Ever since the Samajwadi Party and the Congress finalised their alliance late last month, there have been high expectations in the two camps that this partnership will pay them rich dividend in the coming Uttar Pradesh assembly polls.

Members of both parties are banking on Akhilesh Yadav’s popularity and a Muslim consolidation in favour of the alliance to see them through this election. They have also pinned their hopes on the public response to the joint roadshows undertaken by Akhilesh Yadav and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi which, they believe, would generate a momentum in favour of the alliance.

But for all this overt enthusiasm, the Congress camp is beset with doubts and anxiety just days before voters in 71 constituencies in western Uttar Pradesh get ready to cast their ballot in the first phase of polls on February 11.

There is no doubt that Akhilesh Yadav has acquired an unprecedented fan following, especially among the youth and women. But in a state like Uttar Pradesh where caste loyalties are a big factor in elections, the Congress is not sure that the buzz created by the alliance and Akhilesh Yadav’s personal charisma will be sufficient in breaking down these barriers, especially since both the Samajwadi Party and the Congress have not been major players in western Uttar Pradesh for over two decades now.

Demonetisation blues

Reports from this region suggest that the Bharatiya Janata Party, which swept Uttar Pradesh in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections with the overwhelming support of the Jats has now lost the backing of a substantial section of this politically influential community. The Jats are unhappy with the Modi government’s decision on demonetisation which, according to them, has disrupted rural economy.

The government’s failure to provide quotas for their community and the growing agrarian crisis in the region has further alienated the Jats from the BJP. Similarly, the Dalits who had shifted to the BJP in the communally surcharged atmosphere prevailing in 2014, are equally disillusioned with the saffron party, primarily because their livelihood has been badly hit by the Centre’s move to annul high denomination currency notes.

Nevertheless, the BJP is not out of reckoning in this region. It is making a valiant attempt to stay in the fight by playing the communal card and also consolidating the non-Yadav Other Backward Classes and the upper castes. As far as the Jats are concerned, the Ajit Singh-led Rashtriya Lok Dal is back in favour with the community, which regrets having switched loyalties to the BJP in the last general election. At the same time, the Dalits are returning to the Bahujan Samaj Party which has always enjoyed a strong following in this region. In addition, the minorities will also gravitate towards the BSP if its candidates are perceived to be best placed to defeat the BJP.

The Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance, on the other hand, has no core support base in western Uttar Pradesh. But the two parties hope that the buzz created by their partnership and Akhilesh Yadav’s popular image will be sufficient to cut across caste lines and also endear them to the minorities who have always been favourably inclined to the two parties. But it is also clear that the minorities will not waste their vote if the alliance is not in a position to beat the BJP challenge.

The wind in BSP sails

According to the Congress internal assessment, the BSP is a strong contender in western Uttar Pradesh and this might end up hurting the alliance. If Mayawati’s party scores well in the first phase on February 11, it will have a distinct advantage in the subsequent phases of elections once word gets around that the BSP is in a position of strength. This is precisely what happened in the 2012 assembly polls. Akhilesh Yadav gained ground with each phase of polling once it became known through word of mouth that the Samajwadi Party was surging ahead of its rivals.

“In such a situation we are not sure that the alliance can cross the half-way mark and win over 204 seats,” remarked a senior Congress strategist.

Moreover, the Congress and the Samajwadi Party are still struggling over the distribution of seats. Despite hard-nosed negotiations by both sides, the two parties have not been able to arrive at an amicable solution on 10-14 assembly seats. Much to the embarrassment of the two parties, candidates from the Congress and the Samajwadi Party are contesting against each other on several seats as neither side is willing to forgo its claim on the concerned seats. The Congress is pushing hard for seats in Rae Bareli and Amethi, the Lok Sabha constituencies of Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. With neither side willing to give in, the Congress has fielded candidates in seven of the 10 assembly segments in these constituencies while the Samajwadi Party is contesting five seats.

Besides sorting out these seat-sharing problems, the two parties also have to work hard to ensure that their cadres work in tandem for each other’s candidates. It is not an easy task as the Samajwadi Party‘s core supporters – the Yadavs – have never voted for the Congress. If the Samajwadi Party is hoping that its alliance with the Congress will help in garnering the support of the upper castes, it could be in for a disappointment as the Brahmins and Thakurs have never been comfortable with the Yadavs. The electoral pact will, however, succeed in consolidating the minority vote but, here again, the BSP could wean away a substantial number of votes, especially in areas where it has an edge.