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Congress-SP Alliance Seals Seat-Sharing Deal in UP and MP, but Some Major Challenges Remain

The sealing of the deal is only the first step in what promises to be a hectic two months for the Opposition alliance as it challenges a dominant BJP across 80 Lok Sabha seats in UP.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav. Photos: Wikipedia and official Facebook account.

New Delhi: The Congress and the Samajwadi Party have finally reached an agreement on seat-sharing for the 2024 Lok Sabha election in the key states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

The sealing of the deal – after a period of hectic negotiations, mixed signals and public display of disagreement – and coming against the backdrop of the exit of the Rashtriya Lok Dal from the INDIA bloc, is a big step for the Opposition as it prepares to take on the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the country’s most populous state.

However, it is only the first step in what promises to be a hectic two months for the Opposition alliance as it challenges a dominant BJP across 80 Lok Sabha seats in UP.

From candidate selection to building a common narrative against the powerful NDA alliance of five parties in the state and coordinating strategies for shared public meetings and transfer of votes, the SP-Congress alliance – a leaner version of the original INDIA bloc – has a lot to achieve before voting day this summer.

According to the compromise reached by the two parties, in UP, the Congress will contest 17 seats, while the remaining 63 are in the SP’s bank. It is likely that the SP would accommodate its sole remaining ally, the Apna Dal (Kameravadi) of Pallavi Patel, within that figure. There is no confirmation yet if the SP-Congress alliance has finalised a seat for the Dalit leader from west UP, Chandrashekhar Azad, who runs the Azad Samaj Party (Kanshi Ram). However, leaders of both parties have shown openness to the idea, given that the bloc lacks a Dalit face in the absence of the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party, which is adamant on going solo.

In MP, where the SP is a minor power, the party will contest only one seat – Khajuraho – while the remaining 28 seats will go to the Congress.

The announcement of the seat-sharing deal came on Wednesday (February 21), against the backdrop of uncertainty with the SP toying with its ally by unilaterally releasing names of candidates even on seats claimed by the Congress.

Senior SP leader Rajendra Chaudhary, state president Naresh Uttam Patel, Congress general secretary Avinash Pande and state president Ajay Rai addressed the media as they announced the deal in Lucknow. The venue was a hotel situated near the offices of both parties.

At the press conference, both sides expressed concern about the threats to democracy, the constitution and freedom of speech in the country under the Modi regime. They vowed to fight collectively and campaign for each other to protect the country’s future, its democracy and constitution and strengthen communal harmony in the country.

While these issues are of deep concern to the health of the democratic status of India, the alliance would need to go beyond rhetoric and communicate to the electorate an alternative model of life and livelihood that ensures their social, economic and political welfare, if they aspire to wean away support from the BJP in one of the country’s most complex state.

The Congress, which has only one MP and two MLAs in a state where it once ruled the roost, should be content with the seats allotted to it.

The Congress provides a national lens to the contest in UP but when it comes to social calculus, adds little to the arithmetic, as it does not enjoy the loyalty of any particular caste group or region. Its only card has been the implicit threat it carries of dividing Opposition votes if it contests alone, like in 2019. However, a lot of water has flown down the Ganga, Yamuna and Gomti since then and an alliance between the two parties was inevitable for any serious contest in 2024.

An analysis of the 17 seats allotted to the Congress as part of the alliance shows that it has got a mixed bag – some relatively easy seats and some extremely difficult ones.

Among the seats allotted to the Congress are Rae Bareli and Amethi, the pocket borough of the Nehru-Gandhi family in central UP. There is no clarity yet if the Gandhi siblings – Rahul and Priyanka – will contest from these seats now that sitting Rae Bareli MP Sonia Gandhi has decided to get elected to the Rajya Sabha.

The Congress has also been allotted the Varanasi seat, although on Tuesday (February 20), SP, in a big public snub, declared a candidate, former MLA Surendra Singh Patel, as its candidate, indicating that the talks had failed. Prime Minister Modi is the MP from Varanasi and it is one of the most-watched constituencies in the country. When Rajendra Chaudhary was asked if the SP would not return the seat to the Congress, he said, “We will follow with full honesty the understanding we have reached.”

While the Congress had initially been adamant about picking seats based on the 2009 formula, a year when it performed remarkably well and won 21 out of 80 seats in UP, the final list of constituencies appears more random. The Congress got favourable seats in the form of Saharanpur and Amroha, both with sizeable Muslim voters, in west UP. Imran Masood and Kunwar Danish Ali are the likely candidates from these seats.

Interestingly, the last time the Congress won Saharanpur, Amroha, Deoria, Sitapur, Bulandshahr and Allahabad was in 1984 following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. These were included in the 17 seats for this time.

Amitabh Bachchan was the last Congress candidate to win in Allahabad, four decades ago. The Congress will also contest in Barabanki, which abuts Lucknow, and major urban centres Kanpur, Ghaziabad, Jhansi and Mathura. The BJP won Ghaziabad by more than five lakh votes in 2019. The Congress candidate got less than 30,000 votes in Bulandshahr.

The alliance is a leaner version of the formidable SP-BSP-RLD alliance that took on the BJP in 2019. Even without the BSP, which has lost its way, the SP-RLD-Congress combine looked decent and balanced across the state. However, with the exit of the RLD, the entire burden of preventing the BJP from winning maximum seats in UP rests on the SP and Congress, which had a disastrous partnership in 2017 during the state election.

The challenges

The alliance faces many challenges. First, arithmetic. The BJP won over 50% votes in UP in 2019. Since then, it has added two more allies and now has four regional, caste-based allies with command over votes of the OBC Nishads, Jats, Kurmis and Rajbhars. This provides the BJP a solid cushion to offset losses due to anti-incumbency.

In 2019, when the SP-RLD-BSP fought together, their combined vote share could not cross 40%, though in 2014, when they fought separately, their collective vote share of 42.9% almost matched the NDA’s 43.6% vote share. In 2014, the BJP and its ally Apna Dal (Soneylal) won 73 of 80 seats. In 2019, despite a combined Opposition, the BJP-plus won 64 of these seats and the NDA vote share hit an unsurmountable mark of more than 51%.

This also demonstrates that simple arithmetic does not apply to coalitions as transfer of vote banks must be compatible and harmonious.  The SP has lost two of its main allies since its decent performance in 2022, when it climbed from 47 to over 110 assembly seats. In 2019, the Congress could manage only one seat, Rae Bareli. Rahul Gandhi lost Amethi despite getting support from the SP and BSP.

Second, as already hinted above, beyond arithmetic, the alliance needs chemistry, to not only ensure transfer of votes but also to attract new voters. This means their top leadership as well as state units need to be in sync on issues and campaign strategy. Any differences of opinion will be promptly exploited by the saffron party.

With time running out, how the two parties, which compete with each other for the same votes, will drum up a collective strategy across the state remains to be seen. Akhilesh Yadav had initially agreed to attend the Congress Nyay Yatra of Rahul Gandhi in Rae Bareli, but on February 19, he took a step back and said he would join it once seat-sharing was done. Now that the seat-sharing is complete, it is expected that Yadav will join the Congress Yatra in west UP, probably Agra.

Third, no doubt the alliance was the need of the hour. What has been achieved, however, is a bare minimum. The lean SP-Congress alliance must understand that it is a limited alliance. It must set realistic goals as it faces a BJP that is ruthless and superior in resources, organisation, media control and has a rallying face under Modi. Social arithmetic also dictates that the SP-Congress set specific goals and a focused strategy on winnable seats rather than stretching itself thin in a bid to appear flamboyant. Their task should be to reduce the BJP’s seat share rather than go overboard with campaigning on seats that are difficult to win. There is plenty the two parties can learn from their 2017 alliance, when they spent too much time showcasing the personal harmony between their leaders Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi –UP ke ladke – but should instead focus on forcefully communicating to the voters why it is necessary to change the government.

Fourth, the top leadership of both the parties must lead from the front. The SP has fielded members of its ruling family on traditional seats, with Akhilesh’s uncle Shivpal set to debut in Budaun, a seat that had initially been allotted to his nephew and former MP Dharmendra Yadav, who could contest from Azamgarh or Kannauj. The SP has already declared 31 candidates.

The Congress is lagging in this regard. If the Gandhi siblings don’t contest from Rae Bareli and Amethi, it will amount to a massive moral defeat for the Congress, which would concede its strongest political forts in the country without a fight. A non-Gandhi candidate, whether they win or lose, wouldn’t make much of a difference in the larger narrative. The two seats are not ordinary constituencies but loaded with history and legacy of what the Congress stands for. To send a message of confidence to their cadre and voters and to galvanise their support base, the siblings must take the plunge, put themselves on the line and contest from these two seats.

Fifth, the alliance must set the agenda and push the Modi government to answer difficult questions on unemployment, jobs, farmers income, recruitment exams, dilution of reservation, which are all burning issues currently at a time when there are allegations of paper leak of the police constable exam and an ongoing 600-day plus dharna by job seekers from OBC castes.  There are plenty of issues that the Opposition can tap into to bust the myths of a prosperous UP under the double-engine of the BJP. The aspirational youth and the unhappy farmer can be the fulcrum of that approach.

Sixth, another challenge facing the alliance is the prospect of communal polarisation. Whenever two Opposition parties get together, the BJP has been able to project it, with the help of mainstream media, that they are uniting just to consolidate the Muslim votes. The alliance must intercept this and overload the narrative with a focus on uniting OBCs and Dalits. That is their best armour.

By coming together, the SP and the Congress have already cemented the 20% Muslim vote which is decisive on a number of seats. Now, they need to dent the BJP’s backward caste and Dalit vote. To do that, the parties must communicate to the voters why a caste census is necessary for them and what is the material gain they get out of it. The BJP’s trishul of Ram (Hindutva), Ration (welfare schemes) and Representation (more space for OBCs and Dalits in power) is a potent formula, and to counter that, the SP and Congress would need to take it head on through jati, jobs and junta ke sawaal, while side-stepping the trap of Hindutva.

The SP’s strategy of PDA [Picchde (backward classes or OBCs), Dalits and Alpsankhyak (minorities)] and Rahul Gandhi’s vocal stand on OBC and Dalit issues must align into a consolidated narrative. Therefore, the Congress and SP must speak the same language.  During his ongoing yatra in UP, Gandhi has raised the issues of unemployment among OBCs and Dalits and their lack of representation.

While Mayawati has remained adamant and decided to go alone, how her voters behave will be of interest to both the BJP and the SP-Congress combine. It won’t be a big surprise if she fields a large number of Muslims to play up a narrative that SP is not honest towards their interests. Note that the party recently drew flak from two OBC leaders, Swami Prasad Maurya and Pallavi Patel, and a former MP Saleem Shervani for fielding two non-political ‘upper’ caste candidates in the Rajya Sabha elections while ignoring Dalits, OBCs and Muslims.

This is a major challenge for the SP-Congress alliance as a three-way contest favours the ruling party as the two Opposition blocs would be competing for the same votes. Maurya and Shervani have quit SP, while Patel rebelled by joining Gandhi’s yatra in Varanasi, when there was uncertainty about the outcome of the seat-sharing talks.

There are speculations that Chandrashekhar Azad wants to join the alliance. How the SP fights for the sizable Dalit votes, especially in west UP, would be seen. But there are signs that the party is willing to experiment boldly.

For instance, in Ayodhya, where the Ram Mandir has recently opened to the public, and for a general seat, the party has nominated veteran MLA and Dalit leader Awadesh Prasad. It is uncommon for a Dalit to contest unreserved seats. In Ambedkar Nagar, where the SP won all five seats in 2022, the party has nominated senior OBC leader Lalji Verma, who is also a sitting MLA.

In 2019, out of the 64 seats the BJP and Apna Dal held, they won 25 by over two lakh votes, and 21 by over one lakh to two lakh votes. This makes these 45-odd seats potentially difficult to overturn. Therefore, the Opposition must invest more in winnable seats and retain their old strongholds. In the 2022 assembly elections, the Opposition, though losing in the overall race, performed well in certain regions. They won all seven seats in Ghazipur, five out of nine in Jaunpur, five out of seven in Ballia, three out of four in Mau, all 10 in Azamgarh, four out of five in Basti, all five in Ambedkar Nagar, two out of five in Ayodhya, three out of six in Barabanki, all three in Kaushambi, four out of eight in Bijnor, seven out of nine in Shamli and Muzaffarnagar, five out of six in Moradabad, three out of four in Sambhal and three out of six in Budaun.

After the seat-sharing was finalised, Akhilesh Yadav said the alliance was to save the constitution of B.R. Ambedkar and to provide the “90% PDA” their rights.

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