The Congress and Samajwadi Party have an intriguing connection—an event which led to the formation of one and resulted in the fall of the other in Uttar Pradesh. The Mandal upsurge in 1992 led to the formation of the SP and the demise of the Congress in UP. Mulayam Singh saw the political space created by the decline of the Congress, what it meant for socially marginalized groups and how the power could be shared. He gave a socialist voice to the population ignored by the upper caste leadership. Twenty-five years later, both parties stand weakened and looking for a possible alliance to recapture their lost glory.
While Rahul is leading the campaign with foot rallies and connecting with farmers, the father-son duo of the ruling Yadav family are twisted in their own power struggle.
The SP's family feud has shaken up all the poll-strategists, and sent them scurrying for their drawing boards to chalk out alliances and forge mergers. The Bharatiya Janata Party and Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party are holding strong front-lines and are not likely to form any alliances. The BJP has won accolades with the Narendra Modi-led government taking strong action against Pakistan and carrying out military surgical strikes. Mayawati is confident that all the Muslims voters will leave SP and align with BSP in the forthcoming UP assembly.
The focus now is on how Congress and Samajwadi Party will come out of the current political imbroglio. The SP has been at the centre of controversy ever since the time it formed a coalition ministry in UP. Since 1998, its focus has been to carry on its anti-BJP politics while also avoiding joining a coalition led by the Congress. For a long time, ties between the SP and Congress have been fractious, and both parties are in a constant battle to win over Muslims, a community crucial for their performance in the state that sends the highest number of MPs to the Lok Sabha.
However, the present day situation is ripe for a pre-poll alliance. However, while the Mulayam-led SP seems interested, the Congress appears reluctant.
The Congress insists that Rahul Gandhi's recent padyatra was focused not on gaining power but on setting things right in Uttar Pradesh which has been suffering for the past 27 years in the hands of the SP, BSP and BJP. Hence Congress, on the face of it, is unlikely to form an alliance with a party that has been partly responsible for making "UP behal."
Still, in sharp contrast to the Congress's statements, the party's strategist Prashant Kishor is keenly sought after by JD (U), RJD, RLD and SP. Shivpal Yadav's meeting with Kishor on the behest of party strongholds, is believed to be arranged by JD (U) leader KC Tyagi.
It's all in the timing
For the Congress, the Samajwadi drama couldn't have come at a better time. While Rahul is leading the campaign with foot rallies and trying to build a connect with the farmers, the father-son duo of the ruling Yadav family are twisted in their own power struggle. This has shifted the focus from the Akhilesh's promise to give out free mobile phones to Rahul's assurance of loan waivers to the farmers. The Congress's CM candidate for UP Sheila Dikshit considers the SP situation beneficial for the Congress as some senior leaders from ruling Samajwadi Party may join the Congress. The three-time Chief Minister of Delhi is confident of an impressive performance by Congress in the UP Assembly polls with the party on a revival course.
Amidst rumours of grand alliance floating around, Congress legislators from Uttar Pradesh are favouring such a move. The Congress cannot afford to go solo in the forthcoming elections and an alliance can save the party from another embarrassing defeat. With the BJP rising as a major force after the public wave of appreciation following the military surgical strikes, all parties in UP seem to be leaning towards forging a formidable alliance to pull down the BJP.
Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav have supported each other on various occasions, setting off speculation of a tie-up between the younger generation in parties run by the old guard.
Mayawati, meanwhile, has shown complete disinterest in forming any sort of alliance with the Congress. She is quite sure of coming back to power in UP, hoping for a complete switch of SP's Muslim votebank in BSP's favour. The Congress's weak position has failed repeatedly in getting Mayawati's attention. The intricate and perplexing state of affairs that the Samajwadi Party is in at the present moment also makes it an unlikely alliance partner. If the breakup within the party happens, then whether the Mulayam-led faction will seek Congress first or Akhilesh, will depend on their internal equations. If Mulayam Singh is able to bridge the gap between his son and brother, then the best case scenario for Congress would be to tie up with Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal along with other smaller parties like Mohammed Ayub's Peace Party, Apna Dal, Krishna Patel faction and others representing MBC castes. With the Congress already having pledged reservations for MBCs within the quota of OBCs, many more supports will join in.
If SP breaks
The Samajwadi Party's UP chief, Shivpal Yadav, has hinted that he would be open to a tie-up with the Congress to defeat "communal forces" in the polls. According to some insiders, the party supremo, Mulayam Singh Yadav is keen on forging a grand alliance on the lines of the one in Bihar, which brought the JD(U), RJD and Congress to power in the 2015 state elections. However, this alliance might not be the Congress's saviour. The other faction, led by the current CM Akhilesh Yadav, has wider acceptance in the state for his developmental policies and clean image, one which will benefit Congress too. Both Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav have supported each other on various occasions, setting off speculation of a tie-up between the younger generation in parties run by the old guard. Unlike their parties, both Rahul and Akhilesh have progressive images.
With the imminent split in SP, Muslims will now look for an alternative party. This community, constituting 18-19% of the state population, influences around 140 assembly seats. Muslims have traditionally been SP supporters, though they have been suffering under the deteriorating law and order situation under the party's rule. Thus, the Muslim vote-bank might shift in favour of BSP. Muslims have always voted for a party or an alliance which is in a position to keep BJP out of the state. If both SP and Congress succeed in retaining their Muslim vote-bank, together both the parties can hope for 16-17% of overall vote share, half of what is needed to win the polls. The SP-Congress alliance will be the most viable option for the falling giants.
It's time for Rahul stop running away as he has in the past and put his act together for the Congress's sake.
In the event of BJP coming to power in UP, it will be an opportunity for Rahul to consolidate the Congress vote-bank back from both BSP and SP, for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. For working out an alliance, a deft strategy will have to follow for 2019 as the SP's Yadav base will not mind voting for Congress for Lok Sabha. An SP-Congress alliance will be a win-win situation for both the parties, as neither has any chance of winning the 2017 elections on their win. The SP will benefit from the consolidation of Muslims as well as a section of the Congress's Brahmin voters. The Congress will benefit from the SP's cadres and its grassroots workers, something which it has a shortfall of in the state.
The challenge, however, rests with Rahul as both the party and people's expectations are growing significantly. At this juncture, Rahul Gandhi needs a crystal clear vision of the party's goals. Whatever decision is taken in the wake of the situation in UP will decide the fate of Congress in the state where it has been out of power for over 25 years. It's time for Rahul stop running away as he has in the past and put his act together for the Congress's sake.