POLITICS
06/01/2019 11:57 PM IST | Updated 07/01/2019 2:22 PM IST

State Elections Won, Rahul Gandhi Plays Hardball in UP With SP, BSP

Congress leaders feel the recent wins in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, have given their party much-needed leverage.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

LUCKNOW/NEW DELHI —“We’re a national party, it’s time to act like it,” said a senior Congress Party leader in Delhi summing up Rahul Gandhi’s approach to the 2019 general election.

Buoyed by state election wins in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Congress president is ready to drive a much harder deal in alliances with regional parties, particularly in Uttar Pradesh — where the party has struggled to stitch a three way alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) supremo Mayawati.

Now, the senior Congress leader said, Gandhi was ready to play hardball in seat-sharing negotiations with the SP and BSP.

In the recently concluded elections, the Congressman said, the SP and BSP made it clear that a future alliance in UP hung in the balance, but Congress did not give them the seats they wanted.

After Congress won the highest number of seats in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, Mayawati and Yadav were forced to extend their support in order to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) out of power, but the Congress gave neither party a ministerial berth in either state.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior Congress leader in Uttar Pradesh said that this was Gandhi making it clear that “Congress was the senior negotiating partner and you are the junior negotiating partner.”

“The Congress Party today is not the Congress of a year ago. There is a long way to go but we have emerged stronger, and anyone who is negotiating with us needs to recognise it,” he said. “It is either a good deal or no deal.” 

We’re a national party, it’s time to act like it.

Seat sharing

The Congress’s new-found confidence most visible in Uttar Pradesh, where the party is engaged in hectic seat-sharing talks with the SP and BSP. By coming together, these parties hope to keep BJP out of UP, which sends 80 members to Lok Sabha, making it the country’s most politically significant state.  

The Congress has been out of power in UP for three decades following the Mandal and Mandir movements, which prompted the disintegration of its traditional voter base of Muslims, Dalits and Brahmins, and the rise of SP, BSP, and BJP.

A Congress revival poses a challenge to SP and BSP, who bank on Other Backward Classes (OBC) and Dalits respectively as well as Muslims. The regional parties  in UP would loath a resurgence similar to the one Congress has seen in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. 

In the 2009 general election, the Congress won 22 seats, its highest tally since 1989. In 2014, when the Modi wave swept northern India, the Congress won just two seats in UP.

For 2019, the Congress has pushed SP and BSP, the two regional heavyweights in UP, for 25 seats each and five for the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD).

Sources in BSP and SP, by contrast, put the seat sharing figures at 35 for the BSP, 35 for the SP, eight for the Congress and two for the RLD.

The Congress’s eight seats would be the two it won in the 2014 general election, Sonia Gandhi’s Raebareli and Rahul Gandhi’s Amethi, and the six where it placed second.

With BJP and its ally Apna Dal winning 72 out of 80 seats, BSP finished second in 34 seats, followed by SP in 31 seats, and Congress in six seats.

Congress leaders have made clear that eight seats are simply not enough.

“The Congress president is particularly conscious of the fact that Congress cannot be a big player unless it takes big numbers from UP,” the Congress leader in Delhi said. “The Congress will negotiate as a party that can fight on its own.”

The Congress will negotiate as a party that can fight on its own.

The state Congress leader noted that without 20 to 25 seats, the alliance was of no use to his party.

“If they give us ten seats, how does it help? We are confident of winning a minimum of ten seats on our own,” he said.“We are not in any way worse off without the alliance. We don’t need it.”

Recent reports suggest the SP and BSP have finalized a deal, leaving Congress out.

“The SP and BSP’s treatment of Congress has been disgraceful. You are considering them lower than Ajit Singh’s party (RLD). That is disgraceful,” said Ashutosh Misra, a political science professor at Lucknow University. “The truth is that for SP and BSP voters, not the devoted following but the larger voter base, the Congress is a good second option.”

Despite its poor performance in 2014, and its decades in political wilderness in UP, Mishra believes that Congress has legitimate reason to feel confident.

“There is some churning in favor of the Congress and it may crystalize in time for the election,” he said. “The BJP was also aimless, rootless and purposeless in UP for a decade and a half, but it changed with Modi in one election. Voters may go for Congress, the way they went for Modi in 2014.” 

The BJP was also aimless, rootless and purposeless in UP for a decade and a half, but it changed with Modi in one election.

Congress and BSP

While a three-way alliance between the Congress, BSP and SP has proved hard to pull together, a section of Congress leaders believe a two-way partnership between the Congress and the BSP might prove easier to engineer.

But political analysts say that Mayawati does not see an alliance with the Congress as advantageous. The BSP supremo feels that her voters will vote for the Congress, out of loyalty to her, but not the other way around.

In 1996, when the two parties allied for the Assembly election, the BSP ended up with 67 seats and the Congress with 33 seats, while the BJP had the largest chunk with 174 seats of 403 seats. After the election, BJP and BSP came together to form the government.

Bhagwati Prasad Chaudhary, head of the Congress’s Scheduled Caste department in UP, was dismissive of the BSP-Congress alliance. 

“The people who will choose not to vote for the BJP, will vote Congress, not for the BSP or SP,” he said. “Can you not see the picture which is emerging in front of you? 2019 is going to be Rahul Gandhi versus Modi.”

Can you not see the picture which is emerging in front of you? 2019 is going to be Rahul Gandhi versus Modi.

 BSP and SP

The SP and BSP’s mutually exclusive and loyal voters, made up of Yadavs and Dalits, especially Jatav Dalits, account for 21% of the voting population, and present a significant challenge to the BJP. In 2014, when BJP pulled in 42.63% of the votes, SP (22.36%) and BSP (20%) together were a close second at (42.36%). Together with the Congress, which had 7.53% voters, the three parties polled 49.89%.

In 2019, the BJP is aiming for 50 percent of votes in UP.

Critics of the BSP-SP alliance, however, question whether SP voters will vote for BSP candidates and vice versa.

Political analysts have noted that it is the OBC communities, not the dominant castes, which have been committing atrocities against Dalits, especially after the SP came to power in 2012.

The senior Congress leader in Delhi said, “Both Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav know this, but they only pretend not to know it.”

But BSP and SP leaders point to the by-poll elections for the three Lok Sabha seats in UP, last year, which saw the BSP, SP and RLD joining forces and defeating the BJP. 

Both Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav know this, but they only pretend not to know it.

BSP-SP-Congress

Those in favour of a tripartite alliance say that the coming together of the SP, BSP and Congress would not only consolidate the Muslim and Dalit votes, but also bring back non-Jatav Dalit votes and perhaps even some non-Yadav OBC (Other Backwards Classes) votes.

It is the non-Jatav Dalits and non-Yadav OBCs, who had moved from the BSP and SP respectively, and voted for the BJP in 2014.

Election results from Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, according to Congress workers, show that Congress has made maximum improvement with the Scheduled Castes (SC) voter base.

Chaudhary, the Congress’s SC chief in UP, said that it was “stunning” for the Congress to have won three-fourths (68 out of 90 seats) of the seats on offer in the Chhattisgarh Assembly. Not only was it pitted against the BJP, but also Mayawati and Ajit Jogi, both former chief ministers, and tall figures in the Dalit and tribal communities respectively.  

“The Dalits knows that Congress is party for them, it is party that has stuck to its ideology, and they are coming back to us” he said.

The Congress believes it can also pull dominant caste votes, especially Brahmins, who used to be Congress supporters in UP.  The state Congress leader said, “The Thakurs would vote for the BJP, but the Brahmins would vote for Congress.”

With just the SP and BSP in the alliance, it is likely for the dominant castes, around 20 percent of the electorate, to coalesce around the BJP. But since the dominant castes don’t vote for them, the SP and BSP would be happy to see Congress cutting into BJP’s share on its own. 

The Dalits knows that Congress is party for them, it is party that has stuck to its ideology, and they are coming back to us.

Congress on its own

There is also section within the Congress Party, which believes that going solo in UP is its best bet.

It is argued that the Brahmins, Muslims and Dalits are more likely to vote for an independent Congress. The SP and BSP, they believe, would repel dominant castes and non-Jatav Dalits, who might then swing toward the BJP.

Furthermore, Shivpal Yadav’s exit from the SP could also weaken Akhilesh Yadav in a few seats.

“Shivpal Yadav ran the party on the ground. Without him, Akhilesh has the youth, but not the experience and the influence,” Chaudhary, Congress’s SC/ST chief in UP.

Overconfidence?

Observers say that following its three victories in the Hindi heartland, Congress’s leaders and officials in UP are exuding confidence. They genuinely believe that Congress can match its 2009 election tally of 22 seats in UP.

A SP leader in UP, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that not only was an alliance with the Congress unlikely, he felt that its leaders were overconfident.

Recalling the unsuccessful Congress and SP alliance in the 2017 Assembly election in UP, the SP leader said, “We gave them 100 (105) seats and it did nothing for us.”

“They are forgetting that this is not Rajasthan or MP. The Congress does not have a voter base in UP, only the BSP and SP have loyal voters here,” he said.

The Congress does not have a voter base in UP, only the BSP and SP have loyal voters here.

Even if the dominant caste votes are transferred to the Congress, the SP leader said that BSP and SP’s voter base in UP would not shift loyalties to any other party.

Dismissing concerns about whether the SP voters will vote for BSP and the other way around, in light of caste-based atrocities, the SP leader pointed to the three by-poll successes in Gorakphur, Phulpur and Kairana.

BJP supporters, however, point out that the saffron party managed 47 percent of the vote share, after an 18 percent decrease in the voter turnout in Kairana.

BJP leaders in UP admitted the looming SP-BSP alliance was unnerving, but they still believed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would carry the day, if pitted against Rahul Gandhi.

The BJP, its leaders said, is focusing on galvanising the three crore beneficiaries of its central and state schemes.

As one observer pointed out, “Only religious polarisation can beat caste consolidation. Beneficiaries, however, have no caste.”