Monday, January 18, 2010

IS UP GOING THE CONGRESS WAY?

Amar Singh, Mulayam Yadav's Man Friday, has all but quit the Samajwadi Party (SP). Although he says it is for health reasons, no one is in any doubt that this development has its roots in the poor performance of the party in the last Lok Sabha elections, primarily because it failed to sew up an alliance with the Congress. Without Amar Singh and the Bollywood star power that he commands, it appears unlikely that the SP will ever be the force it was. Once voters sense that this boat is sinking, many will quickly hop over to the one that they believe can complete the journey.

Is, then, UP going the Congress way?

As early as in March 2008, when there were some signs of the Congress going back to the SP, the party it had dumped just before the Assembly elections in 2007, I had written that the only party that would gain from an alliance between the two would be the latter. The Prime Minister's determination to go through with the Indio-US Nuclear Deal, despite the opposition of the Left, meant that the Congress had no choice then but to embrace Mulayam Yadav. And he obliged, thanks in no small measure to Amar Singh who played a key role in ensuring that the the government won the Confidence Vote in the Lok Sabha.

For a short honeymoon period, the friendship between the two parties appeared unshakeable. But what Mulayam Yadav forgot was that with that one decision to share the bed of the Congress, he isolated himself from all his previous allies. All he was left with was a 'thank you' from the Congress and trust that gratitude would prevail over practical self-interest. The Congress too perhaps did not immediately realise that a real opportunity had opened up for it: there is no better way to defeat an opponent than by first isolating him.

In the event, the Congress eventually decided to take the only logical step available to it to rebuild itself in UP. Just before the Lok Sabha elections, it dumped the SP and decided to go it alone in the state. The results surprised every one, including the Congress, which was expecting a recovery over the long haul. Although there were various factors that led to its much improved performance, it drove home one basic lesson that it should never have lost sight of in the first place: an alliance with the either the BSP or the SP was not going to strengthen a very weak Congress.

Who could have imagined before May this year that the Congress, which had only around 8% of the vote share in the state, would emerge as one of the main contenders for power within such a short time? As things stand now, it is most likely that the the party will not only drastically improve its performance, it might even emerge as the single largest party in the next Assembly elections.

Amar Singh may shout and brag, but it is unlikely that he will ever be an independent player of any consequence in UP. At best he will be a spoiler in some constituencies. That is probably what he is going to leverage, to try and strike an attractive deal with the Congress at the right time.

There is a small window of opportunity here for the BJP too. But that party seems to be in utter disarray and hurtling towards where the Congress was a year ago. It has an almost impossible mountain to climb. Therefore, unless it puts in place new new leadership team which comes up with some refreshing and bold changes that can restore the almost completely destroyed credibility of the party among the people, it is likely to give a walk-over and watch from the sidelines the big fight that is likely to take place between the Congress and the BSP. If there is one lesson that the party needs to learn from its past experience and the manner in which the decision of the Congress to go it alone has dramatically altered the dynamics in its favour, it is that an alliance with Mayawati will be fatal. The only way it can rebuild itself is by going alone. With a little luck, the impact might be even be disruptive.

The third main player, Mayawati-led BSP, is in power now and has been doing well in the by polls. But, as we have seen earlier too, these results are not always replicated in the main polls. Mayawati will most likely hold on to her dalit base, at least till the next elections, even though Rahul Gandhi has been making concerted efforts to poach it with his well publicised night stays in dalit homes. But non-dalits are vulnerable. Muslim voters had migrated almost en bloc to the Congress in the Lok Sabha elections, in what appears to have been a carefully coordinated strategy to defeat the BJP. With the SP now collapsing, they will most likely remain there, unless Mayawati can wean them with some dangerous promise that will only undermine her party in the long run.

Whichever way one looks at it, the one deduction that cannot be escaped is that everything is beginning to fall into place in favour of the Congress, not because of any wave generated by Rahul Gandhi, but because of extraneous developments that will result in even more voters gravitating towards it. UP may well see the return of Congress rule in the state after decades. Mayawati, who has a knack of surprising everyone, has a real challenge on her hands.
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