AT A STUMP SPEECH IN LUCKNOW on 2 March this year, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi resurrected a pet formulation of his, invoking the destruction of his rivals in Uttar Pradesh: “Sabka vinaash taye hain” (Everyone’s destruction is certain). The syllables of “sabka,” or “everyone’s,” were understood to stand for the initials of the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, and the Congress respectively. Two days later, the BSP’s leader, Mayawati, made an uncharacteristic riposte at a press conference in Delhi. She is not a speaker known for her rhetorical flourish, but her indictment of the BJP took on some of the vigour and flavour of Modi’s own dramatic national campaign. The initials of the BJP, she proclaimed to listening journalists, stood for “‘Bahut jyada paap’ ka ghara,” a vessel too full of sin. She went further, making withering mockery of Narendra Modi’s “chappan inch chaati (56 inch chest),” and taunting him about his past, which she claimed had shown that he could neither do his duty to his family, nor his job.
The sledging underlined a new intensity of purpose for Behenji. She was sounding a battle cry—during a rare interaction with the media—just a few days before the official proclamation of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. It indicated just how closely the battle for Uttar Pradesh may turn out to be a contest between Modi and Mayawati.
Over the last year, the BJP’s campaign in India’s most populous state has been cleverly calibrated by Amit Shah, the lieutenant Modi handpicked to accomplish a famous victory. Shah incorporated a three-prong strategy which leveraged his leader’s strong Hindutva credentials, a formidable top-to-middle caste alliance and the mantra of the Gujarat model of development, and propelled the party ahead in the electoral race. Now, BJP strategists privately acknowledge that Mayawati poses perhaps the only tangible threat to their brilliantly executed plan to capture New Delhi. The Modi campaign in Uttar Pradesh is backed by a redoubtable consolidation of upper and middle castes, supported by a section of upwardly mobile backward communities; its leaders recognise that only the BSP can stitch together an alliance of social groups capable of meeting this head on. “Behenji alone has the potential to dislocate what we believe is an unstoppable force that has gathered across Uttar Pradesh to make Narendra Modi the new prime minister of the country,” a party leader involved in the Uttar Pradesh campaign told me. “We will be foolish to underestimate her.”
Mayawati and her BSP pose a serious arithmetic obstacle to the BJP’s target of more than two hundred seats in the general election to come. To achieve this goal, the BJP must win forty to fifty seats in Uttar Pradesh, its chief battleground. But the stakes in this region are as high for Mayawati as they are for Modi. She knows she has to stop her party slipping backwards, as it has ever since its rout in the 2012 assembly polls, in which she lost her absolute majority to her rivals, the Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav.
Further cause for worry and mortification came late last year, with the BSP’s humiliating reverses in the recent assembly elections held across four states in north India. From the seventeen assembly seats it won in 2008 in Rajasthan, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the BSP slid by over 50 percent to win just eight in 2013. The loss underlined the sharp erosion of support for a party which had grown steadily over two previous decades. If she is unable to project herself as a winner in the near future, the danger is that even her core vote bank of Jatav-caste voters, still loyal to the BSP, will no longer remain captive.