance with the Samajwadi Party can still fructify for the 2019 Lok Sabha election, it is nervous about Mayawati, who holds the key to building a successful united opposition front in the electorally-significant state of Uttar Pradesh. Though her Bahujan Samaj Party fared poorly in both the last parliamentary election and the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election, the party commands a 20% vote share. It is estimated that if the three opposition parties contest the general election together, the BJP will find it difficult to replicate its performance in 2014, when it won 71 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats, because the caste arithmetic will no longer be in its favour.

Keenly aware of this, the Congress has made several attempts to reach out to Mayawati, but the famously unpredictable leader has kept everyone guessing about her plans. Her party did not send a representative to the meeting of opposition parties called by former Congress chief Sonia Gandhi earlier this month. It was agreed by all 17 parties that attended the meeting that they need to work together in Parliament and outside to take on the BJP. Further, the Bahujan Samaj Party did not join other opposition parties in boycotting the Rajya Sabha for half a day during the recent Budget session. It also did not sign the memorandum submitted by 15 opposition parties to President Ram Nath Kovind demanding an independent investigation into the death of Maharashtra judge Brijgopal Harkishan Loya.

But if the Congress is striving to put together a broad alliance as it had in 2004, the BJP is also working to see that the opposition remains a divided house. Realising a united opposition could damage its prospects in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP has not been averse to pressuring its political rivals to go solo. Congress leaders are convinced that the BJP will focus on Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra – two big states where a united opposition is most likely to prevail over the ruling party – to ensure an opposition alliance does not materialise. The Nationalist Congress Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party are both vulnerable – Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar faces corruption charges as does Mayawati’s brother.