Should the Congress tie up with Samajwadi Party for the Uttar Pradesh polls next year for a more realistic shot at coming to power and somewhat salvage Vice President Rahul Gandhi’s reputation? Or should it contest alone and instead concentrate on its long-term plan of reviving the party in the politically crucial state where it has been out of power for 28 years?

This is the dilemma that faces the Congress as the Uttar Pradesh elections near and murmurs of a possible alliance between the two parties grow, with even Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav hinting at this.

“We face a tough choice. Do we focus on protecting our leader or should we concentrate on reviving the party?” said an Uttar Pradesh Congress leader. “Either way, we lose.”

Take a shot

One section in the Congress is strongly pitching for an alliance with the Samajwadi Party as the Grand Old Party is on a weak footing in Uttar Pradesh. They believe that Congress could hope to win a respectable number of seats by piggybacking on the ruling Samajwadi Party’s support base – as was the case in Bihar, when the Grand Alliance of Congress, Janata Dal (United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal swept the 2015 state polls.

This camp argues that such an alliance has the potential to arrest the Bharatiya Janata Party’s growth in Uttar Pradesh, which is the Congress top priority, as the outcome of these elections will lay the ground for the 2019 Parliamentary polls.

More importantly, pulling off a Bihar-like win in Uttar Pradesh will also help salvage Rahul Gandhi’s reputation, a section of leaders feel.

The Congress has suffered a series of electoral defeats ever since the vice president practically took over the reins of the party in 2014, including setbacks in Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Kolkata this year. A victory, even as a junior partner, will consolidate Rahul Gandhi’s hold over the party and pave the way for his formal anointment as Congress chief, taking over the position from his mother, Sonia Gandhi.

Risky gamble

On the flip side, however, is the lurking fear that if the Congress goes ahead with a pre-poll alliance with the Samajwadi Party, it will seal its fate as a bit player in Uttar Pradesh. This would be a big setback to the Congress’ grand plans of strengthening the party organisation in the state, galvanising grassroots workers and building a strong local leadership.

If the alliance does come through, the Congress is not expected to contest in more than 90 out of 404 seats as the Samajwadi Party is certain to be the senior partner. This will put the Grand Old Party at a distinct disadvantage in the 2019 general elections as it will not have effective state leaders to prop up as Lok Sabha candidates. Uttar Pradesh alone contributes 80 Parliamentary seats (of 543 in the Lok Sabha), the highest for any state.

Congress leaders who are not in favour of such an alliance point to the party’s situation in Bihar, where it had to cede ground to regional players like Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) and the Lalu Prasad Yadav-led RJD. Though the Congress won 27 of the 41 seats it contested in last year’s Bihar assembly polls (its best performance in 20 years), it is the junior-most ally in the Mahagathbandan, as the JD(U) has 71 seats in the state assembly and the RJD has 80.

These leaders fear that a similar fate awaits the party in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, where it will have to resign to playing second-fiddle. Moreover, the victory of such an alliance is not a given, as Samajwadi Party is facing strong anti-incumbency and the family feud between Akhilesh Yadav and uncle Shivpal Yadav that played out in the open, dividing the party into two rival camps, has also hurt its reputation in the state.

That Akhilesh Yadav has frequently indicated he is open to such an tie-up – for instance, on December 13, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister said that if the party contested the state polls with the Congress, the alliance would win more than 300 seats – is a clear sign that the Samajwadi Party is not confident of its electoral prospects.

Further, the tie up could boomerang – instead of containing the BJP, the electoral pact may end up working to its advantage. It could give the saffron party an opportunity to play the communal card by accusing the Congress and the Samajwadi Party of coming together only to consolidate the Muslim vote. The Muslim-Yadav combine is the core support base of the Samajwadi Party, but Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati is working hard to consolidate the Dalit and Muslim vote. The Samajwadi Party hopes that by tying up with the Congress, it could prevent the minority vote from slipping away.

However, those who support the alliance point out that the surgical strikes conducted by the Indian army across the Line of Control on September 29 and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to demonetise high-value currency notes in November has changed the political discourse in favour of the BJP, projecting it as a party ready to take tough decisions. “Going alone is not going to help us…we will be wiped out,” said a former minister from the Congress.