New Delhi/Lucknow: The Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance in Uttar Pradesh began quite well with the two ‘UP ke ladke’ — Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi — clad in white kurtas and black jackets making a joint public appearance at the Taj Hotel in Lucknow on January 29, 2017.
They say well begun is half done. The voters of UP affirmed that the boys of UP were half baked.
What went wrong with the alliance? Why did it lack the punch of the potent Nitish-Lalu combine in Bihar of just 2 years ago?
Let’s start with “Friendly fights” — a euphemism for SP and Congress putting up candidates in the same constituency and neither “UP boy” being able to rein in their party. SP patriarch Mulayam Yadav refused to campaign for alliance candidates, his sole appearances reserved for his brother Shivpal Yadav, who is estranged from Akhilesh.
And Priyanka Gandhi, perhaps the biggest crowd puller for Congress, postponed her campaign in the family pocket boroughs of Rae Bareli and Amethi, because of the “friendly fights”.
So just why did a promising alliance, that had the social equations firmly on its side, struggle to take off?
During the course of the campaign News18 spoke to a number of people on the ground, including leaders from the SP and the Congress, the candidates fielded by these parties, and the strategists working behind the scenes.
All of them swore that Akhilesh and Rahul did not lack in chemistry. But both struggled to shed legacy burdens and were up against walls unique to their parties.
Insiders pointed out that the alliance wasn’t really a coming together of two political parties but a political partnership between two individuals.
It didn’t have the endorsement of Mulayam Singh Yadav, who on more than one occasion openly criticised any pre-poll alliance of his party with the Congress. Since its creation in 1992, the SP has always fought elections alone.
An old Mulayam loyalist told News18 how the wily Hindi heartland politician felt that a pre-poll alliance could only come at the SP’s cost. “Party ka jhanda girta hai (our flag goes down),” this leader remembered Mulayam saying.
SP veterans said that by giving 105 seats to the Congress — which today exists on the margins of UP polity after ruling unchallenged for several decades — Akhilesh Yadav condemned the SP to irrelevance in those seats.
“He has given oxygen to a dead Congress at the cost of annihilating ourselves, which would boomerang in the long term for SP,” this leader said.
And then there was the ‘little thing’ about UP boys’ political cunning. Among the backroom boys, there were many who pointed out that the seeds of discord were evident from the first press conference onwards.
At that press conference, the two ‘UP ke ladke’ appeared in sync with each other, showering praises on each other, hugging, smiling and talking about how they exchanged messages and made a perfect ‘made-for-each-other’ picture.
The optics couldn’t have been better until they started taking questions from the media. Rahul Gandhi sounded impatient and angry while Akhilesh Yadav appeared unruffled. When questions were asked about what happened to the ‘27 saal behaal’ plank (the slogan with which the Congress started its campaign to show how UP has been, in its view, destroyed by successive SP and BSP governments that ruled the state for 27 years after dislodging the Congress), Rahul didn’t hesitate in playing down the achievements during the SP’s tenure.
He said Akhilesh may have worked, but hadn’t really delivered on all counts. The young Chief Minister, whose campaign pitch has been ‘kaam bolta hai’ (My work speaks for itself), was quick to defend this rebuffing of his track record.
Besides, there was no shortage of political analysts who felt the alliance would have worked better if Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Mulayam Singh were on board. On the Congress side, the alliance architects were Priyanka Gandhi and Prashant Kishor, with little involvement of Sonia.
Congress leaders would contend that given the historical animosity between Sonia and Mulayam - thanks to the wily Yadav famously ditching the Congress president at the last hour in 1999 - bringing them on board would be a difficult task.
And then there were the inevitable comparisons between that other unlikely combo, which worked like a dream in trouncing the BJP in the Bihar Assembly polls in 2015. Both JD(U)’s Nitish Kumar and RJD’s Lalu Prasad Yadav, despite their historical rivalry, were deeply methodical in their approach when it came to the Bihar Mahagatbandhan.
While it was Kishor who brought both the SP-Congress and the JD(U)-RJD together, the Nitish-Lalu duo had realised the necessity to sink their personal differences. An anecdote illustrates this: Nitish called up Lalu as the results for the 2014 General Elections started coming in indicating a Narendra Modi sweep, and discussed how they should hold on to their forts.
A source privy to this call told News18 that Nitish expressed concerns that Lalu Yadav's wife Rabri Devi and daughter Misa Bharti had both lost. The two talked about how the RJD-JD(U) combined vote share was more than the BJP’s and that the picture would have been different if they had fought the 2014 polls together. That ice-breaker of a phone call brought them together in the by-elections where the alliance showcased their might, winning six of 10 seats.
So, when seat sharing talks began for the Mahagatbandhan in 2015 it went smoothly because the groundwork had been laid. Yes, it helped a lot that both Nitish and Lalu were essentially running one-man shows. Every decision regarding the Mahagatbandhan — its working, common agenda and campaigning — rested solely with them alone, not with anyone else.
The picture was very different when it came to UP’s boys. For starters, there is a deeply entrenched bureaucracy within the Congress and the decision-making process is multi-layered.
Akhilesh Yadav was doing a difficult balancing act since he had got hold of the party machinery only after the polls were declared, thanks to the Yadav family feud. This, SP sources said, made him cautious, as he was wary of upsetting too many apple carts within.
Sources said that Rahul Gandhi may have dismissed their mutual disagreements as operational, but it was making the day-to-day working of the alliance difficult. With a plethora of opinions, and a battery of second and third rung leaders, the decision making was slow, whereas time is of an essence in any election.
The bane of ‘friendly contests’ then, was just the tip of the iceberg for an alliance that’s struggling to do justice to its potential.
An SP leader close to Akhilesh told News18 that the feeling inside the party remained that the SP was carrying the burden of the Congress. So just why did his leader hand over 105 seats to the Congress on a platter? Akhilesh had agreed in-principle, so he gave Congress a long rope, the SP leader shrugged.