I. UP's Gathbandhan Nama: Why and how SP-BSP created a 25-year-long divorce
There is a fascinating history to the extraordinary political reunification of the SP-BSP in UP. The merger has alarmed the BJP. But its base continues to be uneasy.
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For me, the most telling pre-May 23 moment of the 2019 Lok Sabha election is May 6 — the day the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati cast her vote in Lucknow. That day, she had reached Lucknow Montessori Inter College polling station in Sadar area in her customary beige salwar-kurta, surrounded by the efficient on-their-toes black cat commandos who guard her.
As she emerged after voting, a large number of journalists jostled about to get a sound bite. The few millimetre-long blue ink line on her finger declared that she had created a milestone in the political history of the country — which has the potential to re-write the future in the making.
Her inked finger screamed, “Mayawati today voted for a SP candidate.”
Some may smirk and say, so, what is the big deal?
When she voted: Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati backed a Samajwadi Party candidate in Lucknow. (Source: PTI)
They will know post 5-PM, May 23 and the days after. From the 12th day in January this year, when Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati announced their alliance at a joint press conference, the finger was proving wrong all those who had predicted that the ‘alliance of compulsions’ would fall apart. Instead, the alliance had taken one more step since the April 19 gathabandhan rally at Mainpuri, where Mayawati and Mulayam were seen together at a political event for the first time since 1993.
Mainpuri 2019-1991 redux
On April 19, at Mainpuri, Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati were already on stage for the first SP-BSP gathabandhan rally. The rather loud audio system was blaring out their latest campaign track “Gathbandhan hai” and I realised that to battle the BJP — which had swept UP in the last two polls — Akhilesh in 2019 has taken a leaf from father Mulayam Yadav’s thick book of tricks.
I couldn’t avoid the feeling that 2019 was 1991 all over again.
Back then, the BJP riding the Ram Mandir movement, was the centrifugal force and had won the UP election. Twenty eight years ago, tagging along with some senior political journalists, I was in the same town — Mainpuri — to attend a BSP public meeting for the Etawah seat by-poll.
The candidate was Kanshi Ram.
From the stage an associate of Kanshi Ram — journalist-turned-politician Khadim Abbas belted out a slogan ‘Mile Mulayam Kanshiram, hawa mein ud gaye Jai Shree Ram’ (if Mulayam and Kanshi come together, BJP’s Ram Mandir plank would be blown away in the air).
Khadim had indicated that Mulayam Singh Yadav was lending tacit support to Kanshi Ram. Eventually, Kanshi Ram won, defeating Lal Singh Verma of the BJP. It was the first BJP defeat after the triumph of 221 of the 425 seats in the UP Assembly that year. The slogan was a virtual prophecy.
It had come true in 1991 and again in 1993.
Back to 2019, on April 19, when wrestler-turned-politician Mulayam Singh Yadav climbed up the stage at the Mainpuri SP-BSP gathabandhan rally, he wasn’t visibly as surefooted as he used to be. Some in his party say age has softened his capability to throw politically decisive ‘danv’ (wrestling tackles).
Mulayam was once famed for his strong political moves. (Source: Wikimedia Comons)
The man who used to pick his opponents, sometimes even those who were his comrades and construct the ‘akhada’ or the political battle terrain, was tentative. I have known Mulayam since 1989 — a few months before he became chief minister for the first time. I could sense he battled part age and part unfamiliarity with the stage — and those who were on it. Most among the cheering crowd knew how significant Mulayam’s walk towards Mayawati was. But they were too euphoric to pay attention to the body language on display or to notice the crackling tension on that stage as two battle-hardened, feisty gladiators, Mulayam and Mayawati, who have been feasting on each other since 1995 to remain UP’s dominant forces, had walked into an unchartered zone.
They were writing history — yet again.
For Mulayam, when his party was born, the backdrop of the rally stage was not SP red and green — but BSP’s blue. The flags waving in front of him, a blend of the three colours. The chants echoing were alternating between “Mulayam Singh zindabad” and “Mayawati zindabad”.
On stage were people he had once sworn would never be seen with him at a political platform. He hadn’t mentioned Mayawati by name for over two decades. Mayawati, his ally in 1993, had brought down his government in 1995 to be CM for the first time.
Mulayam had split her party in 2003 to be CM for the third time. His goons had attacked her in 1995 v the case known infamously across UP as the ‘Guest House kand’.
Very few know that in CM Mayawati's office in 2003, there apparently existed a file with a proposal to slap POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) against Mulayam Singh, the leader of opposition and his then-confidant Amar Singh.
With the past weighing heavily on his almost octogenarian shoulders, Mulayam chose to shuffle his gaze between his nervous son Akhilesh Yadav — the principle architect of the alliance — the crowds and the chair reserved for him. He avoided eye contact. The tension was palpable over the crowd’s roar. At the rally, viewed as the pièce de résistance, Mulayam’s endorsement of the alliance was critical.
But both knew that the crowd at the Mainpuri rally and loyal voters of both the parties were waiting for a signal that an old rivalry bordering on visceral hate was being dismantled. In public view, friends-turned-foes were coming together as their voters need to unite.
Rewriting history? Mayawati and Mulayam on the same stage in Mainpuri. (Source: PTI)
The zero tally in 2014 and the insignificant 2017 Assembly poll outing has certainly mellowed Mayawati, who had once challenged the hegemony of the upper castes and those who oppressed the Dalits in UP with a hostile poll call, “Tilak, tarazu aur talwar, inko maaro joote chaar". As Mulayam stayed hesitatingly away, she reached out and touched his arm to point out something. It was no ordinary gesture as it had the potential to make her party ‘acceptable’ to UP’s dominant Yadav vote — which has stayed loyally behind Mulayam, who carved out this vote bank and Akhilesh, who inherited it.
For Mayawati, transferring her vote bank, the marginalised scheduled castes, to an ally is considered as simple as a quick online fund transfer.
Mulayam’s vote bank, the ‘yaduvanshis’, do not get herded so easily. Sizeable in numbers through sheer grit and hard work, they emerged as one of the biggest beneficiaries of the green revolution. Mandalisation of politics along with improved economic status gave them electoral muscle — and both brought them social pelf. Armed with this new status, Yadavs altered the Kshatriya-Brahmin dominated caste hierarchy. A sense of power brought aggression, highlighted by the fact that in many parts of UP, Yadavs faced the maximum cases of crime against the Scheduled Castes.
As the top leaders turned arch rivals to sworn enemies, the loyal vote banks inherited and nursed the distrust to take the divide between the two parties down till the last denominator.
For years, the proven fact that in UP, SCs will not vote for the SP and Yadavs would never opt for the BSP helped the BJP and the Congress pick their candidates and build strategies. It assisted journalists and pollsters do quick poll predictions.
The divide was deep-set. The wall came up brick by brick. In 2007, Mayawati stitched the once considered mission impossible rainbow coalition of Brahmins, SCs and Muslims to win the highest number of seats by a party in the Assembly since the 1991. In 2004, Mulayam brought Yadavs, Thakurs and most backward castes (MBC) together to win 39 Lok Sabha seats.
But SC vs Yadavs was one caste divide which seemed irreversible.
Politics is an ego business. But when needed, politicians display a Sergei Bubka-like capability to pole vault over egos and the past. Mulayam and Mayawati did exactly that in Mainpuri on April 19. To weaken the wall from the SP's side, Mulayam singh in his speech asked his followers to “respect Mayawati”.
Mayawati reciprocated by asking her supporters to back Mulayam and SP.
Not the first 'jab they met'
Those who follow UP remember the two had met last on June 7, 2008. As chief minister Mayawati, who headed the selection panel for picking the members of the State Human Rights Commission, had invited Mulayam Yadav, leader of the opposition. They met at the chief minister's official residence on Lucknow’s Kalidas Marg. Outside, a crowd of SP workers had waited — anxious to know what was happening inside. The head of the SP’s Lucknow unit had told me, “She has deliberately fixed the meeting venue. She wants everyone to know how power equations have changed since 2007. She wanted to humiliate Netaji (Mulayam Yadav) by making him walk inside the CM residence."
Mulayam emerged from the meeting and tried to set the record straight, “There was no political meaning behind the meeting. I was invited by the chief minister, I went there as the leader of Opposition in Vidhan Sabha for the constitution of the state Human Rights Commission"
Rise of Hindutva: Cupid for SP-BSP
The first SP-BSP coming together was forged at a time when politics in UP was gasping for breath. Since 1989, waves of Mandal and mandir were blowing fiercely. It was a period of tumult that rapidly and at times, violently reconfigured India's political landscape.
The SP was born on October 4, 1992 — less than 65 days before the Babri mosque was brought down.
The mosque-temple dispute which has powered UP and India's politics for decades. (Source: India Today)
Thirty-six months after Mulayam Yadav, working with Congress rebel VP Singh, rode the anti-Bofors scam plank to be CM of UP for the first time with the BJP supporting him.
Rajiv Gandhi had lost the 1989 polls after starting his campaign from Ayodhya promising Ram Rajya and allowing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) to perform ‘shilanyas’ for a Ram temple near the disputed site in Ayodhya on November 9, 1989.
Less than a year later, VP Singh on August 7, 1990, heading the National Front government, supported by BJP, implemented the Mandal Commission report to provide 27% quota to “socially and educationally backward classes” in jobs.
Three months later, on September 25, 1990, LK Advani started his Rath Yatra from Somnath in Gujarat to cash in on the anger among the upper caste (the upper class) voters.
That's where I had met Advani's rath charioteer — Narendra Modi.
The BJP and the Ram temple issue were gaining traction. Worried, VP Singh on October 23, 1990, nudged Bihar CM Lalu Yadav to arrest Advani hoping to halt the march of the kar sevaks.
An IAS officer posted as the registrar of cooperatives, Bihar, was quickly sent on a special deputation as district magistrate Samastipur. On October 30, RK Singh, the incumbent Power Minister in the government, arrested Advani. But the VHP and RSS ensured that as per plan, kar sevaks reached Ayodhya by October-end.
On October 30 and November 2, 1990, UP chief minister Mulayam made the move that earned him the sobriquet of ‘maulana Mulayam’.
He stopped the Ram Mandir kar sevaks and ordered firing on a group of miscreants who climbed on top of the Babri mosque and damaged it.
The BJP found its opportunity.
The BJP sensed a huge political opening in up with the Ayodhya mandir movement. (Source: Reuters)
By November 8, 1990, the BJP had withdrawn support. VP Singh had resigned and Mulayam’s government in UP had fallen. By 1991, the BJP powered by the Ram Mandir movement had wrested control of UP by winning 221 of the 425 seats in undivided UP.
Mandal had sparked a wave of caste consciousness among the socially dominant Yadavs and UP's large minority was living in a state of insecurity under the BJP government. Mulayam launched the SP on October 4, 1992, to carve out the formidable "MY" or Muslim-Yadav vote bank.
With the demolition of Babri mosque on December 6, 1992, the Kalyan Singh government was dismissed. The Narasimha Rao government kept the state under President’s rule for 363 days. This gave Mulayam time to emerge as the champion of minorities in UP.
Before the 1993 Assembly polls, the BJP was still the central force in UP. To take on the BJP, which had blurred caste lines and united voters on Hindutva, Mulayam played yet another political tackle.
He turned to Kanshi Ram who headed a party he had formed in 1984 — by converting the All India Backward and Minorities Employees Federation, or BAMSEF, (founded 1973) to BSP.
Its footprints were widening among those living at the bottom of the caste ladder in UP — the scheduled castes. The BJP in 1991 had won 221 of the 425 seats with 31.45% votes. But the BSP had won 12 of the 386 with 10.26% votes.
If Rahul Gandhi facing a potent challenge from PM Modi in 2017 Gujarat polls borrowed from his father Rajiv Gandhi’s soft Hindutva push of 1989, Akhilesh in 2019 is doing what Mulayam did in 1993.
It’s popularly known that Kanshi Ram and Mulayam got together for the first time in 1993. Very few remember that the duo had tried to get together once in 1991. In April 1991, before the elections, Mulayam Yadav had met Kanshi Ram for the first time. The meeting, I still recall, was brokered by influential godman Chandraswami. Kanshi Ram then had said a firm 'no' to an alliance — as the Janata Party parivar was dominated and dictated by upper caste leaders.
By 1993, Mulayam was trying to regain power and Kanshi Ram, who wanted a share in power, got together.
Before the Assembly polls, at one of the government Guest Houses in Lucknow, a historic meeting took place between Kanshi Ram and Mulayam Yadav’s confidant and cousin — Ram Gopal Yadav, who, a few days after the meeting, told me, “Kanshi Ram is a pragmatic, wise man. He didn’t haggle for seats. He simply asked for the 12 BSP had won last time and 144 which we have no chance on winning. So we will contest on 267 seats and BSP 156.”
“In the Assembly poll, the Yadavs, Muslims and SCs voted along caste and community lines in a symbolic mandate against the BJP’s upper caste-Hindu party positioning. Ram Janmabhoomi was driving the narrative. But the BJP’s tally was restricted by the SP-BSP alliance to 177. BSP won 67 of the 156 contested and the SP won 109. Eventually, SP-BSP, supported by others, formed the government and the BJP was denied a return to power — despite being the single largest party.
Mandal had joined hands with bahujan.