Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav on Thursday signaled the end of seat sharing talks with Congress for the Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections, saying that his party had been “fooled”. Even though the Samajwadi Party is a minor player in Madhya Pradesh, Yadav’s anger has raised concerns about Congress’s relationship with one of its major allies in the INDIA bloc.

The tension highlights a lack of clarity in the scope and contours of the INDIA alliance.

While former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath and other leaders of the Congress have said that the failure to reach an agreement in the state will not have any bearing on equations at the national level, Yadav did not convey any such confidence. “If they say that there is no alliance, then we accept that there is no alliance,” he told reporters on Thursday. “If they want an alliance in Uttar Pradesh for the general elections, we will decide when the time comes. We will act according to the way we get treated.”

Yadav said that he would not have “even picked up phone calls from Congress leaders” had he known that the INDIA parties were to contest together only in the Lok Sabha elections.

How the breakup unfolded

The talks between the two parties received an initial jolt on October 15 after the Congress released its first list of 144 candidates. Hours later, the Samajwadi Party named nine candidates – five of them pitted against Congress nominees. Since then, the Congress has announced nominations for all but one of the seats in the 230-member Assembly, while the Samajwadi Party has named 24 more candidates.

As things stand, candidates of the two parties will face off on at least 20 seats even if the Samajwadi Party does not announce any more candidates.

On Thursday, Yadav claimed that the Congress had agreed to consider the Samajwadi Party on six seats but went ahead with announcing its own candidates.

From the other camp, Piyush Babele, the media advisor to Nath, told Scroll that the Congress had tried to work out all “practical solutions”, but a consensus could not be reached. “Practical issues” was the reason that Nath himself had also cited after both parties released their first lists of candidates.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, two Congress leaders in Madhya Pradesh told Scroll that the party had urged some of its candidates to contest on the Samajwadi Party symbol – but they refused to do so.

Former Samajwadi Party legislator from Uttar Pradesh, Udaiveer Singh, however, told Scroll that the Congress did not do enough.

“Both in Madhya Pradesh and at the Centre, Congress has the larger responsibility to dislodge the BJP,” he said. “The party which is the bigger player always needs to make more compromises. We did so for Congress in 2017 [Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls] and with Bahujan Samaj Party in 2019 [Lok Sabha elections].”

Will the breakup hurt Congress?

In Madhya Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party has its support base in the Bundelkhand and Vindhya regions that share borders with Uttar Pradesh.

In the 2018 state elections, the party contested 52 seats and won the lone constituency of Bijawar. The winning candidate Rajesh Shukla – who defected to the BJP in 2022 – had lent support for the formation of a Congress government after the party fell two short of the majority mark of 116. The Samajwadi Party had forfeited its deposits in 45 of the 52 seats it contested and could garner only 1.3% the votes polled.

However, on six seats that the BJP bagged – Niwari, Gurh, Paraswada, Chandla, Maihar and Balaghat – the saffron party would have lost if the votes polled by Samajwadi Party and Congress candidates were to be added up, according to Election Commission data. In another seat, Prithvipur, the Samajwadi Party finished second to Congress by a margin of about 7,500 votes.

In Jabera, the BJP won by a slim margin, getting 48,901 votes to the Congress’s 45,416. But this time, the Samajwadi Party fielding a candidate might make the BJP’s win easier.

“Congress was not willing to share seats with us, so we decided to contest from here,” said Lakhan Lal Yadav, the Samajwadi Party’s candidate from Jabera. “Congress votes will get divided. It will lose this seat.”

From these trends it can be concluded that if Madhya Pradesh turns out to be a close contest like in 2018, the Samajwadi Party’s contribution could prove to be crucial.

“We did not lose anything in Madhya Pradesh,” Singh told Scroll. “It’s the Congress which stands to lose. If the race becomes tight, even our 1% vote will be instrumental.”

Meanwhile, Congress’ media cell chief in Madhya Pradesh, KK Mishra, told Scroll that his party was confident that the Samajwadi Party won’t help the BJP’s cause. “We will sit and sort out our differences.”

Congress leader Gaurav Kapoor said that it was not a matter of concern if the Samajwadi Party contested separately on seats where it has some support base. “If they win, it will after all be a victory against the BJP,” he said.

The Uttar Pradesh factor

Whatever be the outcome of the Madhya Pradesh elections, the Congress and Samajwadi Party will again have to sit at the negotiation table in a few months when it comes to seat sharing for the Lok Sabha elections in Uttar Pradesh.

Samajwadi Party leader Sudhir Panwar told Scroll that an alliance in Madhya Pradesh would have made it easier to cut the deal for Uttar Pradesh.

“We would have agreed even if we got very few seats in Madhya Pradesh, but the Congress should also realise that its posturing cannot dominate realpolitik,” he said. “We are ready to sacrifice but not at the cost of our own party”

In Uttar Pradesh, where the Samajwadi Party is the spearhead of the Opposition, it appears to already be miffed with the Congress’ state chief Ajay Rai. On several occasions, Rai has said that his party was preparing to contest all 80 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh.

On being asked about him on Thursday, Yadav told reporters that the Congress should not let “chirkut [small-time] leaders” make statements about the Samajwadi Party.

“What does he know about INDIA bloc?” Yadav asked. “He wasn’t present at the meetings [of INDIA] in Patna and Mumbai. What’s his stature even?... Such Congress leaders are in fact hand in gloves with the BJP.”

All of the Congress leaders Scroll spoke to, said that they were confident that the problems at the state level will not affect the understanding within INDIA.

“The INDIA alliance has been formed by keeping aside all sorts of ego and personal interests,” Kapoor told Scroll. “When it comes to deciding on seats for the Lok Sabha, the discussions will be held between leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav. These squabbles won’t matter then.”

Tabassum Barnagarwala contributed reporting to this story.