New Delhi: In 2009, with just four months to go before the Lok Sabha polls, Samajwadi Party patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav took a gamble.
At the Government Inter College ground in Agra, which was teeming with red caps, Mulayam took to the stage and embraced Kalyan Singh, the BJP leader and the poster boy of the Ram Temple movement.
The gesture was part of Mulayam’s overtures to the saffron party. But Muslims in UP were turned off by what they saw and, in the coming months, switched to Congress in large numbers. The result? The grand old party doubled its seats in the state to 21 and polled more votes than the BJP.
The embrace turned out to be a poisoned chalice for the SP. It took a while and a lot of cajoling before the Muslims returned to the SP.
In this whole churn, the biggest takeaway for the SP was that the Congress, even in the ICU, remains the most potent threat to the SP.
Akhilesh Yadav’s sporadic outbursts against the Congress at the moment have to be seen in that context. As the Opposition attempts to forge a nationwide alliance against the BJP, the tug-of-war between the SP and the Congress is therefore hardly surprising.
The SP’s support base — especially among the 20 per cent Muslim population—falls in the Congress’ catchment area. The electoral fortunes of the two parties are thus intertwined and inversely proportional to their respective winnability.
Since 2014, Akhilesh has contested four elections against the Modi-led BJP in UP – two Lok Sabha and two Assembly. Despite being the main repository of minority votes, the gap between the SP-led alliance and the BJP has been more than 10 percentage points or more.
It is this inability of the SP to take on the BJP in UP that has sowed doubts in the minds of a section of the minorities. And the Congress smells an opportunity and sees an opening for its revival.
The prime target are Muslims who deserted the party after the Babri Masjid demolition when Narasimha Rao was the prime minister. Efforts are on to revive erstwhile social alliances which stood Congress in good stead till 1989.
This is why the optics of UP Congress chief Ajay Rai’s attempts to meet SP leader Azam Khan in the Sitapur jail were not lost on anyone. Khan, the party’s Muslim face, has been buried under a litany of cases and remains incarcerated.
What has also helped the Congress is Rahul Gandhi: he has been vocal and relentless in his campaign against the Modi government; was the only national leader to visit BSP MP Danish Ali and show solidarity after BJP MP Ramesh Bidhuri made a lot of people gasp in horror with his remarks.
This has given Congress the confidence to take on leaders like Asaduddin Owaisi, the pugnacious chief of AIMIM.
Earlier this year, in the UP urban body polls, Congress candidates polled very well in seats like Moradabad, Jhansi and Shahjahanpur, all at the expense of the SP.
Reading the straw in the wind, many prominent Muslim faces have sought to return to the Congress fold. Saharanpur strongman Imran Masood is back in the Congress after a short stint in the SP and the BSP. Ahmed Hameed, son of former Baghpat MLA Kaukab Hameed, has also joined the Congress.
What has further raised the hackles in the SP is the Congress’ strident OBC quota pitch and the demand for a caste survey. This is the first time the grand old party has shunned its ambiguity on caste politics and is aggressively seeking to woo backward classes. This tactic has ramifications for SP’s backward class consolidation.
The Congress Minority Cell in Lucknow has dusted off the lethargy and has been proactively working to mobilise Muslims and a section of OBCs and Dalits who have fallen off the power pyramid with the rise of the BJP in UP.
“Anyone who seeks to survive in the non-BJP space in UP will have to join hands with the Congress,” says UPCC Minority wing chief Shahnawaz Alam.
“We have been running extensive campaigns and meetings in the Dalit-dominated areas to demonstrate that Muslims are returning to the Congress, and the communities together with a section of OBCs form a formidable political force.”
Congress’ proactive foray in UP has not sat well with the SP. Party chief Akhilesh has been grumbling about it quite a bit.
While the Congress fights for revival, the SP depends on Muslim votes for survival. How the two progress from these tensions will be interesting to watch in the days to come.
(Published 11 November 2023, 22:53 IST)