The rapidly shifting political ground in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh may have forced the Congress to reevaluate its strategy in the state. Disheartened by the party’s dimming electoral prospects, Congress legislators from Uttar Pradesh have urged Vice President Rahul Gandhi to seriously consider a pre-poll alliance to avoid an embarrassing defeat next year.

At a meeting convened by him on Wednesday, Rahul Gandhi asked MLAs from Uttar Pradesh about the public response to the Congress’ campaign in the state and sought their opinion on stitching up an alliance before the elections.

The legislators were near-unanimous in recommending a tie-up, but said the choice of ally should be left to the party leadership. They said the Congress would be in deep trouble if it went solo in the 2017 elections.

Shaky ground

The meeting came at a time when the Congress is still recovering from the defection of senior Uttar Pradesh leader Rita Bahuguna Joshi to the Bharatiya Janata Party on October 20, which was followed by the resignation of 17 of her supporters from the party on Tuesday.

There are murmurs that several other Congress legislators are also on the lookout for better opportunities.

Since 2002, the control of the state has alternated between Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, which is currently in power. However, the BJP has launched an aggressive campaign in the state, which received a boost after the surgical strikes by the army across the Line of Control on September 28. The cross-border action has swung public opinion in favour of the Narendra Modi government for taking a tough line against Pakistan.

The Congress, thus, finds itself on the back foot in Uttar Pradesh and legislators increasingly feel that a pre-poll alliance is their only shot at coming to power.

Rough-weather friends?

The Bahujan Samaj Party has always been the Congress’ first choice of ally but Mayawati has said several times that she is not in favour of pre-poll alliances.

This leaves the Congress with the option of crisis-ridden Samajwadi Party, a party divided after the tussle between Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and his uncle Shivpal Yadav. On Sunday, Akhilesh Yadav sacked his uncle from the state cabinet, a move that found the chief minister pitted against his own father and Party President Mulayam Singh Yadav, who publicly condemned the decision.

Though the chief minister has ruled out a split as of now, he has been talking about setting off on his poll campaign independently.

This family feud that has been building up since at least June and is now out in the open may have damaged the party’s reputation ahead of the polls. The party has thus started sending out feelers that it is open to a pre-poll tie up.

Shivpal Yadav, the party’s Uttar Pradesh chief, has hinted that he would be open to a tie up with the Congress or the Rashtriya Lok Dal to defeat “communal forces” in the polls. In line with this, Shivpal Yadav was in Delhi on Thursday, reaching out to leaders of others parties and inviting them for the Samajwadi Party’s 25th birthday celebrations in Lucknow next week. Mulayam Singh Yadav is also said to be keen on stitching up a grand alliance of the kind that brought the Janata Dal (United), Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress to power in the 2015 Bihar elections.

However, party officials said that the Congress is wary of this offer and does not know if it is just an attempt to divert attention from the divide within the party, or secure their Muslim vote base by speaking of a secular alliance. On Wednesday, senior Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan had cautioned that the ongoing feud, which had divided the party into rival camps, had caused concern among Muslim voters.

Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav have also made overtures of friendship towards one another, setting off speculation of a tie-up.

While the Congress vice-president described Akhilesh Yadav as a “good person”, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister backed Rahul Gandhi’s “khoon ki dalali” (trading in the blood of soldiers) remark about the BJP’s seeming politicisation of the surgical strikes.

The Congress, which was earlier sceptical about aligning with the Samajwadi Party given the anti-incumbency it is facing, the grand old party is no longer averse to the idea. Party officials said that the bond between Akhilesh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi, would stand them in good stead if the leadership moves forward with the tie-up and this would also help consolidate the minority vote as well as secure the support of Brahmins.

Change of stance

If the alliance comes through, it will be a marked departure for the party that had earlier maintained it would go it alone in the Uttar Pradesh polls.

In an interview to the Hindustan Times published on September 23, Rahul Gandhi had said that Congress “should stand on its own and fight the 2017 assembly elections alone for its ideology and the policies.”

At the time, Rahul Gandhi was in the middle of the month-long kisan yatra in the state, which began on September 6 and initially drew enthusiastic crowds. The vice-president felt that Congress was likely to to play the role of kingmaker after the elections and work out a post-poll alliance with either the Bahujan Samaj Party or the Samajwadi Party, depending on who wins the maximum seats, to help them cross the majority mark in the assembly