As the humiliating treatment of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh by the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the matter of seat distribution for the parliamentary polls, and the party’s defiant response show, the 134-year political patriarch is currently battling both the ghosts of its past and apprehensions about its freshly kindled hopes of the future among its opponents. The discourtesy towards the Congress was evident not only in the allocation of two seats out of 80 to it in the state by the SP-BSP alliance, which has set itself up as the arbiter of electoral arrangements in UP, but also in the cutting comments by the BSP czarina Mayawati about the Congress’s unreliability in the matter of the exchange of votes between the allies.
The eagerness of SP’s Akhilesh Yadav to fall over backwards to accommodate Mayawati’s wishes, even claiming that he will be happy to see her become the prime minister, has evidently prevented him from ensuring, probably against his best intentions, that the others such as the Congress and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) are not treated shabbily. Akhilesh is so focussed at present on repairing the SP’s longstanding fraught relations with the BSP that he has become seemingly oblivious of the damaging effect of his kowtowing to Mayawati on the proposed gathbandhans (alliances) inside and outside UP to the BJP’s delight.
While the RLD is likely to be placated at a future date, the possibility of the breach between the Congress and the SP-BSP combine being healed looks dim. The probable reason is that the relatively new parties like the SP, which emerged in the early 1990s in the wake of the Janata Party’s disintegration, and the BSP, which was formed in 1984, still recall with unease the period of the Congress’s dominance in the post-Independence years when the predecessors of these parties were at their wit’s end about ways counter the political behemoth
Although the Congress is no longer what it was, the apprehensions about its capabilities remain, mainly in the BSP, if only because at one time the Dalits (or Harijans, as they were called then) formed a substantial chunk of the Congress’s base of support along with the Muslims and the upper castes. ,Her fear apparently is that if and when the Congress recovers from its 2014 drubbing, it may gradually win back some of the support which it used to receive from the Dalits earlier since they may gravitate towards the shelter of a national party instead of depending only on a one-person party like the BSP with a leader who has had alliances with the “Manuvadi” BJP in the past.
Little wonder that Mayawati used to mock Rahul Gandhi for the nights he used to spend in Dalit villages by saying that he had to soap himself on going home. Although she appeared to have mellowed recently as when she attended H D Kumaraswamy’s swearing-in ceremony as the Karnataka chief minister along with Sonia and Rahul Gandhi and other non-BJP leaders, she made a sudden U-turn by walking out of the seat-sharing negotiations with the Congress in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and fighting on her own or with a state-based ally with less than satisfactory results.
The reason for her volte-face has never been clear. Congress leader Digvijay Singh attributed it to the pressure exerted on her by the Narendra government via the different investigative agencies while others said that the Congress found her demand for seats too high. Whatever the reason, Mayawati’s attitude towards the Congress has suddenly become exceptionally critical with her equating the Congress with the BJP. There is little doubt that a diffident Akhilesh Yadav is going along with her for the moment.
But the Congress has to be far more circumspect in its response if only because it has to keep the broad perspective of building up a credible anti-BJP alliance at the national level in mind rather than be preoccupied only with one state like the SP and the BSP. It was intemperate, therefore, of the Congress to say that it would contest all the 80 seats in UP – a huffy tactic which would only benefit the BJP. Instead, the Congress should first try to rebuild its ties with the SP and BSP with the help of intermediaries if need be.
If that endeavour fails, the Congress should concentrate on a fewer number of seats in UP and describe its opposition to the SP and the BSP in those seats as friendly fights. As a national party which is on the path of recovery and reclaiming its place as a force to reckon with, the conduct of the Congress must be far more restrained and responsible than of any regional party. It must be careful not to validate the BJP’s charge of an opposition gathbandhan as majboor (weak and helpless).
Amulya Ganguli is a freelance journalist. Views are personal.