The Congress strategy for revival in Uttar Pradesh has set it on a collision course with the Samajwadi Party. The verbal duel between Congress heir Rahul Gandhi and SP supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav threatens to snowball into a full-fledged political battle for dominance of the country's most populous state. For now, the Congress is at a disadvantage because it stands isolated in UP, partly due to its own ineptitude and partly because of the SP's nimble political manoeuvres.
The political alignments emerging in the run-up to the Rajya Sabha elections indicate that Mulayam enjoys the backing of both the Left Front and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) leader Ajit Singh, not to mention powerful corporate lobbies. This, despite the fact that Congress president Sonia Gandhi's political secretary, Ahmed Patel, went hat in hand to the CPI(M)'s Harkishen Singh Surjeet in the hope of securing Left support. He was bluntly told that the CPI(M) stood committed to Mulayam (thus creating a piquant situation where the Communist votes just might go to the country's biggest capitalist: SP-backed independent Anil Ambani!). And even in the matter of fielding a candidate for Rajya Sabha, the Congress ran into hard luck—its nominee, B.S. Bhama, couldn't reach Lucknow in time because his flight was diverted due to bad weather.
At the same time, the Congress has managed to upset BSP leader Mayawati, by giving a Rajya Sabha ticket from Andhra Pradesh to her blacklisted former aide, Rashid Alvi. A tie-up with Mayawati would be a dream-come-true for the Congress, but the BSP chief needs more than just verbal assurances of the party's commitment to bailing her out of the Taj Corridor mess and of annihilating the SP. Says BSP spokesperson Sudhir Goel: "What we have seen seems to have been just a few days of shadow-boxing between SP and Congress."
The Congress gameplan in UP involved turning the heat on Mulayam by persuading Ajit Singh to quit his alliance with the SP in favour of joining the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Together, they have 28 MLAs in UP, quite enough to make Mulayam sweat. That too at a time when he is developing a giant-sized coalition headache! As per law, by July 7 Mulayam must whittle his cabinet down by almost one-third (29 out of 100 ministers must be sacked), thus annoying the rag-tag bunch of defectors who had joined hands with him to form the government. Almost all the defected BSP MLAs on whose support the government rests are ministers.
Speculation had it that pressure from his own MLAs and the prospect of the Congress and RLD ganging up against him—with the tacit support of Mayawati—might just push Mulayam into a pre-emptive strike: dissolve the assembly and call for a fresh round of elections before the Congress has a chance to get its act together. That scenario now seems unlikely, as the Congress-RLD tie-up has not materialised, the BSP is upset with the Congress and the Left is backing Mulayam to the hilt. Says the CPI(M)'s Nilotpal Basu: "We still believe that the SP is the best bet for containing communal forces in UP. Our support to Mulayam is based on that premise."
The Left stance vis-a-vis the RS polls has annoyed the Congress as senior leaders believe the SP is hand-in-glove with the NDA. They point to NDA convenor George Fernandes' offer of support to Mulayam should the Congress try to destabilise him. According to BJP sources, Amar Singh spoke to L.K. Advani, urging him to target Sonia, so that the Congress would be kept off balance.
Despite the SP's strenuous efforts at cajoling and coercing the Congress into making peace, Sonia appears to have made up her mind that the party cannot revive in UP unless it takes on the SP. Although the party isn't in a position to take the confrontation to a high pitch at the moment, it will continue needling the SP, party leaders say. During her visit to Rae Bareli, Sonia fully endorsed Rahul Gandhi's trenchant criticism of the incumbent government in UP, particularly its inability to handle law and order.
There was a personal element in that criticism: defected Congress MLA Akhilesh Singh, who now enjoys the protection of the SP supremo, had waged a guerrilla war against the Congress during the Lok Sabha elections. He ensured that Priyanka, the only person who was able to take him on, was tied down to Rae Bareli. Says UPCC president Jagdambika Pal: "Protecting people like Akhilesh is typical of Mulayam." The "law and order" chant was taken up by Union home minister Shivraj Patil and by the UPCC, which has launched an agitation against the deteriorating law and order and power situation.
The Congress could well turn the tables on Mulayam in the months to come. A tie-up with Ajit Singh remains both possible and desirable, although the Congress is annoyed with him for having backed the SP in the RS polls (in return for two MLC seats). Last fortnight, Sonia had given the go-ahead for negotiations with him and although nothing has materialised so far, she is unlikely to shut the door on him. Sources said Ajit is still keen on a tie-up. Apart from a cabinet berth, he may also like to see Mulayam ousted.
While Congress leaders may agree with him, they have a couple of caveats. For one, the party would like to strengthen its organisation in UP before it goes in for assembly polls. For another, dismissing Mulayam and imposing President's rule would meet strong resistance from the Left. However, just in case, it is looking for a strong governor in UP. Family loyalist M.L. Fotedar is the frontrunner.
Former UPCC chief Salman Khursheed feels the party will have to take things "one step at a time". After all, the Congress-SP spat is an old one; even before the elections it was in two minds on withdrawing support to the SP government. Then, the party consciously decided not to, because it might have needed Mulayam's help at the Centre. As it happened, the Congress got enough seats to be able to thumb its nose at Mulayam. And that's precisely what it is now doing.
Bhavdeep Kang with Yogesh Mishra in Lucknow
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