One person I have been thinking about a lot this year is Ganga Charan Rajput. I thought of him again today as Mayawati, the supremo of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), told her party workers that they should be ready to fight a coming round of by-elections alone, raising questions on the BSP's alliance with Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh.
Relations between the two parties have been uneasy for the better part of the past three decades, but it has not always been so. There are sound reasons why it is difficult for the two parties to work together on a sustainable basis.
In 1993, the BSP under the leadership of its late founder Kanshi Ram formed a pre-poll alliance and later formed the government with outside support in a fractured Uttar Pradesh assembly with the SP then led by Akhilesh's father Mulayam Singh Yadav. That was a big setback for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The SP-BSP alliance gained at the expense of the Congress following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 but the two parties had a bitter fall-out since 1995.
I met Rajput, who used to be the president of the once-prominent Janata Dal, in the corridors of Parliament in 1993. As we got talking, he said the SP-BSP alliance would not last. "Ghoda aur ghaas ki dosti hai yeh (This is a relationship between horse and grass)," he told me. It was unthinkable then as the alliance was in great spirits and everyone thought both the BJP and Congress were finished in the state.
Rajput, who has been three times Lok Sabha member from Hamirpur and later a Rajya Sabha member, eventually landed in the BJP. I would certainly like to meet him again to pick up from where we left off.
What Rajput meant in his ghoda-ghas remark was that the Yadavs were typically land-owners and Mayawati's Dalit followers were typically landless workers. An alliance between two castes in a boss-worker relationship in the rural areas cannot last, he told me.
Yet, when I saw a confident Akhilesh and Mayawati on stage ahead of Lok Sabha elections this year, I thought they might have formed their famed bua-bhatija (aunt-nephew) bond on the back of three factors: rising urbanisation and industrialisation of India that made caste relations less oriented towards the farm, a decline of feudal-era pride as a younger Akhilesh took the reins, and the rise of the BJP that made the alliance a historical necessity.
The Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), the third angle of the SP-BSP-RLD triangle that was routed in this year's Lok Sabha elections, is dominated by the Jats, who, like the Yadavs, typically own land or businesses in which Dalits work. That is another ghoda-ghas alliance in western UP, where RLD has a higher sway than SP.
The SP and the BSP have certainly shed their old animosity. What has come in its place now is a sobering idea that what they have between them is a social marriage of convenience. Elsewhere, I have explained how the BJP has broken the back of simple caste arithmetic in Lok Sabha elections this year with a slew of development schemes targeting various sections of poor or rural voters. The SP-BSP alliance has also suffered due to the in-fighting in Mulayam's clan. The SP's 'Netaji' can no longer take for granted either his extended family or his traditional caste-based vote bank.
Mayawati's Dalits and Akhilesh's Yadavs are no longer vote banks the two leaders can comfortably rely on. There is also a clear and present danger of what they call a transfer problem, where a vote bank does not follow the wishes of a leader it has traditionally supported because it does not like the idea of an uneasy alliance. Has the ghoda-ghas syndrome hit the BSP and SP again? Only time or a grassroots-level inquiry can tell us.
My reading is that Mayawati plans to use the coming UP by-elections to test the waters once to see if her traditional vote base likes her when she goes it alone. No wonder she is not singing the break-up song yet with Akhilesh, as she underlines that her options are open.
One possibility I see is of the BSP aligning with the Congress because there is less of the ghoda-ghas relationship. The Congress once thrived on a social coalition of Brahmin, Dalit and Muslim voters in UP, when Dalits used to be called Harijans or Scheduled Castes. The Brahmin-Dalit relationship is less complicated than the Yadav-Dalit one as there is no boss-worker relationship at the farm level.
But it is clear to me that Mayawati cannot hope to be on her own in the BSP in a new political landscape in which UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and BJP president Amit Shah have made the BJP pre-eminent in a manner where any caste-based equation cannot rest on old laurels. The by-elections will be a test-tube experiment for Mayawati to test the social chemistry in her state. Let's call it her electoral R&D before she tries to find a place in a larger political alliance.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)