LUCKNOW, Uttar Pradesh -- "The alliance is in a coma," someone joked. "Bhai, join the BJP," said someone else, while others burst out laughing. "Or the BSP, if you have the money," a third person said to even more laughter.
This scene played out at the tea shops in front of the Lucknow Congress Party office on Mall Avenue on Friday afternoon. It was an hour after the news had spread that the Samajwadi Party (SP) - Congress alliance was in trouble. Akhilesh Yadav was acting "too pricey" in not giving the Grand Old Party even a hundred seats in the battle for Uttar Pradesh, so grumbled the Congress workers over samosas, bun-makhan and kachauris.
The banter barely hid the anger, frustration and nervousness felt by many Congress workers at the state of the SP-Congress alliance, the purpose of which is to mobilize the Muslim votes and stop the Modi juggernaut from once again taking India's most populous and politically significant state.
It was not frustration at the alliance hitting a bump, but rather that the Congress should have tried to tie up with the SP at all, just weeks ahead of the U.P. Assembly election. There are Congress workers who believe that Akhilesh was being needlessly difficult after emerging the victor from the Yadav family feud, and that the national party should stop kow-towing to the regional party.
But it is the ticket seekers who feel betrayed. With just 80 to 90 seats on the table for the Congress Party, so far, there are many whose hopes of running in the 2017 polls will be dashed.
Among them is Ali Akbar, who had been waiting for a chance to redeem himself for the past five years. He really wants the ticket to fight from a constituency in Bahraich where his father was once a legislator from the Bahujan Samajwadi Party. Ali lost in the 2012 Assembly election by a couple of thousand votes.
"I know we can win, this time. We have done very hard campaigning in the villages. The people are with us. We just need the chance," he said.
The people are with us. We just need the chance.
Just a couple of months ago, Ali was going from door-to-door, getting farmers to fill out forms as part of Rahul Gandhi's huge campaign to reach out to farmers with promises of loan waivers. The 37-year-politician said that he collected 1,36,000 forms. "What was the point of all this," he asked.
"Muslims are like tej patta"
On Friday, Congress and SP were in day-long meetings, both in Lucknow and Delhi, trying to save the alliance. At one point, UP Congress chief Raj Babbar arrived at the Congress office, and made a few remarks to the media in the midst of the sloganeering of "Long live Rahul Gandhi."
Ali waited nervously. His chances of getting a seat are weakened by the fact that there already is a winning lawmaker from the SP in the constituency he seeks. "I've been trying for 15 years now. It can be quite hard spending all that time and energy to win, and then losing by a thousand or so votes. And your fate is always in the hands of others, whether it is the voters or the party leaders," he said.
Your fate is always in the hands of others, whether it is the voters or the party leaders.
After saying this, Ali hesitated because of his reluctance to sound to critical of the bosses who hold his fate in their hands. But others encouraged him to speak freely, assuring him that not many people would read an English-language publication which is "on the Internet." Ali allowed this reporter to use his name, but he drew the line at taking a photograph. "It is a question of my future, after all," he said.
When I asked him what he felt about the alliance being aimed at mobilizing Muslims, Ali said that he would like to answer that without being associated with any party. "Muslims are like tej patta, you put it in food to make it tasty and then you throw it out when you are done."
Yadav family feud broke the Congress campaign?
Ali wasn't the only one agitated with the SP – Congress alliance. Several Congress workers and ticket hopefuls, which HuffPost India spoke with, said that it was a bad idea to have curbed the momentum of a campaign launched six months ago, and eventually depend so heavily on last-minute political machinations.
They said that the whole SP family feud "drama" broke the momentum of the Congress campaign aimed at wooing the countryside, as it had diluted the hype around demonetisation. "The leadership has made huge mistakes. We should have never gone in for an alliance. What is 80-90 seats, we can win that much even without the SP," said a Congress official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Akhilesh is insulting Rahul Gandhi and our sister Priyanka Gandhi," another worker said.
The leadership has made huge mistakes. We should have never gone in for an alliance.
In one part of the Congress Party office, sat Santosh Singh, a Congress worker for over 40 years and Kuldeep Chaudhary, a youth worker.
Singh was not in favour of the alliance. He said that it was like once again running an election on caste and religion. "People should not vote on these considerations, but only on merit, and only for things such as development, health, education and security. Now that may sound naive but unless we start changing, such kind of politics will continue on and on," he said.
Chaudhary took a practical view of the alliance. "This is to stop Modi. This is for power. Unless we are in power, how can we change things?" he said.
This is to stop Modi. This is for power. Unless we are in power, how can we change things?
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