Byelections are normally not an indicator like general or state elections. While this is true, the recent bypolls, particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, have their own story to tell and it might have a bearing on the 2009 general election.
First, Mayawati is not on the wane as her detractors had hoped. Her Bahujan Samaj Party won all the five seats in UP, retaining three and wresting two from others.
Even though she has now been in power for just under a year, Mayawati has again worsted the two mainline parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, and the two regional outfits, the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal. The BSP got the better of the RLD candidate in Jatland -- despite the influence of Ajit Singh and her spat with farmer leader Mahendra Singh Tikait which might have polarised the Jats against her -- though the RLD did put up a tough fight in Muradnagar, and lost the seat by only 6,000 votes.
As far as the Congress and the BJP go, the less said about their performance, the better. Both lost their deposits in four constituencies.
The Samajwadi Party remains the main challenger to the BSP but was not able to catch up with the ruling party. The moral of the by-poll story: the opposition will have to unite if it wants to battle the ruling BSP in UP. Since the Congress and the SP cannot join hands with the BJP, they will have to align with each other and the RLD in order to take on Mayawati.
Ever since it upped the ante against Mayawati, the Congress had opened its channels of communication with the SP. It is possible that the recent by-poll results will push both parties towards each other. The prospect of staying out of power both at the state and the Centre for five years cannot be an appealing one for Mulayam Singh Yadav.
The Congress has sporadically tried to explore the possibilities of a relationship with Ajit Singh but it was not clear to the RLD leaders if the negotiators had the approval and authorisation of Congress President Sonia Gandhi, and nothing came of the efforts.
The story was not very different in Betul in Madhya Pradesh, a seat which was retained by the BJP, though by a smaller margin. Last time the party won it by 162,000 votes, this time the margin of victory came down to 35,000. The Congress could have wrested this seat from the BJP, had it worked out an understanding with the SP. The SP candidate in Betul, Sunilam, a former socialist and a sitting MLA, stood no chance of winning. In fact he lost his deposit. But by garnering 25,000 votes, he damaged the Congress. An understanding with him might have resulted in transferring some of his votes to the Congress.
As for Mayawati she is following her North Star. Her eyes are now set on the country's top 'gaddi' and she will pull out all stops to get there. Her responses are swift. Look at the way she reacted to Rahul Gandhi's foray into Bundelkhand, suspending a top official in Jhansi within hours. She need not have displayed the kind of nervousness that she did for she had just won all the five seats in UP and the Congress had come a cropper. But Mayawati knows the potential of what the 'yuvraj' of the Congress is doing.
Rahul Gandhi is young and good looking, from UP, has impeccable family credentials, acceptable to his party, but more important, it is after a long time that a Congress leader has stayed and supped with Dalits and tribals in their huts. He sat on dharna outside the Jhansi divisional commissioner's residence in the scorching sun, compelling the official to meet the farmers for the implementation of National Rural Employment Guarantee Act which is seen as his baby.
It can be argued that the Rahul line on Dalits -- that Mayawati is only taking them for a ride -- is not going to cut ice with the community for her rise has meant they are able to hold their heads high, even if they have not yet got their due. Yet there is a restiveness in Mayawati's rank and file for a share in the economic pie. Rahul took the bull by the horns, which he did in the drought affected areas of UP. Much will depend on how he follows it up and whether he will 'be back' as he promised. It is the only way for the Congress to revive. And Mayawati is taking no chances and threatened to withdraw support to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance at the Centre.
The bypolls -- and other related events -- have shown the way the regional parties are getting their act together and reaching out to each other in preparation for the coming state polls and for 2009.
Ever since she won in UP, Mayawati has been trying to spread her wings in other states. She is expected to damage the Congress in nine states -- Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Delhi, Gujarat, Karnataka and Maharashtra. The BSP's denting the Congress base is bound to help the BJP enlarge its space in states where it has a presence.
In UP, political observers do not discount the possibility of the BJP nudging its voters in the direction of the BSP, if it feels it is not winning a particular seat. As things stand, L K Advani will need the BSP -- tricky though Mayawati will be as an ally -- if he is to have a shot at prime ministership. She is clearly pitching for 70 seats, even though she talks about getting 100. Given the Congress's attacks against Mayawati, there is bound to be a natural, though tacit, gravitation of the BJP and the BSP towards each other.
Lalu Yadav's uncharacteristic meeting with Mulayam SinghYadav and with another bete noire Ram Vilas Paswan recently are also straws in the wind. None of the three are riding high at the moment and could do with each other's support -- Lalu and Paswan in Bihar to take on Nitish Kumar, and Lalu and Mulayam to signal a consolidation of Yadavs in both states.
Nitish Kumar and the Janata Dal-United are also repositioning themselves. The BJP leadership in New Delhi said it was not aware of Nitish's cabinet 'reshuffle' which was more than the removal of deadwood from his ministry. The JD-U, which has faced problems with the BJP on seat sharing in Karnataka, may want to create an impression before elections that it is distancing itself from the saffron force, so as to gain the goodwill of the minorities in Bihar.
It is evident that the regional parties want to strengthen themselves for whichever scenario the next big battle throws up. It could be UPA again, or NDA or it could be an enlarged United National Progressive Alliance, which may be supported by other regional parties and which the Congress may be compelled to support.
Clearly alliances will be key for the Congress and the BJP, and for that matter the UNPA, in 2009 and in the state polls in the Hindi heartland later this year. The just held bypolls have only underscored this.