Saturday, February 7, 2009

WILL CONGRESS FINALLY DUMP SP?

As per news reports, the Congress party will take a final decision by February 11, 2009 about continuing its alliance with Mulayam Yadav's Samajwadi Party (SP) in UP. Will the Congress dare to go in for elections alone in the state? With just about 8% of the vote share and certain victories limited to the two constituencies represented by Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, conventional wisdom suggests that it will be suicidal for the party to do so. Really?

Yes, no new voters are being attracted to the party. Mayawati has taken away all its dalit votes and Mulayam Yadav all its Yadav and most of its Muslim votes, leaving the Congress with the votes of only the old and dying who continue to support the party as they have been since Independence. With Rahul Gandhi having failed to enthuse voters, particularly the youth, the situation is actually desperate and the party has no hope of bettering its performance on its own. That is the compelling argument in favour of a tie up with the SP.

It may be recalled that till 2007, the Congress and the SP were on the same side of the fence. Then, just before the UP state elections in 2007, the Congress dumped the party, became its sworn enemy and vowed to defeat it and end Chief Minister Mulayam Yadav's 'goonda raj'. The bravado was triggered by the induction of Rahul Gandhi into UP politics and his decision to actively campaign for the Congress as its star campaigner. Disconnected “loyalists”, helped by similarly placed media moguls, probably had visions of the latest Nehru-Gandhi taking the state by storm, just like his illustrious ancestors had done. He would, they believed, single handedly attract enough additional votes to at least ensure that no one could form a government in the state without the critical support of the Congress.

In the event, not only did the strategy backfire badly, the vote percentage of the party also actually declined, and Mayawati stunned everyone by not only defeating the SP but also getting to power entirely on her own, something which no party had been able to do in UP for a long time. Then began a honeymoon between her and the Congress.

I had then itself warned that Mayawati’s hug was the hug of death from which only the Congress would emerge a loser. But the realization took a long time coming. The successive defeats faced by the Congress in the other state elections that followed, made the party sit up and realize that the BSP was taking away enough voters everywhere from the Congress, to ensure the defeat of many of its candidates by that critical margin. Mayawati was serious competition.

So, what did the Congress do? It went back to the same SP that it had vowed to defeat, and once pariah Amar Singh became the party's best friend! Admittedly, the Congress then had little choice but to embrace the SP because the communists had walked out on them on the Indo-US Nuclear Deal. The alliance made great electoral sense for the humbled SP as it would enable it to get the critical number of Congress votes required to get enough MPs into Parliament and, if the dice rolled right, for Mulayam Yadav to stake claim for the PM's job.

But was that alliance ever going to benefit the Congress electorally? Even before the Congress and SP became friends again, it was clear to me that the Congress would be the loser, just like it had been with the BSP. In UP, Mayawati and Mulayam have, between them, taken away the traditional voters of the Congress and made the party irrelevant in the state. The Congress is never going to improve its base by aligning with either of them. The only way it can retrieve its position is by defeating at least one, if not both of them. And, in the given circumstance, it is only the SP that the Congress can hope to weaken and destroy.

The Congress and the BJP have to realise that they are no longer fighting each other in UP. If they still continue to believe that they are principal opponents there and indulge in a mutually destructive fight, only Mayawati and Mulayam will benefit.

In what must come as a great relief to the Congress, Mulayam and his Man Friday Amar Singh, for all their astuteness, have got themselves into a very vulnerable corner. When they had embraced the Congress, they failed to realise that by ditching the Third Front and annoying the Left , they had isolated themselves completely and left themselves at the mercy of the Congress. They took the risk probably in the smug belief that an almost non-existent Congress had no choice but to go along with them in UP. A few days back, when they re-embraced Kalyan Singh of Babri Masjid fame, they thought that they had further strengthened their bargaining power with the party. That move of theirs has not gone down well with a large section of their Muslim vote bank. If the situation is exploited adroitly, a substantial part of the Muslim vote can be got to get back to the Congress.

The Congress has a real opportunity here.

One of its two principal opponents in UP stands politically isolated and electorally vulnerable. This is an almost heaven-sent opportunity for the Congress to meaningfully begin the revival of its fortunes in the state. The Third Front has been vapourised, the Left is not willing to forgive Mulayam and forget what he did and Muslims are annoyed with him for sleeping with Kalyan Singhand giving him the 'secular badge' for free. Any pre-poll tie up with SP, therefore, will only be to the advantage of that party and the Congress will suffer an even further erosion in the little popular support that it has.

Will the Congress still bargain with and bail out Mulayam in the possibly misplaced hope of getting may be around five additional MPs from UP? Or will it finally go in for the kill and decide to go it all alone?