Some time ago a Congress leader shared information about a closed-door meeting held at Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s residence, during the Lok Sabha polls, to evaluate the party’s prospects in Uttar Pradesh (UP).
“As we kept raising the bar, Gandhi smiled and said she would be happy if we gave her back the nine seats (the Congress already had),” the leader said.
The Congress eventually won 21 seats — and the party was as surprised as everyone else.
The situation has not changed much since then. The Congress, which lacks competent candidates and a committed cadre in UP,
is still unsure about its electoral prospects in the next assembly elections, the bugle for which has been sounded by its competitor, Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Mulayam Singh Yadav.
Historically, doing well in Uttar Pradesh is crucial to winning power in Delhi because the state sends the highest number of MPs — 80 even after the birth of Uttarakhand — to the Lok Sabha. And up to 1985, when the Congress last won the assembly elections, the party’s principal vote banks were the Dalits, Muslims and upper-caste Hindus. But in the last two decades, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with its upper-caste urban Hindu base and the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) — with their constituencies being the other backward castes (OBCs) and Dalits, respectively — made the Congress virtually irrelevant in the state.
Now, the Congress, though still finding its feet on the shifting sands of UP, is back in the reckoning.
Though the assembly elections are two-and-a-half years away, the main players have started making discreet moves on the political chessboard of the state.
“Wait and watch. Muslims will not desert me at any cost. People wrote me off in 1981 and 1991, but every time I sprang a surprise,” said a beleaguered Yadav, who swung into action immediately after his daughter-in-law Dimple lost the Firozabad Lok Sabha seat to the Congress’ Raj Babbar in the November by-poll. “We are gearing up for our next battle against the Congress in 2012.”
Senior Congress leader Pramod Tiwari said the SP leader could no longer fool the people of UP. “Till yesterday, he (Yadav) was embracing the Ram Temple hero Kalyan Singh,” said Tiwari. “Today, he is demanding reconstruction of the Babri Masjid.”
Former BJP leader Kalyan Singh, who joined hands with Yadav, was chief minister of UP in 1992, when the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was demolished for building a Ram Temple in its place.
Many Muslims in the state dumped the Congress after 1992. In their eyes, the Congress government at the Centre had lost credibility for not being able to stop the demolition.
Some returned to the party in this year’s Lok Sabha polls. “Muslims now have an option as the Congress is not untouchable for them,” said C.P.M. Tripathi of Gorakhpur University, who has been associated with the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. “But much would depend on the candidates.”
Yadav, who made a futile bid to consolidate the backward caste votes (52 per cent in the state) with the support of Kalyan, a backward caste leader, is back to wooing Muslims. He is desperate to revive the winning ‘M+Y’ — (Muslim (18 per cent) and Yadav (7 per cent) — combination, which worked so well for the SP in the past.
Known to perform best when pushed against the wall, Yadav dumped the “Temple Hero” this month and revived the Babri Masjid issue by projecting another firebrand leader — Maharashtra MLA Abu Azmi — as the party’s new Muslim face.
The party hopes Azmi will strike a chord with two important sections of the electorate — those Muslims who want nothing
less than the reconstruction of the mosque and the millions of UP migrants who feel threatened by Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.
However, Yadav’s magical ‘M+Y’ formula may not necessarily work again. “We welcome Mulayam’s decision to dump Kalyan,” said Naeem Hamid, former member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. “But the community has moved forward since the demolition days. Azmi's appeal may now influence only a small fraction of our voters.”
However, Azmi’s tour of the state starting from December 6 — the day the Babri Masjid was demolished 17 years ago — may energise the BJP and hardline Hindu organisations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
Kalyan is waiting for the BJP to open its doors for him. The party, in decline in the state and facing a paucity of leaders, may again give him an entry despite the fact that he did not improve the party’s performance in the 2007 assembly polls.
Though the ruling BSP did well in the November by-polls, the party too is feeling the heat. Officials in the chief minister’s secretariat are already working out development plans that Mayawati may roll out in the coming months.
Winning by-elections has enthused the BSP cadre, but the party is cautious and does not want to make long-term projections.
“The voter is intelligent. The MLA of a ruling party is always a better choice than that of the Opposition,” said a BSP leader. “The MLA can become a minister and he has better clout in the district administration.”
All political players seem to have picked up Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s slogan “Mission 2012”, which seeks to revive the Congress and return it to power in the country’s most populous state after more than two decades.
Will the BSP and SP be able to protect the electoral ground they captured from the Congress in the last two decades?
The battle ahead is going to be decisive — and the knives are out.