Keeping up with UP | Can the Congress-SP alliance slow down the BJP tornado? - Hindustan Times
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Keeping up with UP | Can the Congress-SP alliance slow down the BJP tornado?

BySunita Aron
Feb 26, 2024 04:32 PM IST

The alliance may create hype but its poll pitch of roji-roti will have to cut through the religiously surcharged atmosphere and Modi guarantee

The three young leaders of poll partners Samajwadi Party and the Congress, came together on one platform on February 25 to encourage their cadre and supporters for the upcoming 2024 general elections. This collaboration faces a huge challenge thrown by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) mascot Narendra Modi who mandated his party to achieve the target of 400+ in the country and 80 out of 80 in Uttar Pradesh.

Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav joins Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra for the party's Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra(ANI) PREMIUM
Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav joins Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra for the party's Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra(ANI)

The national president of SP, Akhilesh Yadav, joined the Gandhi siblings after ensuring that the Congress announced the seat-sharing pact without delay. As broadcast on February 22, the Congress will contest 17 and the SP 63 seats in the state.

However, there were no visible signs of strain between the three leaders, who displayed an unusual bonhomie similar to the one seen in neighbouring Bihar, where Rashtriya Janata Party (RJD) leader Tejashwi Yadav had driven down Rahul Gandhi in Jeep Wrangler through Sasaram on February 16.

The flags of both the parties fluttered throughout the Bharat Jodo Nyaya Yatra route in West UP though Farrukhabad, 200 km from Agra where the trio met, is a possible flashpoint between the two parties. Party veteran Salman Khurshid, also a member of the committee that finalised the seat-sharing pact, was the Congress contender for the seat where Akhilesh announced the party nominee Nawal Kishore Shakya before the pact. Akhilesh had earlier told HT that he announced his candidature on public demand. Shakyas are a predominant caste in the OBC category in Farrukhabad and are in substantial numbers in Mainpuri, Firozabad and Badaun.

Khurshid had lost the seat in his ancestral town in 2014 and 2019 — he had won the seat in 2004 and 1991. Expressing his agony in a post on X (formerly Twitter), he wrote: “How many tests do I have to face to prove my relationship with Farrukhabad? It is not about me but about the future of all of the coming generations. I have never bowed to the decisions of fate. I can break, I cannot bend.”

This is being interpreted in various ways as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has not announced its candidate yet and there is speculation that Mayawati may be able to help fish him out of troubled waters, though the Congress leadership is confident that he will not disturb the applecart.

Congress national general secretary Avinash Pande said, “The alliance was done keeping in mind the caste equations of the area. We did try for some seats for our leaders — Nirmal Khatri, Salman Khurshid and others. But SP demanded it as they have political stakes in the region.”

In the vicinity of Farrukhabad lies another crucial SP seat, Firozabad, where Akshay Yadav (Akhilesh Yadav’s cousin; the late Mulayam Singh Yadav’s nephew) is the party nominee. Etawah, Mulayam’s home district and Mainpuri, his constituency, now represented by his daughter-in-law Dimple Yadav (Akhilesh’s wife), and Kannuaj, which Dimple lost in 2019, are also close by. The SP leadership is banking heavily on these seats to improve its 2019 performance when it struck an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party and won five seats.

But the battle has just begun!

Arithmetically, the BJP starts with a vote share of 50% it had polled in 2019 while the combined strength of SP and Congress is about 25 percent. The RLD, a part of the alliance, has since moved to the BJP camp. Jayant Singh had lost the seat from Baghpat and his late father Ajit Singh from Muzaffarnagar. Modi’s mandate for 80/80 will also create a battle of perception.

Political analyst Manohar Yadav believes the Congress-SP alliance has helped in slowly changing the negative perception about the opposition INDIA bloc. Though it faces a tough challenge from NDA. It has certainly served as a morale booster for their cadre.

The Sangh Parivar is rich in funds and the paraphernalia of a committed and confident cadre is also huge. And they have a popular leader in the PM and a political strategist like Chanakya in the home minister.

On the other hand, while the SP has machinery that Mulayam and now Akhilesh have kept well-oiled, even if it falls short in size, both monetarily and numerically.

Second, the Congress has been losing ground steadily and thus its demoralised cadre will need to be resurrected by leaders with the will to take on challenges.

Counting the advantages

The alliance will provide a platform for the anti-BJP votes to consolidate under one banner instead of being divided among three quarters.

It will fail the BSP and AIMIM's old game of dividing the Muslim vote to defeat SP or Congress — and which suited the BJP.

The alliance would do well to concentrate also on over a dozen seats that the opposition had lost by a narrow margin. The SP lost six seats with a narrow margin (in brackets) in 2019, namely Badaun, Chandauli, Firozabad, Kannauj, Kaushambhi and Ballia.

Similarly, the BSP’s losses on a narrow margin were on Basti, Bhadohi, Machhlishahr, Meerut, Sant Kabir Nagar and Pilibhit.

On their part, the RLD and BJP lost two seats each with a margin of less than 50,000 votes in 2019.

A lonely BSP may prove redundant with Dalits moving to the BJP, and the Muslims moving to alliance. The PDA combination of (pasmanda/backward, dalit, and adivasis) coupled with the promise of the caste census and concomitant quotas may help the alliance throw a spanner in BJP's bid to unite the OBC vote bank.

The challenges facing the alliance

Thus, the question and challenge number 1: Will the two partners be able to convert the crowds at the Yatra into votes?

Challenge number 2: While the alliance will consolidate non-BJP votes, including Muslims, could it be counter-productive and trigger Hindu consolidation in Muslim-dominated areas?

Challenge number 3: Given the paucity of time, will the cadre be able to campaign together and create a positive environment?

And finally, challenge number 4: The two alliances of the opposition since the BJP stormed the state in 2014 have been ineffective, how will this alliance be different?

In the 2017 assembly elections, the SP-Congress alliance did not pay any dividends as not only the two parties fought their battles independently but even failed in messaging. The alliance remained confined to Rahul-Akhilesh coming together while their cadres functioned separately.

The 2019 alliance between Bahujan Samaj Party and SP was marred by social mistrust that prevailed between Dalits and Yadavs. BSP did not or could not transfer her base votes of Dalits to the SP, especially wherever a Yadav was in the fray.

Sunita Aron is a consulting editor with the HT based in Lucknow. You can find her on X as @overto. The weekly column, Keeping up with UP tackles everything from politics to social and cultural mores in the country's most populous state. The views expressed are personal.

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