As the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh inch closer, talks of an alliance between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Congress too are gaining momentum. Speculation grew stronger after chief minister Akhilesh Yadav started saying that a tie-up between the SP and the Congress would fetch them over 300 of the 403 Assembly seats. But not to concede his weakness, Akhilesh also issued a caveat. He said "...though it is the Samajwadis who are going to form majority government in the state". The Congress too seems not averse to this alliance given there be a "respectable" seat-sharing formula.
What they said about each other in November
On November 6, Congress’s poll strategist Prashant Kishor met SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav to explore possibilities of a “mahagathbandhan” in Uttar Pradesh on the lines of Bihar. Four days later, scotching rumours about a Bihar-like "grand alliance" to take on the BJP, he said the SP is open to mergers, but will have no pre-election alliances.
A day later, Congress (Rajya Sabha) MP Sanjay Singh hit back at the SP chief saying “an ocean does not merge in rivers and drains, it is the other way round”.
Why this change in mood
The Congress party has been out of power in Uttar Pradesh for 27 years. It is now trying its best to revive its electoral fortunes going to the extent of pushing vice president Rahul Gandhi to hold a “kisan yatra” across the state. Though that created a buzz, it didn't quite get the expected response. The party's position dipped after the BJP government’s surgical strikes inside Pak-occupied Kashmir. But the Congress feels that post-demonetisation the popularity of the BJP has declined. And they think an alliance with the SP may just be able to contain the BJP in the crucial UP elections.
|A Congress alliance with the SP may just be able to contain the BJP in the crucial UP elections.
Mayawati's strategy of social coalition building by uniting the Dalits and the Muslims has frightened the Samajwadi Party. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is posing a stiff challenge to SP and is going all out to woo the Muslim voters. Most in the SP camp believe that with the Congress as a partner, it can reinforce the Muslim-Yadav combination against the BJP. Also, the Muslim tilt towards the BSP can be stopped. It will secure a strong platform for the SP to ward off a division of Muslim votes, thereby consolidating its own position.
Who is doing the talking?
If reports are to be believed, the talks are going on at the level of Mulayam-Akhilesh from the SP side and Rahul-Priyanka on the Congress’s. And if Akhilesh is to be believed, talks are at an advanced stage. While the state presidents of both parties - Shivpal Yadav (SP) and Raj Babbar (Congress) - seem to have no clue about the talks the Congress general secretary in charge of UP, Ghulam Nabi Azad, is said to be privy to.
What Congress wants
Besides the 29 seats the Congress won in the last Assembly polls and 31 others on which it finished second, party sources say, there are some 50 other constituencies where the party has good chances. In light of this, the Congress may climb down from its earlier demand of contesting 125 seats to 110. However, Mulayam Singh Yadav is reportedly not willing to concede more than 80 seats. Another report says the Congress is demanding the deputy chief minister's post and around 100 seats.
A third report says that Congress leaders may in fact settle for anything between 60 and 70 seats, a number that includes the 20 sitting MLAs it has in the current Assembly. But the Congress agreeing to settle for so little seems to be unlikely at this stage.
When is the announcement expected?
If reports of the talks being in the final stages are to be believed then it seems that both the SP and the Congress are waiting for the announcement of election dates to go public with their alliance.
Will an SP-Congress alliance check the BJP?
Akhilesh Yadav's optimistic claims of the SP-Congress alliance winning more than 300 seats may be far-fetched but the larger game plan behind this strategy would be to dent the BJP's image. Everybody knows that India is watching and that the election in UP is not about winning or losing the state, but a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's much publicised strikes across and within the border.
After Delhi and Bihar, if the BJP gets a drubbing in UP it will certainly be a loss of face for Modi which may lead to the shattering of his carefully crafted aura of being the prize horse of the Hindutva brigade. In a way UP will decide the future of India, and the SP-Congress alliance is the biggest variable in this equation.