When die hard Third Fronters share a platform with top Congress leaders at a time when UP polls are round the corner, it's bound to spark speculation about a Bihar-style grand alliance to take on the BJP in the country's politically most crucial state. But is something really cooking or is chatter about a SP-Congress-RLD-JD(U) pact in UP just part of the noise that ebbs and flows in election season?
The buzz about a grand alliance in the making began even before the function started. The occasion was the release of a book on the life of north India's most prominent Jat peasant leader, Charan Singh. The venue was the sprawling Lutyens Delhi residence of a Charan Singh acolyte, Sharad Yadav of the JD(U).
The guests included a galaxy of leaders who have been associated with Third Front politics at some point in their careers: Sharad Pawar, Deve Gowda, Ajit Singh, Devi Lal's great grandson and possibly his political heir, Dushyant Chautala. And from the Congress came Ghulam Nabi Azad who is handling UP for his party and Ahmed Patel, Sonia Gandhi's all powerful political secretary.
The buzz grew louder as they mixed freely and chatted like old friends. An alliance is likely to be announced within 48 hours, announced breaking news on TV.
Except that one crucial element of a grand alliance was missing: SP supremo and patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav. Sharad Yadav had spoken to him personally the previous day to request him to be present. After all, Charan Singh was Mulayam's political teacher and mentor.
But Mulayam chose not to come. Instead, he sent the one man who makes the Congress see red, Amar Singh. And the dislike is mutual. Amar Singh will do everything in his power to scuttle a SP-Congress understanding in UP.
The presence of Amar Singh at what was expected to be the springboard for a grand alliance was the strongest signal yet from Mulayam that he is simply not interested in a pre-poll pact on his home turf with any party, least of all the Congress.
It was also Mulayam's way of snubbing, for the nth time, his son and UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, who is openly hostile towards Amar Singh and has asked for him to be expelled from the party.
The warring Yadav clan may have hugged and made up in public on Mulayam's orders but it's clear that the family feud is far from over. The tussle over a grand alliance to fight the UP polls is simply another manifestation of the ongoing tug-of-war between Akhilesh and his uncle Shivpal Yadav for political control of the party.
It is now quite clear that Akhilesh is the one pushing for a grand alliance. In fact, he was the first to talk to the media about the possibility of a pact with the Congress for next year's polls. An alliance between SP, Congress and RLD is good arithmetic, at least on paper. Apart from SP's Yadav votes and RLD's Jat votes, the alliance would most likely consolidate Muslim votes on one side and possibly attract some upper caste groups, particularly the traders and shopkeepers who have been badly hit by demonetization. It makes for a winning combination if it can whip up some chemistry too.
But arithmetic is not the only reason Akhilesh wants a pact. A tie-up with other parties, especially the Congress, would add muscle to Akhilesh in his fight with uncle Shivpal and help him to cut out Shivpal's nominees when the battle over ticket distribution starts. Akhilesh has a good rapport with both Rahul Gandhi and Nitish Kumar and expects them to rally around him when his uncle gets rough.
It makes for a winning combination if it can whip up some chemistry too.
Shivpal knows this and is fighting tooth and nail to stop the alliance from happening. He has a strong ally in Amar Singh whose relationship with the Congress went to pieces after it refused to induct SP and him into government in 2008 in return for supporting the UPA on the controversial Indo-US civilian nuclear deal.
At every turn in the family feud so far, Mulayam has sided with his brother and with Amar Singh. He has ticked off Akhilesh for demanding that Amar Singh be expelled. Amar Singh is my brother, Mulayam declared at a press conference once. And he has propped up Shivpal in the party and government, forcing Akhilesh to re-induct his uncle in the cabinet after he expelled him for reasons of questionable integrity.
However much goodwill Akhilesh may command with the public, Mulayam remains the boss in SP. He will decide whether there will be a grand alliance or not.
However much goodwill Akhilesh may command with the public, Mulayam remains the boss in SP. He will decide whether there will be a grand alliance or not. So far, he's made it clear that he doesn't want it. Sending Amar Singh to the book release function was another reminder of his opposition.
But Akhilesh is not one to give up so easily, particularly when his political future is at stake. The tussle will continue and so will the speculation.
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