Former Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav’s announcement on Tuesday ruling out an alliance ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls was predictably viewed as a blow to the Opposition’s intention to put up a united fight against a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party.

It was also seen as a setback for the Congress, which had tied up with the Samajwadi Party in last year’s assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, in which the two parties were virtually annihilated.

Despite these public pronouncements about the end of Opposition unity, however, the Congress was not unduly perturbed with Yadav’s statement as it believes that partnerships are generally sealed closer to an election. The next Lok Sabha poll, after all, is not due till next year. “Every political party wishes to strengthen itself before an election,” maintained Congress spokesperson RPN Singh. “When the next election draws closer, we will explore electoral alliances with like-minded political parties.”

Maintaining that a future alliance is still not off the table, Congress leaders believe that the Samajwadi Party chief’s statement was essentially aimed at strengthening his own party organisation and keeping his flock together. Akhilesh Yadav took charge of his party after a prolonged power struggle with his father Mulayum Singh Yadav and Shivpal Yadav.

Organisational challenges

Though he is in complete control of the party, Yadav, nevertheless, feels the need to consolidate his position. The former chief minister has to redeem himself after he led the Samajwadi Party to a disastrous defeat in the last assembly polls. The Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance took a severe beating in these elections, as the BJP and its allies bagged 325 seats in the 403-member assembly. The Samajwadi Party was reduced to a mere 47 seats while the Congress won seven.

Against this backdrop, Yadav could hardly afford to declare that the Samajwadi Party would have an alliance in the next election as it would be immediately seen as a sign of weakness. Moreover, it could also lead to defections and migrations from the party as candidates would be tempted to explore other options if they believe their seat would be given to the alliance partner.

It was, therefore, not surprising that Yadav described the bargaining over seats as a waste of time and was also at pains to emphasise that his top priority at present is to strengthen the party. Consequently, Yadav has decided to embark on a rath yatra across Uttar Pradesh with the specific purpose of reviving the party and energising its dispirited workers.

Congress leaders from Uttar Pradesh maintained that Yadav’s position was understandable. They pointed out that every political party attempts to expand its area of influence in the run-up to elections as it allows them to bargain from a position of strength during the seat-sharing negotiations with prospective alliance partners. It was precisely for this reason that the Opposition parties did not join hands in last year’s local elections in Uttar Pradesh. Each party wanted to test the waters and get their respective party organisations battle-ready for the next big challenge.

“Political parties assess their electoral chances closer to an election and then decide on alliances,” remarked a senior Congress leader.

Counter-productive alliance

Within the Congress, opinion is divided on going ahead with alliances in Uttar Pradesh. There is a section in the party that believes that its tie-up with the Samajwadi Party in last year’s assembly polls actually helped the BJP come to power in Uttar Pradesh. Though Akhilesh Yadav and Congress president Rahul Gandhi have an excellent rapport, the same cannot be said about their grassroots workers who have been fighting each other for decades. Not only did the two parties fail to transfer their votes to each other but it led to a Hindu consolidation in favour of the BJP as their alliance strengthened the perception that the two parties had joined hands with the express purpose of wooing the minorities.

“I think all the parties should contest on their own,” said a Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh. “In that case, they will at least be able to garner the votes of their respective castes and communities. If we all join hands, caste identities are papered over and religion takes over.”

Despite these apprehensions, Congress members are convinced that they have no choice but to forge alliances for the 2019 general election as the party has virtually no presence in the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh. The party is drawing comfort from Yadav’s remark that he is open to friendships with like-minded parties. Pointing to the voting pattern in the recent local elections, Congress leaders underlined that these showed that the opposition could have beaten the BJP if they had put up a united fight.