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2012 Uttar Pradesh Assembly Election: Samajwadi Party’s Waterloo? November 29, 2011

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Kumar, Vikas , trackback

Vikas Kumar

The forthcoming assembly election in Uttar Pradesh (UP), the world’s most populous sub-national administrative unit, marks the beginning of the long campaign for India’s 2014 General Election. In an earlier post, I have argued that the outcome of UP’s election will influence the choice of prime ministerial candidates and the strategies of political parties for the next general election. In this post I will discuss the existential crisis facing Samajwadi Party (SP), an important regional party based in UP.

The rise of SP in the early 1990s was propelled by the insecurity and aspirations of the middle castes (also known as the Other Backward Castes, OBCs) and Muslims. This was the time when sections of upper castes were supporting Hindu nationalism and economic liberalization to rejuvenate their hegemony that was collapsing in the aftermath of the Shah Bano case, which encouraged radical Islamists, and the implementation of Mandal Commission’s recommendations, which empowered the lower and middle castes. In this atmosphere, SP’s secular socialist manifesto targeted lower and middle caste and Muslim voters with mixed success. On the one hand, its bitter clash with its ally Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) deprived SP of lower caste support. On the other, the decline of Congress in UP and rise of Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) allowed SP to consolidate Muslim votes. In the late 1990s marginalization of BJP’s OBC leader Kalyan Singh buttressed SP’s OBC credentials. As a result SP came to be identified with OBCs, particularly the Yadavs, and Muslims. The Yadav–Muslim combination worked electoral wonders in UP between 1993 and 2007, when SP secured between 17 and 26 per cent of the votes cast in elections and its leader Mulayam Singh Yadav served as the chief minister for six years (1993–95, 2003–07). (The Yadav–Muslim alliance was more effective in neighbouring Bihar, where it helped Lalu Prasad Yadav stay in power for 15 years between 1990 and 2005.) SP also managed to leverage its position in UP to emerge as a national player. Mulayam Singh served as the defence minister (1996–98) in the Third Front government and was also considered for the position of prime minister.

But SP’s golden era is past. By 2005 its traditional vote bank began to unravel because of three reasons. First, internecine conflicts divided the Yadavs. Second, socio-economically backward Muslims had not benefitted from SP’s rule. Third, the increasingly caste conscious lower and middle caste Muslims were uncomfortable with the upper caste Sunni-dominated Muslim wing of SP. Mayawati’s BSP, supported by an ingenious lower caste–upper caste–Muslim coalition, not only defeated SP in 2007 Assembly Election, but also became the first party to secure a majority on its own since 1993. (Interestingly, in neighbouring Bihar a Yadav-dominated party was similarly ousted by a rainbow coalition in 2005.) But just when SP needed to reinvent itself its “strengths” proved to be its Achilles’ Heels. Its socialist image discouraged the pro-market middle class voters (including upwardly mobile members of the middle castes), whereas its image as a Yadav–Muslim party deterred upper and lower caste Hindu voters from treating it as an alternative to BSP.

A desperate SP roped in Kalyan Singh, erstwhile chief minister and one of the accused in the Babri Mosque demolition case, during 2009 General Election to consolidate OBC votes. But this move backfired. Muslims strongly resented the inclusion of Kalyan Singh whereas non-Yadav OBCs remained divided as before. SP still managed to win 23 parliamentary seats and emerged as the third largest party in the parliament. But unlike ideologically flexible parties like Dravida Munnetra Kazhgam and All India Trinamool Congress that were richly rewarded for supporting the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, SP failed to leverage its parliamentary strength. Over-investment in a secular–socialist image harmed SP, particularly, in the aftermath of 2009 General Election. The dramatic defeat of the Left Front, the anchor of the Third Front that unites non-BJP/Congress regional parties, deprived SP of bargaining power. Congress knows that SP has no options because the Third Front is in disarray and it cannot join the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.

While the forthcoming assembly election is important for all the leading parties of UP, they hold unique significance for SP. SP will most likely disappear from the national scene if it fails to win this election. But unfortunately it appears to be ill prepared to face the election. Ailing patriarch Mulayam Singh has withdrawn into the background before his son could emerge as the undisputed leader of the party and put together a new coalition that can challenge BSP’s rainbow coalition. It bears noting that while BSP’s rainbow coalition was formidable on its own it cannot explain the scale of BSP’s victory in 2007. Among other things, a strong anti-incumbency wave against Mulayam Singh’s government helped BSP’s cause. Mulayam Singh’s last term as chief minister (2003–2007) was, in fact, the longest during the period 1960–2007. So, after a long time the outgoing chief minister could not explain away lacklustre performance. Unprecedented corruption and near complete breakdown of law and order during SP’s rule made matters worse. Now Mayawati has emerged as the longest serving chief minister since 1960. But she does not face a strong anti-incumbency wave, at least, not of the kind that swept Mulayam Singh out of power. Congress’s aggressive election campaign under the direct leadership of a Gandhi, who has staked a lot on the outcomes of these elections, has compounded SP’s problem. And Mayawati’s plan for division of UP into four parts couldn’t have come at a more inappropriate time. By opposing Mayawati’s plan SP could lose support in three regions of UP. Unlike other states of India, UP does not have a core ethnic group that would rally behind SP. But a sizeable section of voters in UP’s backward regions can be expected to support division. So, without a counter-plan to address regional economic disparities SP’s opposition to division could be more counter-productive than its opposition in the 1990s to Uttaranchal’s separation from UP. In fact, this time a lot more is at stake because the proposed split will reduce UP’s population by as much as three-fourths whereas Uttaranchal accounted for just five per cent of UP’s population.

To conclude, in the forthcoming assembly election SP’s vote share is likely to shrink and national parties will gain at SP’s expense, which in turn will help UP return to national politics as an active player after a decade long exile. Perhaps SP can draw comfort from the fact that its archrival BSP’s rainbow coalition is showing signs of becoming brittle and BSP has not yet figured out the right counter-strategy. But that is a story for another day.


1. sandygordon - November 30, 2011

Vikas, thanks for yet another fascinating look into the UP electoral labyrinth. Please keep them coming, including an interpretation after it has all happened.

Sandy Gordon

2. Anup - December 1, 2011

thanks vikas for your judgement on up elections.

3. sid - December 26, 2011

Thanks for the good brief. But I think Rahul Gandhi did campaign well last time as well. I will love to see congress Government but it is very unlikely. People were not happy with SP government but they are not happy with BSP. The industries had suffered a lot in this government.
The place where the maximum tax and duty is ignored. Places like kanpur are totally ignored. Kanpur is popularly call Manchester of India.
The local business and the local people cannot get the electricity and water which are essential for growth and living.
I think the reason being is BSP had got no MlA from Kanpur and the previous government only had 1 seat from Kanpur.
We need to see What is good for Industries which will bring the employment and growth to the state and city.

4. shilpa khatwani - January 20, 2012

well written!!! it is a good insight on upcoming elections in uttar pradesh.. BSP has actually not done anything except building statues. They have misused the hard earned money of the tax payers of the people. But i guess we dont have much options available to vote. The other parties are the same. All of them have some or other criminal charges against them be it SP, BJP or Congress. Lets see what happens next in the elections of UP.