22/01/2017 1:19 PM IST | Updated 11/03/2017 8:08 AM IST

For A Chance At Uttar Pradesh, The Grand Old Party Swallows Its Pride And Feels The Burn 

"Don't they know that every Indian is a Congress-wallah?"

Pawan Kumar / Reuters

LUCKNOW, Uttar Pradesh -- "Foolish, very foolish," is how a leather businessman described the Congress Party in a recent conversation about the state of its alliance with the Samajwadi Party. "Victory is important, but so is the respectability of the party," he said.

While frantic negotiations to save the alliance were underway over the weekend, the mood within the Congress cadres was one of confusion. It came down to much heaving and sighing over why the national party found itself in a situation of beseeching a regional party for a 100 seats or so in the upcoming U.P. Assembly election.

The paramount consideration for the Congress and the SP is to stop Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party in its tracks. The Congress has been out of power in U.P. for almost 28 years. With anti-incumbency afflicting the Samajwadi government and the negativism of family feuds, the alliance partners hope to neutralize each other's shortcomings. Most importantly, they hope to mobilize the Muslim vote against the BJP.

Local Congressmen have pointed out that the SP is likely to benefit more by the alliance than the Congress, complaining that the SP is already fielding more candidates from the Muslim-majority constituencies. While the partnership will consolidate the Muslim vote to the benefit for both parties, they point out, only candidates fielded in the Muslim-heavy constituencies will have a clear advantage.

"What do they think of us. We are a party that is 150-years-old. They have been around for less than 30 years. Don't they know that every Indian is a Congress-wallah?" a party official snorted on Saturday when the alliance appeared to be dead.

What do they think of us. We are a party that is 150-years-old. They have been around for less than 30 years.

By Sunday afternoon, however, both parties had agreed on 105 seats for the Congress and 298 for the SP.

The news would come as a blow to those party workers who had rushed back to their constituencies on Saturday evening, enthused that they would actually get a chance to contest. "Enough is enough," said a party worker. "It is now our time to fight. If we have to go down, we'll go down with all guns blazing."

It is now our time to fight. If we have to go down, we'll go down with all guns blazing

NurPhoto via Getty Images

After campaigning for so hard and for so long, did the Congress leaders really not believe that the party could win even a 100 seats in the upcoming polls, many had wondered. People talked about the blow to the morale of those who had spent months campaigning under the banner of "27 Saal, U.P. Behaal," believing that the party would contest all the 403 seats. And what would be the fate of those who had spent months investing their time and money in the hope of getting a ticket.

READ: A Congress Ticket Aspirant In Lucknow Rues How Muslims Are Treated: 'Like 'Tej Patta', Used And Discarded'

When Prashant Kishor started working as a strategist for the Congress Party earlier in the year, he had injected professionalism and meritocracy into the campaign. The message had gone out that tickets would go to those who worked hard at the grassroots. The cadres were galvanized. Ticket seekers went door- to-door collecting signatures and maang patras from millions across the state as part of Rahul Gandhi's Kisan Yatra. He had promised "karza maaf, bijli ka bill half, and MSP ka do hisaab." Then, a 40 day Dalit Yatra, highlighting Dalit issues, covered 66 districts and 85 reserved constituencies, once again incentivising young leaders of the community.

NurPhoto via Getty Images

Despite the kisan and Dalit yatras, the Congress continued to languish in the polls, making an alliance the route to survival. But in focusing on the imperative of winning through this alliance, would the Congress dishearten the thousands of young people who had campaigned so earnestly in the hoping of winning U.P. Ultimately, their hard work had come down to haggling over 10 to 15 seats.

While the short-term gains of power-sharing for the Congress Party are obvious, the long-term implications of building and strengthening a grassroots cadre for the future cannot be overlooked.

Ultimately, their hard work had come down to haggling over 10 to 15 seats.

The Need For An Alliance

If the alliance had not been cemented, the Muslim vote could have either split three ways or gone enbloc to Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party, either way benefiting the BJP. While broadening the political constituency of the "secular forces," the Congress would also get a helping hand from the traditional Samajwadi loyalists like the Yadavs.

Things had brightened for the Congress when the Akhilesh Yadav-faction of the SP won the "cycle" symbol, which would strengthen the alliance. But the SP playing hardball over the weekend has broken the momentum.

One Congress worker rather resentfully added that Akhilesh had forgotten who had got him the "cycle" symbol, referring to Kapil Sibal, the Congress leader who had represented him before the EC.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

How much did the Congress need this alliance? Congress sources told HuffPost India that the party would have proceeded with the alliance even if the Akhilesh-faction had not won the "cycle" symbol. It would have been difficult to go alone.

Besides the numbers tell the story. The decline in Congress assembly seats (total 425 till 1996, and 403 subsequently) was from 269 (1985) to 94 (1989). Then, the precipice: 46 (1991); 28 (1993); 33 (1996); 25 (2002); 22 (2007); 28 (2012).

READ: Why Babri Masjid, Ramjanmabhumi, Yogi Adityanath And Azam Khan Stand Muted In The Battle For Uttar Pradesh

Mohammed, a street-side shoemaker, said that he had always voted for the Congress, but this time he would consider voting for the BSP. The SP he ruled out because of the "poor law and order." When this reporter asked him whether he believed the situation would improve under Akhilesh, not tied down by the old guard, he shrugged and said, "but the party is the same."

On why he would ditch the Congress this time around, Mohammed said, "I don't know what their intentions are. It is unclear. I am confused."

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