As political disputations go, it could get uglier, but just about. On 1 May, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi had been reported as having said that her party's candidates were not hurting those of the Opposition alliance in Uttar Pradesh, but was actually helping them by making inroads into the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP’s) vote share in many places.
This statement elicited inexplicably strong comments from both Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati and Samajwadi Party boss Akhilesh Yadav the next day, with the former accusing the Congress of being in league with the BJP to defeat the Samajwadi Party-BSP alliance. "The Congress and BJP are trying to stop those oppressed by casteist and communal forces from going to Parliament. Those who vote for Congress in this election should realise they will only be benefiting BJP," Mayawati said. Akhilesh echoed her sentiments, but in a more measured way. "I do not believe that the Congress has fielded weak candidates anywhere. No party does it. People are not with them. That is why they are making excuses," he said.
Akhilesh's statement points to what appears to be some misreporting of what Priyanka had said. An impression was conveyed that she had said that her party had fielded weak candidates in some constituencies to help the alliance. On Thursday, Priyanka clarified that she had said nothing of the sort. "I have not said I am putting up weak candidates. I have very clearly said that the Congress is fighting this election on its own strength. I would rather die than benefit the BJP. We have chosen candidates that are either fighting very strongly or cutting BJP votes," she said.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi also issued a clarification. "A secular formation is going to win whether it is BSP, Samajwadi Party or Congress," he said, denying that his party was dividing the anti-BJP votes. "Wherever we don't have a strong candidate, we are giving help to the BSP-Samajwadi Party. We're saying, "Okay, we're going to harm the BJP." Where we have solid candidates, we are fighting for our space."
The various positions taken are important in two ways. First, there is the question of strategic responsibility and the role each of these actors are playing to achieve the common objective of dislodging the BJP government from power. Second, there is a connected issue of facticity: Who is the Congress really hurting? The Mahagathbandhan or the BJP?
Let us take up the first question, as it were, first. In the run-up to the elections, there was an expectation among those who want to see the back of the current dispensation that a 'grand alliance' would be formed in Uttar Pradesh, consisting of the Samajwadi Party, BSP, Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal, the Congress and, perhaps, sundry smaller parties. This expectation stemmed, in the main, from the results of the by-elections in three constituencies held last year — Gorakhpur and Phulpur first, and then Kairana. In all the three by-elections, the four parties mentioned above came together to defeat BJP candidates. Gorakhpur was the most significant because the constituency had been relinquished by Yogi Adityanath when he became chief minister and was a pocket borough that he had won five times consecutively.
When, however, an alliance was formed in Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party and the BSP decided to leave the Congress out of it. If reports are to be believed, it was on Mayawati's insistence that this decision was taken. Akhilesh must also take responsibility for the decision though, since he agreed to it. The consequential question is, having been shut out, what should the Congress have done? Is it conceivable that it should have decided to contest only two seats, Rae Bareli and Amethi, that the alliance had decided not to contest? Or, is it more obvious that it should have decided that it would contest the election in Uttar Pradesh on its own terms?
It's a bit of a no-brainer. No party would surrender its right to contest elections in the largest and, in many ways, most significant state in the country politically just to give three other parties a better chance of winning. In any case, the Congress does believe that it is in a position to win some seats in the state. Even if that is an overly optimistic estimate, the party has every right to have a shot at boosting its tally. In any case, some of the feedback from the ground suggests that the Congress can pick up a few seats.
There can be little justification for Mayawati or Akhilesh's criticism of the Congress. What should really have happened in Uttar Pradesh was a replication of the by-election arrangements. The decision to shut the Congress out is what muddied the waters. If indeed Mayawati and Akhilesh were serious about defeating the BJP, they should not have left the Congress out, unilaterally. There wasn't even a semblance of negotiation and, thus, no real reason for the decision.
There are suggestions that Mayawati was apprehensive that the Congress would eat into her social constituency. That is possible. But it is also true that Mayawati is an extremely erratic and unreliable leader, and the blame for what has transpired in Uttar Pradesh lies squarely with her. The allegation that the Congress is in cahoots with the BJP is laughable and the rhetoric about the oppressed being prevented from going to Parliament doesn't really cut much ice.
The second question is a little tricky. The Gandhi siblings have been claiming that their party is not eating into the votes of the anti-BJP alliance; it is, contrariwise, damaging the BJP's prospects. Mayawati and Akhilesh obviously don't buy this claim. It's difficult to tell how the Congress presence is playing out on the ground. But on balance it does appear that the Congress is actually hurting the BJP more than it is hurting the Mahagathbandhan, for example, by eating into the upper-caste vote bank of the ruling party. It makes sense in other ways as well. Both the Samajwadi Party and BSP have dedicated social constituencies among Dalits and other backward castes that the Congress can't really touch.
The only argument the allies can make is that the Congress will divide the Muslim vote. But even that is unlikely to happen because it is almost certain that in this absolutely vital election, Muslims are bound to vote tactically. If they vote for a Congress candidate, it will only happen because they think that he or she is in a strong position to win.
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Updated Date: May 03, 2019 15:40:24 IST