Wednesday threw up a massive electoral surprise, with the Bharatiya Janata Party falling behind in two Uttar Pradesh Lok Sabha seats where bye-polls were conducted this month. The BJP also put in a middling performance in Bihar, where it won one seat and saw its alliance lose two. But the story came out of Uttar Pradesh, where the saffron party had stormed to power with an absolute majority just a year ago. The BJP was beaten by the Samajwadi Party, which, for the first time since the early 1990s, had the support of its arch-rival, the Bahujan Samaj Party. The alliance was formed with the explicit aim of stalling the BJP’s electoral juggernaut. And it seems to have worked.
The BJP lost both the Phulpur seat in Uttar Pradesh, which fell vacant after Keshav Prasad Maurya left the Lok Sabha to become the state’s deputy chief minister, and Gorakhpur, a seat that had been held by Adityanath – known to his followers as Yogi – for five terms before he was made chief minister.
The Phulpur seat saw the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party combine win with a margin of nearly 60,000 votes. But it is the Gorakhpur result that will hurt the BJP the most. That is because the seat was almost considered a hereditary one, having belonged to the mahant, or head priest, of the Gorakhnath temple since Avaidyanath won it on a Hindu Mahasabha ticket in 1989. He switched over to the BJP in the following election and mentored Adityanath, who took over in his stead, winning the seat for the first time in 1998. Since then, Adityanath’s hold on the constituency seems to only have grown, until now.
The BJP’s stunning victory across the state in 2017 forced the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party to consider working together. Until last year’s win, the state had see-sawed between the two parties since the mid-1990s, with both building different social bases and cadre that were trained to thoroughly dislike each other. Thus, despite a potentially existential threat from the expansion of the BJP, the parties did not set about working together – even though the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Janata Dal (United) had managed to turn that into a winning anti-BJP formula in Bihar in 2015, only for the Janata Dal (United) to break off the alliance last year.
But the continued drumbeat of BJP victories, most recently in the Left bastion of Tripura, seems to have convinced Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati to change her mind. The last time her party and the Samajwadi Party worked together in the 1990s, Mayawati was allegedly manhandled by the latter party’s workers at a time when there were tensions in the alliance, causing the two to split and become arch-rivals. As a result, even in the run-up to these bye-polls, the Bahujan Samaj Party chief did not fully embrace the idea of an alliance with the Samajwadi Party. Instead, she suggested it was a deal between the two parties, with the Samajwadi Party supporting her candidates in the Rajya Sabha while she would lend her support to its leaders for the bye-polls.
Mayawati may have been reluctant, but others in the general anti-BJP camp were much more hopeful about this alliance, seeing in it the beginnings of something that could take on the BJP electoral machine in the national elections that are due by 2019. Wednesday’s result only gives more oxygen to those who have been demanding that the “secular parties” band together for the general elections.
A crude addition of the vote shares of the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Congress – which will presumably be a part of this alliance even though it did not tie up with the other two this time – suggests that they have enough to go against the BJP in Uttar Pradesh.
There are, of course, many caveats here. The Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party do not work well together. They might have managed to be impressively successful and thoroughly embarrassed the BJP. But it is one thing to come to an arrangement over two seats. Having to distribute seats in a manner that does not lead to disaffection among two cadres that do not like each other across the entire state is another matter altogether.
And in the middle of all this are several headstrong leaders, including Mayawati, who will not be easy to negotiate with. Over and above that, there is the question of the BJP having enough time to regroup and play on the divisions both within these parties and between them. And finally, there is the question of whether the BJP-run Centre will use other weapons, like the Central Bureau of Investigation, to influence how matters move forward.
Despite these potential pitfalls, Wednesday’s results offer one path forward, and that is one more than the parties had before this week. There is no certainty that this will see the tables turned or even that a grand alliance will come together. But the blueprint has not only been drawn out, it has proven to be a successful one. Will it scale up?