This story first appeared on Firstpost on 23 February 2017.
“UP ko yeh saath pasand hai, lekin Unchahar ko haath pasand hai (UP likes the alliance but Unchahar likes the hand),” emanates from a car campaigning for the Congress in Raebareli’s Unchahar constituency, as 55-year-old Sharda Prasad Saini laughs while serving chhole-samosa on the Allahabad-Lucknow road.
“They cannot even manage their own internal problems and are promising to develop a huge state,” he says.
Unchahar is a constituency where the Congress and Samajwadi Party have both fielded candidates, bamboozling its voters. The sitting MLA is Manoj Pandey of the Samajwadi Party, and contesting from the Congress ticket, campaigning against Pandey is Ajai Pal Singh, who belongs to the noble Arkha family of Raebareli and is a former MLA (2007-12) of the same constituency as well.
“I voted for the Samajwadi Party in 2012,” says Saini. “Now, I wonder whom to vote for. The vote would clearly be divided and there is no point in wasting my vote on these two. I will vote for BJP instead. Modi has not been that bad after all.”
It had become clear during the initial phase of negotiation that Raebareli and Amethi would be a problem when it comes to seat sharing. The two districts are bastions of the Congress with the Gandhis ruling the two Lok Sabha constituencies for an overwhelmingly major part of independent India, but in 2012 Assembly elections, Samajwadi Party had done exceedingly well in the ten constituencies falling under the two districts. Congress, on the other hand, had managed to win only two of those ten. In Sonia Gandhi’s Raebareli, the party did not win a single seat out of the six (in 2017, Raebareli has five as the seat in Salon comes under Amethi district).
With both parties claiming moral right to contest more seats, it has resulted in the defiance of the alliance. Out of the 10 seats in Amethi-Raebareli, in four of them, the partners are locked in a fight, clearly handing out advantage to BJP and BSP on a platter.
When asked, Ajai Pal Singh said the high command has his backing, without which he would not be able to contest on a Congress symbol. “I cannot comment on the issue,” he said. “The party leadership should be able to explain.”
Samajwadi Party candidate Manoj Pandey could not be reached. He did not respond to phone calls and text messages.
Zeeshan Haidar, Congress spokesperson in Uttar Pradesh, said it is a negligible issue and he is sure one of the two would win in the seats in question. “It is true the election is closely fought but we have managed to arrive at a common ground on over 400 seats,” he said. “There were other seats too where both parties had fielded candidates and we have sent show cause notices to some. But in some cases, by the time we could arrive at a conclusion, the last date of withdrawal had already passed.”
The party leadership may make it sound like a minor glitch but the sentiment of ground level workers, at least in Raebareli and Amethi, reflects how the alliance is a forced marriage.
“Even though we are campaigning individually here, we still have Akhilesh and Mulayam on our posters,” says a Congress worker in Unchahar. “But Samajwadi Party does not have Rahulji. Abhi Ajai ji toh raja hai, woh kaise nahi ladenge?”
Congress workers complain that Samajwadi Party has not given enough respect or importance considering the stature of the party, while SP cadre feels the Congress needed the alliance more than they did. A worker of the Samajwadi Party said the way Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi patronised Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav in one of the earlier press conferences has not gone down well with the cadres. “He spoke of good niyat and room for better implementation,” he says. “Rahul is trying to be big brother in the alliance when clearly he needs Akhilesh more than Akhilesh needs him.”
Both the party workers, however, said they wonder what to say when dumbfounded electorate asks them about the dichotomy of being partners in the state but campaigning against each other in a constituency. Commentators believe it is indicative of how the alliance is a forced marriage and could raise concerns of its durability, if at all they form the government. “It is reflective of how messy and ill-planned the alliance is,” says Shivam Vij, journalist who is extensively travelling across the state for the elections. “These are not friendly but unfriendly fights. In most places, Samajwadi Party workers are not campaigning for Congress workers and vice-versa. This is only one of the many reasons why alliance was a bad idea.”