Despite the formation of the rainbow INDIA bloc to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2024 elections, opposition parties are facing challenges on the ground. The parties that make up the INDIA acronym have inherent differences that cannot be ignored. This is evident in Uttar Pradesh, the state that holds great electoral significance for any party wishing to rule the country. Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Akhilesh Yadav’s recent criticism of Rahul Gandhi’s comments on a caste census in Congress-ruled states highlights the divisions within the opposition.
Yadav accused the Congress of failing to conduct a caste census during its decades-long rule, but now endorsing the idea to attract voters from lower and backward castes. As the 2024 elections approach, Yadav has been relying on his “PDA” – Pichhda (backward castes), Dalits, and Alpasankhyaks (minorities) – politics to make a comeback.
The Congress has always been cautious of the SP, as it has eroded its traditional vote bank of Muslim-Dalit-backward castes and later focused on Jats and extremely backward classes to maximize its support base. In 2012, Rahul Gandhi referred to the Samajwadi Party as a party of “goondas” (gangsters) and the Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) as a party of “chors” (thieves).
Political analyst Sanjay Pandey suggests that the real reason for the friction between the Congress and the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh is the fear that the Congress will attract Muslim voters and affect the SP’s prospects in the Lok Sabha polls next year. Pandey explains, “Muslims are decisive factors in around two dozen seats, especially in the western and central regions of the state, and any shift will certainly impact the SP’s chances. Moreover, the Congress’ attempts to poach SP leaders have not been well received by Akhilesh.” The Congress has managed to attract senior SP leader Ravi Prakash Verma, a three-time MP and influential OBC leader.
After the formation of the INDIA bloc, the SP had expected seat-sharing arrangements with the Congress for the Madhya Pradesh elections to challenge the ruling BJP. However, the Congress ignored Akhilesh Yadav and fielded 229 candidates out of 230 seats in the Madhya Pradesh assembly. Senior Congress leader Kamal Nath’s dismissive comment about Akhilesh Yadav worsened the situation. In retaliation, Akhilesh made a pun on Kamal Nath’s name, equating it with the BJP’s lotus symbol. The SP had requested six seats in the election, especially in districts bordering Uttar Pradesh.
For the INDIA bloc to succeed in Uttar Pradesh, it requires a credible and locally popular face. Akhilesh Yadav, with his experience as Chief Minister, can fulfill that role. Akhilesh believes that his party, with control over 80 Lok Sabha seats, deserves respect and recognition. However, the Congress does not acknowledge the SP’s influence beyond Uttar Pradesh, which is why they were willing to risk Akhilesh’s anger.
In the ongoing clash between the two parties, Akhilesh Yadav was also criticized by UP Congress president Ajay Rai. Rai accused the SP chief of hypocrisy after the Congress decided to contest the Bageshwar assembly seat in Uttarakhand in a by-poll a few months ago.
Following the unsuccessful alliance with the Congress in the 2017 UP elections, where the highlight was the “UP ke Ladke” campaign featuring Akhilesh and Rahul Gandhi, Akhilesh no longer sees much value in aligning with the Congress in future elections. In 2019, he chose to revive his party’s alliance with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party instead. The SP-BSP alliance deliberately ignored the Congress, indicating that in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress will be at the mercy of the Samajwadi Party. Therefore, Akhilesh is unlikely to show any mercy to the Congress after being snubbed in Madhya Pradesh.
The bone of contention between the INDIA bloc partners in Uttar Pradesh is the distribution of seats. The Congress wants around 20 seats, but Akhilesh is only willing to offer 6-7 seats. The Congress believes that their bargaining power may increase if more SP leaders join their party, according to Pandey.
Leaders in any alliance understand that a miscalculation can set them back by five years or more, potentially leading to irrelevance. They recognize the importance of polarization to secure votes in Uttar Pradesh. In the past, a division in Muslim votes has affected the Samajwadi Party’s chances.
In conclusion, the ongoing differences between the Congress and the Samajwadi Party are advantageous for the BJP-led NDA. However, the INDIA bloc partners are uneasy and unwilling to compromise in their own territories. With the Lok Sabha elections approaching, it seems challenging for parties nationwide to reach a seat adjustment agreement.
(Bharti Mishra Nath is a senior journalist)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.