POLITICS

We Don't Realise Just How Unusual Is The Congress-Samajwadi Alliance In UP

The real challenge is to create the magic that is required to win.

24/01/2017 10:30 PM IST | Updated 24/01/2017 11:12 PM IST
Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav with his wife Dimple Yadav and other state MPs during the Winter Session at Parliament.

Having achieved what their parents never managed to, Rahul Gandhi, sister Priyanka Vadra and Akhilesh Yadav now face a formidable challenge. They have to throw off the weight of the chequered history between their respective parties to generate a chemistry that will make their arithmetic win in UP's complex electoral matrix.

The newly minted Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance for the upcoming UP assembly polls defied all odds to take shape. Mulayam Singh opposed it till the very end. So did his brother Shivpal and best buddy Amar Singh. Congress elders were reluctant too. There were too many unhappy memories of betrayal and disappointment going back nearly three decades.

If Sonia Gandhi was hesitant because of bitter personal experience, she kept her counsel to herself in the face of her children's determination. In the end, she even stepped in to lend a helping hand when the alliance talks floundered and almost broke off.

It is clear from Akhilesh's desperation to seal a deal with the Congress and his generous offer of 105 seats to a near comatose party that the youthful SP leader is not cut from the same cloth as his father. He lacks Mulayam's killer instinct that made the SP patriarch a canny leader who built his party from scratch at the cost of the Congress.

Pawan Kumar / Reuters
A Samajwadi (SP) party worker holds a toy bicycle representing the party's symbol and a poster of chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Akhilesh Yadav.

Rewind to 1989, when Mulayam bailed out the minority Congress government of N D Tiwari in UP only to withdraw support and force an early election in the state. Mulayam won that election by snatching away the Muslim base of the Congress to craft what would prove to be a winning MY (Muslim-Yadav) social alliance in the decades ahead. Many in the Congress believe that the decline of the Congress in UP began with the decision to tango with Mulayam, facilitating the cross over to SP by the Muslims.

Yet, two years on, before the 1991 Lok Sabha polls, Rajiv Gandhi made strenuous efforts for an electoral pact with Mulayam in the hope that the Muslim vote would come back to the Congress and help him script his return to power. Mulayam led Rajiv on in the beginning. Just when Rajiv thought a deal was happening, Mulayam suddenly called off the secret talks, leaving the Congress high and dry. The Grand Old Party, caught in the middle of high octane mandir-Mandal politics, was almost wiped out of UP.

Eight years later, when the Vajpayee government fell, Sonia Gandhi turned to Mulayam for help to form an alternative government despite her late husband's unhappy experience with the Yadav chieftain. Mulayam played the same game with Sonia. He led her to believe that his party would back her alternative government, prompting her to make her infamous boast outside Rashtrapati Bhavan: "We have 272 (MPs) and more are coming."

He ditched her at the eleventh hour, leaving Sonia looking foolish and naive. Elections were called and Vajpayee swept back to power with his NDA.

Akhilesh has eschewed his father's politics. His decision to bury the hatchet with a party hated by Mulayam may be driven by the changing political landscape in UP.

The trust deficit between Mulayam and the Congress surfaced again when the Congress formed a minority government in 2004 with outside support from the Left. Mulayam's SP had 36 MPs and offered to back the Congress government but Sonia turned a cold shoulder to him. Amar Singh, then Mulayam's Man Friday and chief negotiator, was not even invited to the celebratory dinner when the Manmohan Singh government took office. He gatecrashed as a guest of Left leader Harkishan Singh Surjeet but was denied a seat at the high table.

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Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi with sister Priyanka Gandhi.

Four years later, Mulayam rescued the Manmohan Singh government when the Left pulled out over the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. His 36 MPs voted in favour of the Congress during a messy trust vote but were denied cabinet berths in the government after days of rancorous negotiations. Mulayam has never forgiven the Congress for the humiliation of those years.

The heirs seem willing to put all this bitter history behind them. But they have to be able to carry their parties with them on this new path of friendship, overturning decades of hostility. The Yadavs have not voted with the Congress for more than 50 years, after Charan Singh walked out to form his own peasant party of the middle castes.

Mulayam's own politics has revolved around strident anti-Congressism as he poached with impunity on the GOP's Muslim base.

The heirs seem willing to put all this bitter history behind them. But they have to be able to carry their parties with them on this new path of friendship, overturning decades of hostility.

Akhilesh has eschewed his father's politics. His decision to bury the hatchet with a party hated by Mulayam may be driven by the changing political landscape in UP. Akhilesh not only faces the threat of a BJP resurgence in UP, BSP leader Mayawati's is making a determined bid to snatch away his Muslim base.

The Congress has lost so much ground in UP over the past 30 years that it brings very little to the table today except to inject a symbolic secular value that would help to attract Muslims.

Akhilesh has two tasks cut out for him. One is to convince his Yadav voters that it's OK to go with the hated Congress. The other is to ensure that an over emphasis on secularism does not end up polarizing the Hindu vote.

It's a glamorous thought that Priyanka will campaign with Akhilesh's wife Dimple and Rahul will campaign with Akhilesh. The real challenge is to create the magic that is required to win.

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