Has the Congress changed its mind on projecting Sheila Dikshit as its chief ministerial candidate in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh?

This is the buzz in the party after Dikshit was conspicuously absent at party Vice President Rahul Gandhi’s public rallies in Bharaich and Jaunpur last week, even as Congress’ Uttar Pradesh in-charge Ghulam Nabi Azad and state party chief Raj Babbar were present.

The party had announced Dikshit as its chief ministerial face for next year’s polls in July, but is now exploring contesting the elections with the ruling Samajwadi Party, which could have prompted a change of plan.

Moreover, Dikshit is said to be upset after Rahul Gandhi brought up the Sahara-Birla papers – a tranche of documents containing purported evidence of bribe money paid to various political bigwigs – at a rally in Mehsana in Gujarat on December 21. These papers were collected during Income Tax raids at offices of the Sahara India Group and AV Birla Group in 2013 and 2014 and one of the entries referred to the “Gujarat CM”. The Opposition has alleged that this implicates Narendra Modi, who was the chief minister of Gujarat at the time. However, the “Sahara diaries”, as they are called, also has an entry regarding cash payment made to “Delhi CM, in 2013. The Supreme Court, which is hearing a petition on the case filed by a Common Cause, led by activist-advocate Prashant Bhushan, has also raised doubts about the authenticity of the papers.

Dikshit, who was the chief minister of Delhi at the time, has rubbished the allegation and the diaries as “hearsay”.

This weakens Rahul Gandhi’s attempts to discredit Modi and tarnish his image, as his attack is based primarily on the entries in these diaries. To make matters worse for Dikshit, Congress spokesperson Jairam Ramesh stated emphatically on Monday said the party wanted a probe against all those whose names figured in the diaries.

Enter Samajwadi Party

Dikshit’s absence at Rahul Gandhi’s election meetings also assumes significance given that the Congress is exploring an alliance with the Samajwadi Party for the Uttar Pradesh even though it Congress leaders publicly maintain they are prepared to go solo. If the tie-up materialises, the Congress will undoubtedly be the junior partner and it is a foregone conclusion that Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Singh Yadav will be the projected for the top job.

“Not only has the Congress assumed that the alliance is coming through...it appears the party has also accepted Akhilesh Yadav as its chief ministerial candidate,” remarked an Uttar Pradesh Congress leader.

Dikshit, who was selected as to woo the Brahmin vote in Uttar Pradesh, has not made much of an impact in the crucial Hindi heartland state, where Congress is languishing in the margins.

Family feud

While a section in the Uttar Pradesh Congress is pinning its hopes on a poll pact with the Samajwadi Party, there is also unease among the cadres, who believe the party’s over-reliance on this alliance could put it in trouble if does not fructify. Speculation and hints of such a tie-up have been doing the rounds for months, but there still no clarity if the Samajwadi Party-Congress talks will succeed. While the two parties are locked in a tussle over the seat-sharing on the one hand, the internal feud between Akhilesh Yadav and uncle Shivpal Yadav can derail the alliance on the other.

Despite a seeming reconciliation between uncle and nephew, whose tussle had divided the party into rival camps and threatened to cause a split, tensions threatening to resurface again.

It is now evident that Akhilesh Yadav is in favour of an alliance with the Congress, having hinted at it publicly on several occasions recently. However, he is facing stiff resistance from Shivpal Yadav, the party’s Uttar Pradesh chief, who plays a crucial role in ticket distribution.

Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, who brokered a tentative truce between his son and his brother more than once, is said to be vacillating on this issue as he has been advised by Shivpal Yadav and Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh that he will lose control of the party if Akhilesh Yadav is allowed to have his way.

Though this family feud has hurt the Samajwadi Party’s credibility in the state, Akhilesh Yadav has emerged stronger for it. He is seen as a well-meaning pro-development leader who was not allowed to work independently by his interfering family members and his popularity remained unaffected despite the infighting and anti-incumbency in the state. Undoubtedly, if a Congress-Samajwadi Party were to succeed, it would further strengthen his position in the party.

With this, the battle in the Yadav clan has taken a fresh turn. Shivpal Yadav has finalised the names of 175 candidates, but Uttar Pradesh chief minister is said to have serious differences with his uncle on the selection. Akhilesh Yadav, who wants to have a say in the distribution of tickets so he can secure the nomination of his loyalists, has sent Mulayam Singh Yadav his own list of 403 candidates.

Two days ago, Yadav junior called a meeting of first-time legislators and assured them that they would be given tickets in the forthcoming election. Party insiders said this is a clear attempt by Akhilesh Yadav to assert himself and mount pressure on his father to agree to a poll pact with the Congress.

“This is Akhilesh’s way of telling his father and uncle that if the party is not in agreement with his suggestion for an alliance, he should have a say in the distribution of tickets,” said a Samajwadi Party leader.