Has Rahul Gandhi bungled on UP alliance?

As the largest state, the importance of  in the electoral scene is universally acknowledged. While a winner is perceived as being on the road to power in Delhi, a loser is seen as a has-been with little hope.

It is understandable, therefore, why the Congress, which is eying a revival after its recent successes in the three heartland states, is seemingly desperate to make its presence felt in UP. But its problem is that it has come up against the formidable Samajwadi Party (SP)-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) combine with its 40-plus per cent vote share which is expected to trounce the BJP.

Ever since the combine and its ally, the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), defeated the BJP in several by-elections in the state, the political chatterati had taken it for granted that the three parties would be able to register a similar success in the parliamentary election.

The SP, BSP and RLD had stitched up, therefore, an alliance between them for 78 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in the state, leaving to the Congress its two pocket boroughs of Amethi and Rae Bareli from where Rahul and Sonia Gandhi contest the elections.

However, to the 134-year-old party such an offer was unacceptable. Although the Congress with a mere six per cent of the votes is only a shadow of its former self in UP, it is unwilling to play second fiddle to the SP and BSP with their 21.9 and 22.2 per cent vote shares.

The no-longer-Grand-Old-Party has decided, therefore, to form a second alliance comprising itself, the Pragatisheel Samajwadi Party of the SP leader, Akhilesh Yadav’s estranged uncle, Shivpal Yadav, and the young, firebrand Dalit leader, Chandrashekhar Azad “Raavan”.

Will this division of the “secular” vote help the BJP? Should Rahul have got off his high horse to seek accommodation with Mayawati although the temperamental Dalit supremo has been distancing herself from the Congress ever since she walked out of an alliance with it in Chhattisgarh to side with Ajit Jogi?

Similarly, shouldn’t have Akhilesh Yadav tried to convince his bua (aunty) the virtues of sticking together against a common enemy and laying the cornerstone of a state-level mahagathbandhan? Or is he too scared of the whimsical czarina to hint at a reconciliation with the Congress which, she suspects, is intent on undercutting her Dalit base? In fact, the Congress’s tie-up with Chandrashekhar Azad will confirm her worst misgivings about the party.

Mayawati’s decision to campaign for the aging SP patriarch, Mulayam Singh Yadav, is probably her way of saying “thanks” to Akhilesh, although Mulayam was firmly opposed to the SP-BSP tie-up and had also expressed the wish in parliament that Narendra Modi should be PM again.

Cross-currents of this nature has also seen the Congress soften its stance a little by deciding not to field candidates against Akhilesh, Mayawati, Ajit Singh and Jayant Chaudhury, the last two being RLD leaders.

But the end result is that there will be a three-cornered contest in UP, which, conventional political calculations suggest, will benefit the BJP. But there are other calculations, too. One is while the Yadavs of the SP and Dalits of the BSP will both support the two parties, the traditional Congress voter – upper caste, middle class, liberal – will not.

The Congress’s decision to stay away from the SP and the BSP, therefore, will not greatly hurt the two parties. But it can hurt the BJP by cutting into its upper caste base. At the same time, it is difficult to see the Congress gaining considerably from its alliances with Shivpal Yadav, who doesn’t have the most creditable of reputations, and Chandrashekhar Azad, a new entrant in big-time politics. Evidently, these alliances are in the nature of a surly dig at th SP and the BSP, which the Congress could have avoided.

If the Congress felt offended by the SP’s and the BSP’s self-serving conduct, it could have fought on its own in a limited number of seats. There is little doubt if the BJP gains because of the three-way division of votes, the Congress and, especially Rahul, will have to bear much of the blame.

Since UP and the general election itself are Rahul’s first big test, he should have taken greater care in charting his political course by choosing the right friends and identifying the real enemy, for it will take quite some time for him and his party to recover from a setback. Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam (TDP) are said to be among the leaders who have advised Rahul as well as Akhilesh and Mayawati to act unitedly against the BJP.

The Congress president should have paid greater heed to these senior leaders and well-wishers – both of whom had once been in the Congress – rather than to the likes of Ghulam Nabi Azad of his own party who initially wanted the Congress to contest all the 80 seats, a goal far beyond the party’s capability. Rahul has to realise that a churlish attitude has no place in politics where patience and a spirit of give-and-take play a large role.

Amulya Ganguli is a freelance journalist. Views are personal.

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