When Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav and Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati announced their grand alliance for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections last week, some Delhi-based political commentators described the decision of the former arch enemies as “historic” and even “perfect”.

But their counterparts in Lucknow do not seem as upbeat about the prospects of the alliance, which is designed to take on the Bharatiya Janata Party in India’s most politically significant state. They say there are several challenges that could trip up the alliance in which both parties are contesting an equal number of seats – 38 of the state’s 80 Lok Sabha constituencies.

While one commentator says that the presumption that Muslims will vote en masse for the alliance is overly optimistic as members of the community could even get behind the Congress, others say that the two parties will most likely be faced with disgruntled workers in seats that are being sacrificed for the alliance partner.

Memories of 1995

The last time the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party had joined hands was for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections in 1993, when the BJP was riding the Hindutva wave after the demolition of the Babri Masjid the previous year.

The alliance won 176 of the state’s 422 seats (it now has 403) and the BJP had 177. The alliance formed the government with the help of the Congress, but Mayawati withdrew support in 1995 following differences with Samajwadi Party leader and Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav. She then formed the state government with the help of the BJP.

Political observers say that voters, particularly Muslims, have not forgotten Mayawati’s decision to take the BJP’s support to form the government in Lucknow in 1995, and later in 1997. They say these voters will not rule out the possibility of this happening again if the Opposition fails to unseat Narendra Modi and the BJP at the Centre.

“There is this fear amongst Muslims that Mayawati could switch sides after the elections if she is not in a powerful position,” said Lucknow-based political commentator Sharat Pradhan. “This assumption that Muslims will vote only for the alliance is somehow misplaced.”

He added, “Members of the minority community are looking at the Congress as a possible alternative on seats that will be contested by BSP [Bahujan Samaj Party]. If they feel the Congress is in a strong position, they could end up voting for it instead of the alliance.”

Besides, Mayawati has no popular Muslim face by her side to help win the confidence of members of the community after she expelled senior party leader Naseemuddin Siddiqui from the party in 2017. She is, however, expected to field a substantial number of Muslim candidates to woo the community.

“That could work for her but considering the ticket distribution system in BSP, one will have to wait and watch,” said Pradhan.

Weakening vote base?

Representatives of various political parties and experts also pointed out that both the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party do not enjoy the kind of support they did 25 years ago.

After the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the popularity of Samajwadi Party founder Mulayam Singh Yadav was high among the Other Backward Classes. At the same time, the Bahujan Samaj Party began to emerge as the natural choice for Dalits. Over the years, however, the vote base of borth partie has been shrinking, with many weaker castes among Dalits and Other Backward Classes aligning with the BJP.

“Mayawati has been losing one election after another since 2012 and her vote base is shrinking, which was evident in the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2017 Assembly elections,” said a Rashtriya Lok Dal leader in Lucknow. “Similarly, after its victory in the 2012 Assembly polls, the SP [Samajwadi Party] has been on a decline. The Yadav family feud has also created a negative perception among its core voters.”

But the leader was still optimistic about the alliance. “We believe that this alliance still will emerge victorious,” he said.

Seat-share burn

The seat-sharing arrangement between the two parties might upset party workers whose seats are being sacrificed. Many such disgruntled leaders, particularly from the Samajwadi Party, are likely to be attracted by Akhilesh Yadav’s estranged uncle and political rival Shivpal Yadav. Shivpal Yadav left the party in October.

While Akhilesh Yadav’s father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, focussed his attention on power play in Lucknow and Delhi, Shivpal Yadav quietly worked behind the scenes to strengthen the party organisation. Many senior Samajwadi Party leaders owe their political careers to Shivpal Yadav.

“He still enjoys a lot of support amongst party cadres especially in central UP and is likely to woo these rebels who could divide the SP [Samajwadi Party] votes,” said Lucknow based senior political commentator Govind Raju Pant.

Samajwadi Party leader Udai Veer, however, dismissed the possibility of rebels disturbing the equation. According to him, the cadres of both the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party are convinced that the Modi government must be voted out of power in 2019.

“Our cadres know BJP is trying to use CBI to put false charges on us,” said Uday Veer. “They know it is about survival. Similarly, BSP [Bahujan Samaj Party] cadres are aware of how the BJP is trying to split their party by buying or threatening their leaders. Our support base would not only remain intact, it would also see a perfect harmony as it happened in the Phulpur, Gorakhpur and Kairana bye-polls,” he pointed.

The Samajwadi Party, with the support of the Bahujan Samaj Party, won the prestigious Phulpur and Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seats in bye-polls in March, while the Rashtriya Lok Dal wrested the politically-sensitive Kairana from the BJP in May.

‘Congress factor’

Observers also say that Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav should have included the Congress in their alliance as that would have certainly sealed the fate of the BJP. “BJP’s tally could have been reduced to a single digit if Congress was part of this alliance,” said Lucknow-based data analyst Athar Hussain. “If 2017 is the benchmark, then the alliance plus Congress would have secured 52.08% vote share as compared to 39.67% of the BJP.”

Ramesh Dixit, the state president of the Nationalist Congress Party, blamed the Congress for its exclusion from the alliance. According to him, if the Congress had respected the demands of the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party in the November-December elections in three states, the “BJP would have lost a significant number of seats”.

“These differences make things easy for BJP,” said Dixit. “These political parties do not realise the gravity of the situation and are failing the people of this country.”

However, party insiders pointed at a silent understanding between the Congress and Samajwadi Party and said they may engage in friendly contests in several seats.

BJP’s carrots

The BJP is not sitting by passively either. The party, which did very well in Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the 2017 Assembly polls, is hoping to repeat its performance in order to ensure a second term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Among other things, aware that Mayawati’s decisions in the past to promote only Jatavs – the Dalit sub-group to which she belongs – has upset other Dalit communities, the BJP has been attempting to attract marginalised groups from among Dalits and Other Backward Classes.

“We have introduced several schemes that have benefitted the OBCs [Other Backward Classes] and Dalits,” said Uttar Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister Dinesh Sharma. “We have developed five places as Panchteerth in BR Ambedkar’s honour. We have ensured that every bank provides loans to at least two Scheduled Castes under the Mudra loan scheme. We held summits of top industrialists and asked them to invest in Dalit entrepreneurs and even gave constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes. So, we are confident of getting their support in 2019.”

But party leaders concede that the Mayawati-Akhilesh Yadav alliance has made the task trickier for them. “Coming together of these two arch rivals is certainly a huge challenge for us,” said BJP spokesperson Harishchandra Srivastava.