The Congress has been politically insignificant in Uttar Pradesh for over two decades. Yet, it remains a coveted election ally for Akhilesh Yadav for two reasons -- the signalling to the Muslim community that together, the SP-Congress is the real secular alternative to the BJP in a crowded polity with multiple claimants to the minority vote. An alliance could also help the young chief minister win over a fragment of the old loyal Congress vote.
For the Congress, the alliance matters, since on its own, the party’s future is bleak and this represents the only chance of returning to power.
The value of Congress
A key matrix on which the UP election turns is the “Muslim vote”. There is now research to suggest the Muslim vote is not necessarily monolithic. But this has not deterred parties from seeking the bulk of the community vote.
For the 2017 elections, the BSP has given 97 tickets to Muslim candidates -- the highest ever -- and is seeking to carve a Dalit-Muslim alliance. Till the SP was united, it could bank on a share of the Muslim vote. But with the division, the competition for minority loyalty has increased. It could well split four ways between the BSP, the two SP factions and the Congress.
“On its own, Muslims know Congress is not winnable bet. But they still see Congress as the national alternative to BJP; and they know that if Congress is a part of an alliance, that alliance is the true secular alternative to BJP,” says a SP legislator. The Congress’ value is not in the arithmetic -- but in this symbolism for the Muslims, he adds. And that is why an alliance could be useful.
There is a second factor too. The Congress retains the loyalty of a generation of older voters, and a small segment of upper castes and Dalits -- constituencies that have traditionally not voted for SP.
In the 2012 elections, the Congress won 28 seats and bagged 11.65% of the vote share. Though it is also important to note that it forfeited deposits in 240 of the 355 seats, indicating it was not in the race at all in a majority of the constituencies and its ability to make a difference is confined to about 100 seats. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, at a time of the Modi wave, Congress still managed to retain 7.53% of the vote.
“If we lose some of our core vote because of the split, the Congress can help compensate for it a little,” said the SP leader.
The value for Congress
Why the Congress wants an alliance is more obvious.
There are Congress workers who worry that an alliance will weaken the organisation even further, and that they should keep all possibilities for a fragmented post-poll scenario. But the dominant opinion is, a tie-up is the only way for the party to come back to power.
“We have been out of power for 27 years. This meant that we have not been able to give our workers anything; that, in turn, demotivated them and weakened our organisation further,” says a Congress MLA. The sole aim of the party must be to return to power, by whatever method possible, he argues.
“We need to swallow our pride, settle for lesser seats, but get into an alliance. BSP is not interested and so SP is our best bet. Once we come back to power, then we can focus on building the party again.”
The personal rapport of Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi with Akhilesh has helped move the conversation forward.
Another Congress MLA added if the party was left out in the opposition, then there was no way it could mount a comeback in 2022. “This is a battle for survival.”
At the national level too, Rahul Gandhi needs an electoral success, says a party strategist -- even though critics argue piggybacking on someone else, be it a Nitish Kumar in Bihar or Akhilesh in UP, is not really Gandhi’s success.
The motivations are clear. The big question is, will it translate into a formal tie up, and electoral success.