Akhilesh vs Mulayam: Why the SP infighting is bad news for BJP

(From L to R) Senior SP leader Shivpal Singh Yadav, SP Chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav.
The split in the Samajwadi Party (SP), which increasingly looks imminent, is bad news for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), not just for the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls but also for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

With the Congress weakened, the BJP effort has been to dent the support base as well as credibility of regional political parties that have the potential to form the nucleus of a strong third front in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.  

These parties are Uttar Pradesh-based SP and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP); Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Odisha; the Dravidian parties of Tamil Nadu; the Nitish Kumar-Lalu Prasad Yadav combine in Bihar, Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress in Bengal and the Left parties.

The states where these parties wield influence – Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Jharkhand and Tripura – send over 250 seats to the Lok Sabha, that is nearly half its strength of 543.

The long-term BJP plan is to fill the vacuum created by the decline of some of these regional parties and capture the support bases these parties have in their respective states, particularly among Hindus - primarily the Dalits and Other Backward Castes.

In the last two years, the BJP has tried to weaken these regional parties, but not always with significant success, as the Bihar Assembly poll results of 2015 showed. In recent months, the BJP cadre has been galvanised in Kerala, Bengal and Odisha. The party held its national council meeting in Kozhikode in Kerala in September.

This strategy, most of all, needs to succeed in Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 members to the Lok Sabha. The BJP, along with its ally Apna Dal, won 73 of these seats in 2014. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance had won 31 of the 40 seats in Bihar. Its performance in both these states will be crucial if the Narendra Modi government has to have any chances of returning to the seat of power in Delhi in 2019.

In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has poached leaders from Mayawati-led BSP as well as Congress. Sources in SP, including senior minister Azam Khan, have blamed Amar Singh for engineering the infighting at the behest of the BJP.

The bloodbath within the SP, however, now threatens to unleash a generational shift in the Uttar Pradesh politics. Several leaders even within the BJP are of the view that Akhilesh Yadav walking out of the shadow of his father and uncle, and getting the support of the Congress and Janata Dal (United)’s Nitish Kumar, would be bad news for the BJP for years to come.

This generational shift is evident in other political rivals of the BJP. The Congress is on the cusp of a generational shift. But a smoother generational shift has already taken place in Bihar, with Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav’s two sons becoming part of the Nitish Kumar government. Such a shift is also evident in Trinamool Congress. Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee is being primed for the leadership role.

A smaller party like Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal, which could support Akhilesh Yadav, is also likely to see Jayant Chaudhary taking over the reins of the party. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader M Karunanidhi recently anointed his son MK Stalin as the successor. Only the BJD and AIADMK might struggle in this aspect, which gives BJP long-term hopes in these two states.

In Uttar Pradesh, a back of the envelope analysis would suggest that a split in the SP would help the BSP in the forthcoming Assembly polls. The split could send a message to the Muslims, who comprise nearly a fifth of the electorate, that the SP is not in the race. Theoretically, this could prevent a split in the Muslim vote as they decide to support Mayawati’s BSP. A consolidated Dalit and Muslim vote would ensure a majority for Mayawati. There are also chances that Yadavs could gravitate towards the BJP.

However, the assessment in the Congress as well as the BJP is that Akhilesh Yadav is liked by the youth and recognised among people of Uttar Pradesh for his development work. His breach from his uncle Shivpal Yadav, with a majority of the party supporting him, could help him emerge as a youth icon who has good credentials for espousing a politics of good governance and development.

An electoral arrangement with Nitish Kumar, a Rahul Gandhi-led Congress and Rashtriya Lok Dal would not only burnish Akhilesh’s secular credentials, give heft to the alliance and also provide a more potent caste combination to the force.

But it also means that the BJP will have a fight on its hands in key states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

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