Salman Khurshid, Sanjay Singh, Ratna Kumari Singh, Pradeep Jain Aditya, PL Punia, RPN Singh, Raj Babbar, Imran Masood, Jitin Prasada, Sri Prakash Jaiswal, Ajay Rai, Naghma, Azharuddin and Zafar Ali Naqvi, in addition to Rahul-Sonia and Priyanka Gandhi, are among two dozen party leaders keen on contesting the 2019 Lok Sabha elections from Uttar Pradesh.
Since most of them had won the 2009 parliamentary polls from the country’s most populous and politically significant state, Rahul Gandhi, since the beginning, was against becoming part of the Bahujan Samaj Party-Samajwadi Party alliance in UP.
The Congress bravado of contesting all 80 Lok Sabha seats in the state is mere posturing and needs to be taken with a bagful of salt. It is an open secret that two state Congress chiefs (both of whom had contested the 2014 Lok Sabha election from Uttar Pradesh) are eyeing the Mumbai North-West seat where Priya Dutt may not be contesting. This tells a lot about the confidence level within the Congress.
For the record, a possibility of the Congress joining the Uttar Pradesh Mahagathbandhan was nil from the beginning, but poor communication strategy prevented the grand old party from articulating its structured stand, electoral compulsion and strategy. The press conference in Lucknow saw a somewhat belligerent and scathing Mayawati declaring how the Congress had always been incompatible.
Regional allies in the Indian political system tend to be utterly contemptuous and scornful. Take the attitude and utterances of the Shiv Sena (part of the Narendra Modi-led NDA) for instance. Their anger and strong words have no bearing on either the stability of the government or the health of the future electoral alliance. This is something Rahul Gandhi needs to stomach. That the Mahagathbandhan in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere would be full of contradictions, double-speak and one-upmanship is something that needs to be repeated again and again.
Similarly, before and during the May 2019 Lok Sabha polls, there is a real possibility of concerted efforts to undermine prospective allies through poaching, pronouncements, machinations and startling defections. It was, therefore, significant that in his interview with ANI, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declined to comment on the BJP’s attitude towards the BSP, saying it was something that could not be articulated on national television.
It must be kept in mind that Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) have enough pragmatism and flexibility to consider the NDA within minutes of the 2019 Lok Sabha results. This was perhaps a factor why the RLD has not been made a formal part of the Mahagathbandhan in UP. Behind the scenes, both Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati are reported to have offered a party ticket to Ajit Singh and his son Jayant. The calculation is that affiliation to either the BSP or SP would act as a deterrent for anyone toying with the idea of crossing over to greener pastures.
The Congress vote bank (for whatever it is worth) is such that it has much more capability to hurt the BJP than a BSP-SP combine. The 2009 Lok Sabha results tell a story. The Congress bagged 21, while the BSP tally was 20 and SP had 23. The RLD got five, while the BJP was down to 10 seats. Going by the survey findings of C-voter and CSDS, 2019 has a real possibility of the BSP-SP combine repeating its 2009 performance. It is, therefore, for the Congress and the likes of RLD to make a dent in the BJP’s projected tally of 30-odd seats.
The Congress had been wary of seat adjustment in Uttar Pradesh, fearing that the BSP-SP combine would have staked claim on few seats in Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. These seats, numbering around a dozen, would have deprived the Congress of increasing its parliamentary tally much more in proportion than its conceivable success in Uttar Pradesh.
In UP and at the national level, the Mahagathbandhan story has many bitter truths.
First of all, non BJP-NDA regional parties have no inclination to crown Rahul Gandhi as prime minister. The Congress chief’s prospects of holding on to pole position within the alliance would gain momentum if his party manages to get at least a ‘half of half’. That is, of the 543 Lok Sabha seats, 272 is half-way mark and the Congress needs to net at least 136 parliamentary seats from its present tally of 48. A tall and stiff challenge indeed.
Second, the Congress has to do exceedingly well in states where it has a direct contest against the BJP such as J&K, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Telangana, Karnataka, Kerala, Assam, Jharkhand, Gujarat and the North-east. The prospective alliance partners in Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Delhi (with AAP), Odisha (absence of an ally so far) and Uttar Pradesh would be required to maximise their gains in these states. As long as the BJP-NDA combine is restricted to 225-235 seats, the Mahagathbandhan will remain in the hunt to take over Raisina Hill.
(The author is visiting fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a journalist. Views are personal)