Five years is an eternity in Indian politics. As Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav beamed beatifically into the cameras last weekend, the mind was thrown back to 2012 when just ahead of the Uttar Pradesh elections, Gandhi had delivered a solo performance, stressing that the Congress was in UP for the long haul, and would fight the region-based caste parties like the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party. “The Congress doesn’t look at a single election, we have a 10 year plan,” he had boldly claimed then.
Five years on, Gandhi has finally realised that in Indian politics short-term gain is preferable to long-term pain. The bravado of 2012 has been replaced by the chilling pragmatism of 2017. Then, the Congress was part of the ruling alliance at the Centre and could afford to indulge in romantic fantasies of a glorious return to power in the Hindi heartland.
Now, the Congress has been reduced to a 44-MP rump at the Centre and has shrunk even further in subsequent state elections. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and while the Congress will try and spin the Congress-SP alliance as a “grand sangam of the Ganga and Yamuna”, the truth is that the coming together has been forced by the political urgency of somehow stopping the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah juggernaut from claiming India’s most prized state.
Ironically, only four months ago, the Congress was engaging in similar bluster while threatening to contest all 403 seats in UP. As Gandhi embarked on a kisan yatra, the party’s political managers boldly pronounced that the young dynast had electrified the state. It was enough for the Congress to audaciously (or rather foolishly) wheel out a 78-year-old Sheila Dikshit from retirement as the party’s chief ministerial nominee.
It hasn’t taken long since for the swagger to be replaced by the stark reality that the Congress is increasingly irrelevant to the political discourse in UP. Rather than face a lingering, tortuous death, the Congress has chosen to offer temporary relief by aligning with the Samajwadi Party, which its local leadership has often dismissively referred to as a party of thugs.
It is after all almost three decades now since the Congress last tasted power in UP. The year that the Congress lost power in UP was when Sachin Tendulkar was making his test debut and Virat Kohli was just a year old: Yes, it is that long!
Since then, UP politics has undergone a tectonic change: The mandir and mandal movements of the 1990s completely destroyed the Congress edifice, reducing it to a marginal status in the state. In 1996, then prime minister PV Narasimha Rao appeared to acknowledge the Congress’ subordinate position when he allied with the BSP under Kanshi Ram. The alliance didn’t quite work for the Congress: While the BSP became a central player in UP politics, the Congress shrank further.
Will the Congress under Rahul Gandhi succeed where Rao failed by sowing up another opportunistic alliance? In pure arithmetic terms, the Congress-SP alliance has a real chance: In the 2012 assembly elections, the Samajwadi Party garnered 29% of the vote, and the Congress had 11%. Even if the two forces together were to get over 30% of the vote, they would have a realistic shot at power in a triangular contest. More importantly, the alliance has a chance of consolidating the 18% plus Muslim vote in the state.
But electoral politics is sometimes about chemistry as much as it is about hard number crunching. Do Akhilesh and Rahul represent the new “young” face of UP politics, or are they weighed down by the baggage of the past? Akhilesh has chosen to project himself as a freshly-minted leader by cutting the umbilical cord with the Samajwadi Party old guard represented by father and uncle. Gandhi is attempting a similar re-invention by showcasing himself as a more combative politician. The truth is, neither can Akhilesh entirely sever his links with his party’s past (a number of Samajwadi Party candidates have criminal records) nor can Gandhi suddenly transform himself into a charismatic neta who can challenge Modi.
Which is why this strategic alliance can only be seen as a stop-gap arrangement for now. If it does succeed, it will offer a template for a potential “mahagatbandhan” in 2019 as the only option to another Modi-led government in Delhi. But alliance politics cannot mask the reality that the Congress has been unable to revive itself after the debacle in 2014. Rather than energising its rank and file with new ideas and leaders, the party has chosen political expediency over rebuilding the organisation. The alliance with Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad in Bihar, for example, may have won an election but has consigned the Congress to becoming the C team in the state forever.
In a sense, UP is no different. The Congress may gain a few seats by cementing an alliance but it has effectively accepted that it does not have the manpower to fight an election in the country’s most populous state on its own — thereby placing a big question mark on its credentials as a pan-Indian party. The Ganga-Yamuna sangam metaphor used by Gandhi does make for a nice sound bite as long as it comes with the candid acceptance that in the Indo-Gangetic plains, the Congress is now a minor tributary to the mighty rivers that flow through the region.
Post-script: It isn’t just Rahul Gandhi who has changed in five years. In 2012, Narendra Modi refused to campaign in UP protesting against his long-time RSS rival Sanjay Joshi being given a prominent position. Clearly, nothing is permanent in the topsy-turvy world of Indian politics.