It began the way break-ups often do, with a phone call not returned.
When Akhilesh Yadav was putting together his strategy for the Phulpur and Gorakhpur Lok Sabha bypolls in early 2018, he tried reaching out to Rahul Gandhi. The newly appointed president of the Congress party wouldn’t return Yadav’s calls, say top Samajwadi Party (SP) sources.
Gandhi’s act was taken as a slight by SP leaders, who had seen Rahul and Akhilesh being heavily projected as brothers in arms during the campaign for the assembly election barely a year ago.
When the Congress did get back, it was through Ghulam Nabi Azad. And it was too late. With the nomination deadline looming and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) having already indicated it would support the SP candidates on both seats, the Samajwadi Party’s need for an electoral understanding with the Congress had significantly reduced.
Besides, Ghulam Nabi Azad’s offer — to have one seat left for the Congress — didn’t make sense to the SP. The Congress stood no chance to be even number three in either Gorakhpur or Phulpur. Its vote-share and performance in UP in past many elections did not make it worthy of 50 per cent seats. “If we had five seats, we could have given them one,” says a senior Samajwadi Party leader.
Fighting it alone, the Congress put up a Brahmin candidate in Phulpur, but that was not to help the SP-BSP combine. Phulpur used to be Jawaharlal Nehru’s seat and if the Congress has any traction there, it is among the Brahmins. In Gorakhpur, the party put up a Muslim candidate who could actually damage the joint candidate of the SP, BSP and the Nishad Party.
As it happened, the SP surprised everyone by winning both those difficult seats (Gorakhpur was held by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Phulpur by his deputy Keshav Prasad Maurya), and demonstrated how dispensable the Congress was. Rahul Gandhi’s party lost deposits on both seats, its votes less than the slim winning margins of the SP candidates.
Once its dispensability was established, the Congress had no choice but to support the SP-BSP-RLD candidates in the bypolls held two months later for the Kairana Lok Sabha and the Noorpur Vidhan Sabha seats.
Since the bypoll results in March 2018, relations between Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi have been frosty.
A new ray of hope was the Madhya Pradesh assembly election in late 2018. However, the SP and the BSP could not come to an understanding with the Congress. The BSP was asking for too many seats in a pre-poll alliance and the talks collapsed.
The BSP insisted that the SP play in the same team and, by extension, not enter an alliance with the Congress in Madhya Pradesh. The SP agreed since UP is its foremost priority, and making the alliance work in UP requires keeping BSP chief Mayawati in good spirits.
When the results came out, the Congress was just one short of simple majority. The BSP won two seats and the SP one. Even before the final numbers were clear, the SP and the BSP had announced their MLAs would unconditionally support the government.
At this juncture, chief minister-in-waiting Kamal Nath privately assured the SP and the BSP that their MLAs would be inducted as ministers in the Madhya Pradesh cabinet, SP sources claim. However, the Congress did not keep its word, giving the BSP to tell the SP an opportunity to say, ‘Look, we told you the Congress can’t be trusted. They don’t keep their word.’
Akhilesh Yadav publicly lashed out at the Congress, saying that it had “cleared the path” for UP by not making its legislator a minister.
With one and two MLAs respectively, did the SP and BSP deserve ministerial berths in Madhya Pradesh? Numerically not. After all, the Congress was just two short of a clear majority and the assembly had four independent MLAs.
“The point is that they themselves made a promise they did not keep,” says the Samajwadi Party leader cited above. “That left a very bad taste in the mouth.”
This is the same Congress party that wanted to be given one of two seats in the March 2018 bypolls in Uttar Pradesh even though it had no significant voter base.
Since the Madhya Pradesh debacle, there has been a communication breakdown between the SP and the Congress. There has so far been no “understanding” between the two parties of any kind, leave alone between the Congress and the BSP.
Contrary to reports that Priyanka Gandhi’s entry was a nudge to make SP-BSP offer some seats to the Congress, it was a move that worsened relations between the two sides. Akhilesh Yadav reminded the world that it wasn’t correct to say they had not included the Congress in the alliance. After all, they had left two seats for the Congress — Amethi and Raebareli, a sly way of saying that’s all the Congress deserved and it better be grateful for the favour.
The SP-BSP announced Thursday exactly which seats they will both be contesting, leaving three for the Rashtriya Lok Dal and two for the Congress. This put an end to all speculation of a rethink about the Congress in the grand alliance.
The final nail in the coffin was when Priyanka Gandhi spoke on phone with Shivpal Yadav, Akhilesh’s estranged uncle who has formed a breakaway party. Shivpal Yadav’s party is in talks with the Congress for an alliance.
The BSP has accused Shivpal Yadav of playing into the hands of the Bhartiya Janata Party and seeking to divide the anti-BJP votes. The estranged uncle has a high chance of winning the Firozabad Lok Sabha constituency for himself but may not have much impact outside it.
Nevertheless, Priyanka Gandhi and Shivpal Yadav looking to work together is a sign of things to come. It’s becoming clearer by the day that the Congress is more likely to play spoiler for the SP-BSP, in the process helping the BJP win a few more seats in the politically most important state.