Lok Sabha 2024 polls: In UP, a divided opposition stands a poor chance

Congress lacks credible candidates in UP

PTI07_03_2023_000076B Planning mode: Samajwadi party president Akhilesh Yadav (third from left) was part of the opposition parties' meet in Patna, but the Congress feels that only his attendance at a meeting in a Congress-ruled state would signal a willingness to be part of an alliance | PTI

Uttar Pradesh’s political waters are calm, for now. Or perhaps, that is just how it seems, as no grand alliances have been formed, no active partnerships sought and there has been no getting together of likeminded parties.

The 2024 elections are still months away. That is too long a time in the normally turbulent politics of the state. No party will be the first to announce that it is seeking an alliance and thus appear as a needy, weak partner. Dive in a bit though, and the start of some churn is visible.

The state’s Congress unit, for instance, is buoyed by the success in the Karnataka elections and hopes to do better in the five upcoming assembly elections. “For now, our focus is on preparing to contest all 80 seats (in the Lok Sabha elections),” said senior party leader Veerendra Madan. “There is a series of meetings on; let us see what comes out of them, but the high command’s decision will be binding on us.”

Neither Madan nor anyone else is willing to go on record to decode how a win in the state would be possible without an alliance that brings together the anti-BJP vote. Especially as a large chunk of the upper-caste vote—once a given for the Congress—has long since been swept into the BJP’s rising tide.

While the BJP polled 48.98 per cent of the votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections (a rise of more than 7 per cent from the previous election), the other principal contenders—the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party—had a combined vote share of slightly over 37 per cent. For the Congress, that figure was slightly over 6 per cent. So, even all three together could not mop up all the anti-BJP vote. Divided, they stand an even poorer chance.

The rationale that works for the Congress is that for all its failures (and its solitary seat in the 2019 Uttar Pradesh Lok Sabha elections), it remains a national party with its own, or alliance, governments in seven states. Thus, at the national level, it remains the only force that can take on the BJP.

But there are many things that do not work for the Congress in the state. For one, it lacks credible candidates. In 2017, the year that the Congress fought elections in an alliance with the Samajwadi Party and put up candidates in 114 seats, it won just seven. However, the fall in its vote share was lower than what its partner had to face. An irate Akhilesh Yadav would later, in the run-up to the 2022 assembly elections, tell THE WEEK that the Congress should focus on winning the two seats his party had left for it.

The condescension towards the Congress is not lost on anyone. But as one Congress leader said, “We are at our worst. We cannot go any lower. The party will still sustain itself if we do poorly in 2024; but what will happen to the Samajwadi Party’s identity? It should stop acting like a big brother.”

Abdul Hafiz Gandhi, the Samajwadi Party national spokesperson, said the Congress needed to understand that it would have to cede space to regional forces where the latter are stronger. “We are in the negotiating stage and will take the best decision for the party,” he said. “It cannot be denied that we are stronger in the state and so should get a larger chunk of the seat share.”

Yadav’s recent visit to Patna to attend a meeting of the opposition parties was seen as a mixed signal. The Congress view is that it is only when he attends a meeting in a Congress-ruled state that he will indicate his willingness to go with the party.

For all the goodwill that Rahul Gandhi’s constant visibility has generated, the state unit seems to be stuck in a dangerous inertia. This was on display in the recent municipal elections (which admittedly are no barometer of state or national politics). Its own candidates had woes that touched upon the lack of the party’s seriousness. “Candidates were left completely on their own. The party did not even spend on banners or flags,” said one defeated contender. Yet, to the party’s own surprise, it won 18 seats and also polled an impressive number of votes in a handful of others to come in second. So that sense of the electorate looking at the Congress may be a reality, but without the party nurturing it and being combative, it will die.

The Bahujan Samaj Party, as always, is the quietest of all, with even its spokespersons now avoiding questions. One said, “Behenji will open her cards by December.” In a recent party meeting in Delhi, Mayawati’s focus was on sector committees, which look after a certain number of booths. Some organisational changes are also on so that while the party keeps promoting young talent, the more experienced ones are not left behind.