Power play in Uttar Pradesh

Print edition : July 02, 2004

Inspired by its victory at the Centre, the Congress is apparently working on a plan to upstage the Samajwadi Party by changing the political equations in the State.

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN recently in Lucknow

THE stated purpose of Rahul Gandhi's visit to Amethi on June 8 was to thank the people of the constituency for electing him to the Lok Sabha with a massive majority. But by the time he concluded his visit it was evident that the visit had objectives beyond thanksgiving. In fact, the most important message that emanated from the new representative of the Nehru-Gandhi political parivar had nothing to do with the celebration of a victory. It was a clarion call to Congress workers "to prepare for a long battle to change the Samajwadi Party-led government in Uttar Pradesh".

Rahul Gandhi addresses supporters in Amethi on June 9.-PAWAN KUMAR/REUTERS

To those unfamiliar with the intricacies of Uttar Pradesh politics and the manoeuvres that political players in the State are capable of, the call would have sounded bizarre. On June 8 the Congress was supporting the S.P.-led government from outside and the S.P.'s political posture towards the Congress-led government at the Centre was a similar one. From time to time, both parties have stated that the mutual support is founded on their "commitment to fight and defeat the communal politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party". Yet, the unmistakable emphasis of Rahul Gandhi's exhortation was that the progress of the new Congress campaign would be independent of such tactical gestures.

For the record, Rahul Gandhi's reasoning was that he and his party were not happy with the State government's record on development and the maintenance of law and order. Normally, a supporting party would use its influence on the government to correct the deficiencies in governance. But Rahul Gandhi's assertion was that only a change in government would improve the situation.

The friction between the Congress and the S.P. has its genesis in the struggle to capture the secular political space in Uttar Pradesh. In the recent Lok Sabha elections, the S.P. emerged victorious in this struggle by winning 36 out of the 80 seats in the State while the Congress got only nine. The Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), an ally of the S.P., won three seats, which added to the tally of the non-Congress secular formation. However, the creation of a Congress-led government at the Centre has brought about a qualitative change in the situation, particularly from the perspective of the Congress. The party feels that now that it is in power at the Centre it can change the equations on the ground in its favour. Informed sources in the party told Frontline that a strategy had been evolved to achieve the objective. It is founded on the premise that the Congress can emerge as a major secular force in India's most populous State only by marginalising the S.P. The efforts to keep the S.P. out of the ruling coalition at the Centre despite the party's willingness to join the Ministry were a reflection of the new Congress strategy.

Amar Singh, general secretary of the S.P., told Frontline as early as the third week of May that the Congress was working on a design to weaken his party despite the fact that it had proved its secular credentials by defeating the BJP comprehensively in U.P. He had pointed out that the Congress planned to use personal and political insults to run down the S.P. In his opinion, even the "communication gap" that resulted in the Congress president's "oversight" in extending an invitation to S.P. president and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav for the dinner meeting of anti-BJP parties was part of the design.

Whatever be the merits of Amar Singh's contention, there is little doubt that Rahul Gandhi's exhortation from Amethi is one of the clearest signs yet of the developing anti-S.P. campaign. Indications from Congress insiders are that the campaign is likely to unfold on several fronts. Efforts to wean the RLD from the S.P. alliance were under way even as members of the 14th Lok Sabha were being sworn in. The informal discussions between the Congress and the RLD centred on a firm proposal to induct RLD president Ajit Singh into the Cabinet and a tentative offer to give the position of Minister of State to an RLD MP. A senior Uttar Pradesh Congress leader explained: "The induction of the RLD into the Central Ministry would naturally weaken its alliance with the S.P. and that would give a fillip to the Congress' efforts to gain greater political and organisational strength." However, the deal could not be finalised as speedily as visualised because of problems within the 13-member RLD legislature party in Uttar Pradesh. By all indications, as many as eight of the 13 MLAs are not ready to come out of the ruling coalition in the State. The Assembly has 391 members at present, with 12 seats remaining vacant. Even if the Congress and the RLD withdraw support the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Ministry will still have a majority of six members. The Congress plan is further hampered by the new anti-defection law, the provisions of which ensure that even the five RLD MLAs who may wish to cross over to the Congress camp cannot do so without losing their position as MLAs. But with elections slated to be held by mid-July for the 12 Assembly seats that are vacant, the Congress will have to effect the changes it desires in party equations as early as possible. The Congress plan is to bring about an understanding between itself, the RLD and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) by that time. The Congress and the BSP held two each of the 12 seats, while the RLD held one. The S.P. had five seats and the BJP three.

The view of the Congress is that if the alliance can make decisive gains in the byelection, it will be less difficult to force the S.P. out of office. The party's perception is that if it succeeds in working out the alliance, it will be able to alter substantially the socio-political equations at the grassroots. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the S.P. led in 160 of the 403 Assembly seats in Uttar Pradesh while the BSP was ahead in 100 seats. The Congress led in 47 Assembly segments, the BJP in 60 and the RLD in 22. Significantly, the Congress came second in over 50 seats.

Samajwadi Party president and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav with party general secretary Amar Singh in New Delhi on May 31.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

The S.P. emerged as the largest party because of its large support base among the Yadav community and Muslims. The new following it has gained among the upper-caste Thakur community was another important factor that strengthened its electoral position. The Congress calculation is that a BSP-RLD-Congress alliance would persuade a large chunk of Muslims to move away from the S.P. and ensure a decisive shift by the Brahmin community, which supported the BJP until the 1999 elections, in favour of the Congress. Senior Congress leaders feel that the perceived shift by sections of the Yadav community, particularly in eastern Uttar Pradesh, towards the BSP is another favourable factor. Four BSP candidates from the Yadav community won the 2004 Lok Sabha polls from S.P. strongholds, including Azamgarh. The Yadav community in the region helped an S.P. dissident, Bhaleshwar Yadav, to win as an independent from the Padrauana constituency. The Congress plans to mobilise sections of the Yadav community opposed to the S.P. under the leadership of former BJP State Minister Ashok Yadav, who joined the Congress recently.

For the moment, how far these moves will succeed is in the realm of conjecture. This is particularly because the Congress still lacks a leader with a Statewide appeal and an organisational machinery capable of taking up political tasks with efficiency. Ashok Yadav, the Congress' answer to Mulayam Singh Yadav, contested the 2004 Lok Sabha polls from Sambhal and forfeited his deposit; he secured merely 12,063 votes. The winner, Ram Gopal Yadav of the S.P., polled 3,57,049 votes. Although the party is projecting Rahul Gandhi as a leader with national appeal, it is significant that he campaigned only in those seats where the Congress had some chance of winning. In fact, his campaign did not make an impact even in seats such as Rampur, Pratapgarh or Sultanpur, where Congress candidates were considered `sure' winners. The S.P. won the first two seats while the third went to the BSP.

However, these facts need not deter the Congress. Given it new clout at the Centre, the party is likely to go all out to upstage the S.P. in Uttar Pradesh.

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