Anti-incumbency may produce hung assembly in UP

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Even at this early stage of the UP elections, a few predictions can still be made with reasonable certainty. One is the results will produce a hung assembly with neither of the two major parties – the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) that happen to be regional and not national ones – getting a majority of its own.

The second safe forecast is that the SP will align with the Congress. The two were allies in the state when the SP was in office before Mayawati swept into power in 2007. The Congress and the SP came even closer together when the latter left the company of the Communists and decided to support the Congress in parliament on the nuclear deal in 2008.

The episode in 1999 when the SP had scuttled the Congress’ chances to form a government at the centre even after Sonia Gandhi had declared that the Congress had the support of 272 MPs has been forgotten in the hurly-burly of swift-moving events. However, their relations have never been very warm.

The third fairly safe assumption is that the BSP and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will hastily try to reach an agreement to prevent the SP-Congress alliance staking its claim to form a government. The party of the Dalits and the party of the “Manuvadi” upper castes – to use Dalit czarina Mayawati’s familiar word of disparagement for Brahmins – have been allies twice before. But their bitter parting of ways on both the occasions is unlikely to deter them from trying to tie the knot again.

Since much will depend on the number of seats won by the four aspirants – and the perception of the governor – it will no longer be safe to hazard a guess about the ultimate winners. But it is possible to anticipate the impact of the opportunism of at least two of them.

For instance, the unabashed expediency of the BSP and the BJP in trying to strike a deal will hurt both. This charge cannot be levelled against the SP and the Congress because they have been allies for several years. Even then, Rahul Gandhi’s assertion that his party will not tie up with “goons and thieves” may come to haunt the heir- apparent.

True, it is customary for the main contenders to brag before the votes are counted that there will not be any need for an alliance since each one of them will gain a majority of its own. While the BSP and the SP have been making such claims, the Congress or the BJP obviously cannot do so because it will sound absurd. But what Rahul’s statement implies is that the Congress will prefer to sit in the opposition instead of teaming up with the SP which has long had the reputation of harbouring anti-socials.

Why Rahul stressed this point is understandable because it was the volatile law and order situation when the SP was in power which helped the BSP score such a massive victory. Since people are unlikely to have forgotten those days, the Congress general secretary is clarifying that he is aware of the unsavoury reputation of his party’s prospective ally.

In fact, the SP itself has been somewhat defensive on this count. Hence, the assurance given by Akhilesh Yadav – he will be more believable on this point than his father Mulayam Singh Yadav – that there will be no return to the bad old days if his party comes to power. At the same time, it is noteworthy that the former chief minister had no hesitation in holding out an olive branch to the Congress even after Rahul’s criticism.

The reason is that both sides – or, at least, their senior leaders – are aware that neither is an angel. So do the voters. In India it is the party which holds power that is rejected even if the alternative is not everyone’s favourite. For the electorate, it is usually a choice between the devil and the deep sea. However, the expectation is that the years out of power will have taught the loser a lesson and that it will behave better the second time around.

There have been exceptions, of course, notably Nitish Kumar in Bihar and Naveen Patnaik in Orissa, whose performances in office have enabled them to beat the anti-cumbency factor. Or Tarun Gogoi in Assam, who has been chief minister thrice because he doesn’t face a credible opposition. But, otherwise, anti-incumbency is the norm in India.

The belief is that the high turnout of voters in UP does not portend well for Mayawati because people are more keen to throw someone out than to usher someone in. But whoever wins or loses, it is difficult to see the state itself being the victor, especially if no party gets a clear majority.