There’s a well-known modern fable about passengers on a train that every Indian has probably experienced, but is universal enough for even German thinker Hans Enzensberger to have described as a way to analyse social behaviour. Imagine yourself travelling comfortably in a compartment, when suddenly another passenger comes and tries aggressively to intrude into your space. You obviously react equally aggressively and try to resist, but eventually fail and resign to travelling together with a distinct air of acrimony between the two of you. Now, suddenly, at the next station, another passenger comes and pushes to create space for himself in that same zone.
At this point, the first two, who has been cohabiting with a degree of tacit animus till now, suddenly turn into allies and try jointly to resist the new entrant. And if they too fail, and the third man also squeezes in, the pattern of hostility turning into cohesive behaviour continues when a fourth man arrives and tries to entrench himself. The story of opposition politics at this stage—especially in Uttar Pradesh but even beyond, across states— resembles this fable somewhat, with just minor variations. Foes turning into allies, and assuming the shape of a united phalanx against a third trying to make an entry. The variation lies in the fact that real politics does not offer a straightforward, linear equation.
The first passenger can ditch the second and team up with the third, or whoever. If you think of Mayawati and the Congress, for instance, it is clear that— theoretically speaking, since no alliance exists as of now —any coming together can only be temporary. The sheer logic of lebensraum (literally, ‘room to live’) dictates thus. They not only need to share a coupe, they are rivals for the same seat.
If you think of Uttar Pradesh as a crowded train compartment, which is not far off the mark, it is easy to see why the status of the Congress—regardless of its old history, it’s an outsider now, seeking a way in—resembles a new claimant in the fable. Till early December, it had been hoping to subsist on the munificence of potential allies in a proposed (and much-touted) mahagathbandhan that the anti-BJP spectrum was hoping would fructify. The Assembly contests in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan put that equation off-balance, with the BSP and Congress palpably falling out over seat-sharing, having realised that it’s a zero sum game, and each can prosper only at the other’s expense.
That bit of sabre-rattling was in reality a bit of preparatory show for the difficult match-making that loomed in UP. Mayawati had been among the first to react negatively to the prospect of Congress president Rahul Gandhi, then just a heir apparent, aiming for prominence with his well-publicised visits and stayovers at Dalit homes. It was clear as air: her basic votebank would be under threat in the event of any Congress resurgence.
Now, the arrival of Priyanka Gandhi on the stage, as a general secretary in charge of eastern UP, marks a tacit uptick in the level of hostilities. Her natural flair with people makes her an even more clear and present danger for the BSP supremo. Recall only that, of the relatively healthy haul of 21 seats the Congress managed in UP in 2009, a good portion came from the eastern part of the state, which also happens to be the BSP’s stronghold. This relative escalation of Congress aggression, in the shape of Priyanka, was of course brought about by Mayawati’s intransigence on the question of admitting the GOP into the anti-BJP axis formed unilaterally by the SP-BSP. But that too had a larger reason.
Priyanka has always been considered a potential Indira reincarnation, perhaps a more amiable version of the woman potentate prototype. But she’s hardly the first. Jayalalithaa’s exit from the stage still leaves two very powerful women politicians who can, justifiably, aspire for the highest office of the land. Both Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee are would-be prime ministers.
And it is no coincidence that it is the same duo who are the main stumbling blocks behind a real, all-inclusive anti-BJP front that contains the Congress, whether or not in a leading role. Mamata, like Mayawati, naturally wants to maximise her harvest of Lok Sabha seats from the 42 seats West Bengal has, so as to bolster her claims post-May. Her unwillingness to cede even an inch is reflected in the fact that Mausam Noor, niece of the titanic A B A Ghani Khan Chowdhury, who had been till now sitting pretty in the pocketborough of Malda, the sole holdout of the GOP in Bengal, is now rumoured to be eyeing the TMC for sheer survival.
There are other obstacles, of course, most arrantly in the shape of Telangana Rashtra Samiti supremo K Chandrashekar Rao. All these are parties that will not particularly cherish the thought of a Congress resurgence, because it will inevitably eat into their own sources of sustenance. Here, one may even add the oddball figure of Arvind Kejriwal. Though negotiations have been on between AAP and its one-time bete noire (Congress), and Rahul himself had been willing to share seats in Delhi and elsewhere, this time it’s Punjab CM Capt Amarinder Singh who’s proving unwilling. And for the same reason: it’s a zero sum game. This intense backstage rivalry is what really undercuts all the on-stage bonhomie and handholding by opposition stalwarts.
Political Editor, The New Indian Express