On September 29 as the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) dramatically announced the surgical strikes across the Line of Control - a limited cross-border raid to avenge the terror attack on an Indian Army camp at Uri - Congress mastermind Prashant Kishore (‘PK’) quickly understood - and Rahul Gandhi apparently agreed - that the BJP had just got itself a significant lead in the Uttar Pradesh election. The game had changed and at this point an old-style Congress would have pretty much given up the battlefield. Though six days later Rahul Gandhi did lash out at the prime minister contentiously accusing him of “khoon ki dalali (trading on the blood of soldiers); this comment could have easily ended up in the same league as Sonia Gandhi’s 2007 “maut ka saudagar” (merchant of death) barb about Narendra Modi - inflammatory rhetoric without a follow up plan.
It became clear now that the Congress needed an alliance. Other variables had changed too. The original ‘PK’ plan - where Sheila Dikshit as the chief ministerial candidate would have been, to quote a Congress leader, “the Manmohan Singh of UP” while Priyanka Gandhi would have been the main face of the campaign, canvassing across the breadth of the state - had not fructified. October 11 had even been earmarked as the date when she was meant to kickstart her larger political debut. But an already wary party leadership felt bringing out Priyanka after the surgical strikes would be a “double risk.”
This was the moment when a serious rift emerged between PK and the Congress leadership; he argued that to make the party a contender it had to stick to either Plan A (Priyanka as the face of the polls) or Plan B (a public, pre-poll alliance with Akhilesh Yadav). The party agreed to the need for an alliance but initially rooted for a covert understanding - giving the impression of going it alone (while working out an ‘arrangement’) to keep the morale of an already weakened cadre intact. After all Rahul Gandhi had just completed his one-month-long ‘khaat yatra’ to energise the flagging worker base. How would they break the U-turn to their workers? “We had to find a parachute instead of a plane crash,” said one Congress leader.
By the end of the month, the disagreements over strategy were so serious that drafts were exchanged between the Gandhis and PK over how he would phrase his resignation announcement on Twitter; he also told the party he would walk out from the Punjab campaign along with the UP mission. Priyanka Gandhi then reached out to their main spinmeister and they just about managed to pull back from the brink. They now agreed to begin the heavy lifting for a proper coalition between the Samajwadi Party and the Congress. And Rahul Gandhi and his sister began directly working the hotline to the UP chief minister.
But there was another factor that needed delicate handling. In the initial meetings with the SP patriarch, the Congress would discover that Mulayam Singh Yadav was keen to be CM himself and was counting on their support to make this happen. For the first meeting with PK, Mulayam sent man-about-town and the bête-noire of his son Amar Singh to personally fetch Kishore from Delhi’s swish Lodhi hotel.
Congress leaders say the senior Yadav all but declared that he - not his son - expected to lead UP in 2017. At this stage Mulayam was threatening to call a party convention and still believed he would win over the MLAs. The Congress had to take a call on whether to back a ‘new SP’ or the old one; Rahul Gandhi, it is said, was firm about throwing his weight behind the son.
Mulayam was especially miffed when Kapil Sibal chose to represent Akhilesh in the legal battle for which faction would get the party symbol of the cycle. A fly on the wall reports that the two men accidentally bumped into each other in the Election Commission elevator where Netaji complained about the ‘beta’ getting Congress support and the absence of ‘izzat’ for him. Sibal is said to have assured Mulayam that his arguments never included any personal attack on Mulayam and the party was mindful of this as well.
But it was the symbol victory that emboldened Akhilesh Yadav and nearly broke down the negotiations. In the Congress version of events, Akhilesh had agreed to approximately 140 seats for them which he then whittled down to 121 seats - on which both sides assented. The surprise announcement for 210 seats by the incumbent Chief Minister - including some won by Congress legislators in 2012 - took them totally by surprise. Akhilesh’s final offer of 99 seats was conveyed to the Congress through PK - which is when it looked as if the alliance was off. For several hours, the CM did not even take the phone calls of Congress interlocutors like Ghulam Nabi Azad or even the Gandhi siblings. The see-saw continued for a few more hours till the magic number was settled on 105 seats for the Congress to contest.
The alliance has converted a four-cornered contest (which gave the BJP a natural advantage) into a triangular one; the focus of the PK brains trust will be to push the fight into a bipolar space - a direct fight between Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi on one side (‘apne ladke’ as Kishore’s slogan goes) and the Modi-led BJP campaign.
Despite the prominence to Priyanka Gandhi on all the poll posters, her role is confined to the family boroughs. Congress leaders argue that that the hard-talk and tight-rope walking in the Uttar Pradesh negotiations have seen a maturing of Rahul Gandhi. “A little bit of the politician in him finally came to the fore,” said one aide.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author