In a setback to the Opposition’s prospects of forging a united front against the Bharatiya Janata Party, Mayawati on Wednesday ruled out the possibility of allying with the Congress for the upcoming elections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Going even further, the Bahujan Samaj Party chief accused the Congress of being “arrogant” and working to defeat its partners rather than the BJP.

Senior leaders in the Opposition camp believed that a partnership between the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party in the upcoming Assembly polls would pave the way for a “grand alliance” to take on the BJP in next year’s general election, especially in Uttar Pradesh, which accounts for 80 of the Lok Sabha’s 543 elected seats.

Mayawati has put paid to such hopes, at least for now. In the immediate term, her going it alone in Madhya Pradesh is likely to hurt the Congress given that the Bahujan Samaj Party enjoys a considerable presence in 14 of the state’s districts – out of 52 – that border Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati’s homeground.

In particular, the Bahujan Samaj Party’s influence among Dalits, its core voters who are reportedly unhappy with the BJP, would have helped the Congress in constituencies that witnessed close contests in 2013. In that election, Mayawati’s party won four seats and finished second on 10. It got nearly 10,000 votes on 62 seats and more than 20,000 votes on 17. Overall, though, the party secured just 6.42% of the votes polled, finishing a distant third behind the BJP with 44% and the Congress with 36.79%. But put the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party together and they could have given the BJP a run for its money.

This election, the BJP is facing heavy anti-incumbency after 15 years in power. So a coming together of the two Opposition parties could have presented a serious challenge to Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s rule. The Congress may yet pull it off, but it has become a daunting prospect without Mayawati’s support.

Unreasonable demands’

Congress leaders claimed discussions with Mayawati to stitch an alliance broke down over her “unreasonable demand” for 40 seats. “It just wasn’t acceptable,” said a senior Congress leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity, adding that handing over so many seats to an ally would have derailed the party’s chances of dethroning Chouhan.

If this wasn’t enough, the senior leader claimed, Mayawati demanded a “similar deal” in Rajasthan, where the Bahujan Samaj Party has limited presence and won just three of the 200 seats in the last election. Agreeing to the demand would have weakened the Congress’s position, the senior leader argued. Indeed, such was the opposition to Mayawati’s demand within the Rajasthan Congress that even rival leaders bandied together to thwart any alliance.

In Chhattisgarh, which goes to polls with Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, Mayawati has already allied with the Congress rebel Ajit Jogi, a move that many believe will benefit the ruling BJP.

Officially, however, the Congress tried to downplay Mayawati’s tirade against the party, ostensibly not to damage the prospects of an alliance in the future.

“Mayawati expressed her opinion, we respect it,” Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said, adding that she also expressed confidence in the party’s chief Rahul Gandhi and former president Sonia Gandhi.

Mayawati had said the Gandhis’ “intentions for Congress-BSP alliance are honest” but “some Congress leaders are sabotaging it”, referring to senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh.

To this, Surjewala said, “If Mayawatiji holds trust in Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi then other creases can be ironed out.”

Indeed, Mayawati’s remarks about the Gandhis are being seen as an attempt to leave open the possibility of an alliance in 2019.

Still, its failure to form an effective alliance in any of the three poll-bound states reflects poorly on the Congress. If it cannot ally with one party now, how will it strike deals with multiple regional players for the 2019 election?

Akhilesh Yadav, whose Samajwadi Party is expected to be key to any grand alliance, has already put the onus of getting Opposition parties together in 2019 on the Congress. Samajwadi Party leaders complain that the Congress did not even consider partnering them in the poll-bound states, and threaten to pay the grand old party in the same coin if it demands “more than what it deserves” in Uttar Pradesh in 2019.