UP polls: SP-Congress alliance is all stitched up. How will it work?
Now that the possibility of a Bihar-style grand alliance has faded - as the RLD appears set to go it alone - the alliance between the Samajwadi Party and the Congress is likely be announced on Friday. The alliance will take on the might of the NDA, which swept the 2014 Lok Sabha election in Uttar Pradesh, taking 73 of its 80 seats. The other seven seats had all gone to the Yadav and the Gandhi families.
The Congress is expected to get as many as 103 seats to contest, although, sources said, some nominees of the Congress may in fact be chosen by the SP leadership. Indeed, indication that this would be the case came Friday when former legislators Sherbaz Pathan and Shahnawaz Rana, who were tipped to be fielded by the SP from, respectively, Chandpur in Bijnor and Meerapur in Muzaffarnagar, joined the Congress party. Sherbaz is said to have been declared the SP candidate as far back as last March. Congress general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad, however, put it the other way to the press: "Congress' family is growing."
The alliance was expected to be announced on Wednesday, but some issued could not be ironed out in time, leading to the delay. Azad, who handles UP for the Congress, had hinted as much Wednesday when he remarked that the official announcement may take another 100 hours.
The Congress, which has been a fringe player in the politics of the country's largest state for over two decades now, is bargaining for 105-108 of the 403 seats. It started by demanding over 150 seats, but after Akhilesh Yadav asked why it should get more than 60 seats, the grand old party was forced to revise down its demand.
The Congress currently has only 28 MLAs in the UP assembly, although it had stood second in 31 constituencies in the last election. The party also put up a good fight in some urban constituencies in the last Lok Sabha election. And, according to party insiders, it has used these statistics as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the SP.
Ajit Singh's RLD, which enjoys significant influence among the Jats in the sugarcane belt western UP, was also in talks to be a part of this alliance. But it demand for 35 seats, it is learnt, was turned down by both the SP and the Congress. They were unwilling to give more than 20-25 seats to the RLD.
The Congress and the SP, meanwhile, are reportedly still undecided on some key seats, including Amethi and Lucknow Cantt. The latter was held by Rita Bahuguna Joshi before she left the Congress for the BJP. Akhilesh Yadav's sister-in-law Aparna Yadav is keen to contest from this constituency, but the Congress is reluctant to give it up. The SP also wants to contest Amethi, even though is important in the Congress' scheme of things because Rahul Gandhi represents it in the Lok Sabha.
While the Congress is desperate for an alliance to shore up its prospects in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the SP could benefit by being seen as key to any credible opposition to the BJP nationally. Also, it may earn the support of significant sections of the upper castes and the Dalits that are still loyal to the Congress.
The Congress polled a little over 11% of the total vote in the 2012 assembly election in alliance with the RLD, but managed only about 7.5% vote in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Although sections of the party's cadre are unhappy that they aren't going it alone, the leadership believes that if the party comes to power, even as a junior partner, it would enthuse its wider support base, as happened in Bihar.
The SP-Congress combine will also send a message to the Muslims voters that it represents a credible opposition to the BJP. This would be a hard ask, however, not least because Mayawati is going all out to woo the Muslims; the BSP has fielded 95 candidates from the minority community, the most by any party in UP. The math, though, is on the side of the alliance: in 2012, the Congress-RLD combine took 18% of the Muslim vote, while the SP alone polled 39%.