Beyond the euphoria of having launched a rainbow INDIA bloc to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2024, things don't look very different on the ground for opposition parties. The incongruities that existed among the parties that have come together for the INDIA acronym will not go away. If that requires evidence, we have it in Uttar Pradesh, the electorally most important state for any party or grouping that aspires to rule from Delhi. Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav's recent jab at Rahul Gandhi on his comments on a caste census in all Congress-ruled states betrays the rift.
Akhilesh Yadav accused the Congress of not conducting a caste census when it was in power for decades and endorsing one now to entice voters from lower and backward castes. Ahead of the 2024 general election, the Samajwadi chief has been banking on reviving his 'PDA' - Pichhda (backward castes), Dalits and Alpasankhyaks (minorities) - politics with a bang.
The Congress was always wary of the SP, which ate into its traditional vote bank of Muslim-Dalit-backward castes and later, turned towards Jats and extremely backward classes as part of its social engineering strategy to corner maximum votes. Back in 2012, Rahul Gandhi had called the Samajwadi Party a party of 'goondas' (gangsters) and the Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) the party of 'chors' (thieves).
Sanjay Pandey, a political analyst based in Lucknow, feels the real reason for the open friction between the Congress and Samajwadi Party in UP is that the latter fears the Congress will gain votes and make a dent into its Muslim vote bank in next year's Lok Sabha polls. "Muslims are deciding factors in around two dozen seats, especially in the western and central regions of the state, and a shift will certainly hit the SP's prospects. Moreover, Congress's attempts to poach SP leaders have not gone down well with Akhilesh," says Mr Pandey. The Congress has managed to rope in senior SP leader Ravi Prakash Verma, a three-time MP and an influential OBC leader.
After the INDIA bloc was formed, the SP had anticipated seat-sharing adjustments with the Congress in the Madhya Pradesh election in order to put up a strong challenge for the ruling BJP. However, the Congress cold-shouldered Akhilesh Yadav and fielded 229 candidates in the 230-member Madhya Pradesh assembly. Senior Congress leader Kamal Nath's 'Akhilesh Vakhilesh' remark, dismissive of the Samajwadi chief, aggravated the situation. Akhilesh retaliated with a pun on Kamal Nath's name, equating it with the Lotus symbol of the BJP. The SP had asked for six seats in the election, especially in the districts bordering Uttar Pradesh.
For the INDIA bloc to succeed in Uttar Pradesh, the anti-Modi grouping needs a potent, locally popular and acceptable face. Akhilesh Yadav, with a full term as Chief Minister behind him, can be that credible face of the INDIA bloc. Akhilesh thinks he deserves the respect and place that anybody controlling 80 Lok Sabha seats deserves. The Congress doesn't accept Akhilesh's party has any influence outside UP, so was willing to risk his anger.
The SP had won a few seats on its own in MP assembly polls in the past. Akhilesh believed that since anti-Modi parties in the INDIA bloc had declared their commitment to a common national cause and objective, there would be a spirit of accommodation among constituent parties. When the Congress did not accommodate the Samajwadi in Madhya Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav retaliated by suggesting he may be less accommodative of the Congress in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
In the saga of potshots between the two parties, Akhilesh Yadav was also criticised by UP Congress president Ajay Rai. Mr Rai accused the SP chief of duplicity after the Congress decided to contest the Bageshwar assembly seat in Uttarakhand in a by-poll a few months back.
After his disastrous alliance with the Congress for the 2017 UP election - its highlight was the 'UP ke Ladke' campaign with photos of Akhilesh and Rahul Gandhi - Akhilesh doesn't really believe the Congress has much to offer in any poll tie-up in the state. Which is why in 2019, he preferred to revive his party's collaboration with Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party than go with the Congress. The SP-BSP alliance chose to ignore the Congress. So, Akhilesh made it clear that in UP, the Congress will be at the mercy of his party. So he is unlikely to show mercy to the Congress after the Madhya Pradesh snub.
"The bone of contention is distribution of seats among the INDIA partners in UP. Congress wants around 20 seats while Akhilesh is not ready to give it more than 6-7 seats. Congress leadership feels that their bargaining power may increase if more SP leaders join them," adds Mr Pandey.
Leaders in any alliance know that an error in judgment may set them back by five years, which is long enough to push them into a phase of irrelevance, if not oblivion. They realise the importance of polarisation to win votes in UP. In the past too, a split in the Muslim votes have impacted the Samajwadi's chances.
Mr Pandey sums up: "There can still be an understanding between SP and Congress in the next LS polls as both of them know that there will be a division in the Muslim votes if they contest separately."
The continuing schism in Congress and the Samajwadi Party is music to the ears of the BJP-led NDA, but there certainly is an unease in INDIA bloc partners, who are not ready to give way in their own turf. With the Lok Sabha elections just months away, a seat adjustment exercise between parties nationwide seems to be a Sisyphean task.
(Bharti Mishra Nath is a senior journalist)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author