After many months of "will they-won't they" suspense, the 130-year-old Congress party and the 25-year-old Samajwadi Party have sealed an alliance deal for the ensuing Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls. This is the first time that the two have come together. Now the Congress will be a junior partner in the alliance. The party, which had ND Tiwari as its last Chief Minister in 1989, had been languishing since then, unable to come back to power in Uttar Pradesh.
The deal is that the SP will now fight 298 seats, while the Congress will fight 105 seats. With this, it is clear that the UP will face a triangular contest with BSP, BJP allies and SP-Congress combine stretching their muscles.
No doubt the tie-up is due to politics of compulsion. The question is whether there will be enough time for the two parties to launch their campaign and bring in some synergy. After all, till yesterday they had been fighting with each other as the SP has grown on the anti-Congress platform.
Despite the doubts, the alliance could be a win-win situation for both the parties if handled rightly and could be a disadvantage to both the BJP and BSP. The SP needs the Congress for its Brahmin and Dalit votes, while the Congress needs the SP's Yadav-Muslim votes.
The SP had been hit hard by the family feud in the party founder Mulayam Singh's family till last week when the Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav emerged victorious after the Election Commission allotted him the party's cycle symbol. This will be the first time Mulayam Yadav has taken a back seat. Already after the scripted family drama, nobody is talking about his lack of administration or deteriorating law and order, as Akhilesh has emerged a clean leader. He wants to convert this advantage into votes. If he wins UP, he can even dream of moving to the national stage.
It will be a litmus test for Akhilesh whether he will be able to keep the Yadav and Muslim votes intact. After all, the battle in UP is to divide or unite the crucial Muslim votes. Muslims, who are about 18 per cent in the state, are critical in many constituencies. The aim of the SP-Congress alliance is to keep the Muslims votes intact so that the secular alliance can be benefitted. The one danger is that if there is a reverse polarisation as it happened in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls when the people voted for Narendra Modi making the BJP win 71 seats.
For the Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, it has come a full circle for he had been advocating an 'ekla chalo' policy. The two young leaders have decided to take this risk. Despite an early campaign launched by Rahul Gandhi, the tempo had subsided in the past week. The party lacks organisation at the grassroots level. There is no local leadership. There is a lot of confusion until Sunday whether the tie-up was on or off.
There is also another embarrassment as Congress had announced the name of former Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit as its chief ministerial candidate some months ago. Now she has to take a back seat because Akhilesh will be the chief ministerial face of the combine.
This is not the first time that the Congress had become the junior partner, as it had been in alliance in 1996 with the Bahujan Samaj Party, but since it did not benefit both the parties, the BSP has not been willing to align with the Congress.
Why did the Congress go for the tie-up? It wants to ensure a better performance from its present 28 seats in the Assembly. Secondly, a good show in UP will also boost the image of Rahul Gandhi. Thirdly, an improved tally will be a morale booster for the Assembly polls in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh scheduled for later this year and in eight states next year. Fourthly, the Congress wants to deflate the BJP, which is riding high.
The immediate gain is that the two parties have won the perception game. Secondly, it is good arithmetic to combine together. Thirdly, the risk is that it is not clear whether the SP and the Congress could transfer each other's votes. While the BSP votes are easily transferred, it is not the case with other parties.
There could be the dominance of the two young leaders in the UP poll scenario pitted against Prime Minister Modi. Both Rahul and Akhilesh by becoming the deciding factors in their parties and have sent a signal that they have come out of the shadow of their parents. Another new factor is the emergence of Priyanka Gandhi, who is said to have played a role in the tie-up. Dimple Yadav, the wife of the Chief Minister, also is visible. The two dynasties have proven that they could reach a deal by adopting a give and take in seat sharing.
Apparently, Priyanka and Dimple also seem to have developed a good rapport because when the talks were almost broken, it was the phone call from Priyanka to Dimple on Saturday night, followed by Sonia's phone call to Akhilesh, which had clinched the issue. There is good chemistry, unlike Sonia Gandhi and Mulayam Singh. It was Mulayam Singh who prevented Sonia Gandhi from becoming the Prime Minister in 1999 when the AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa pulled down the Vajpayee government.
The alliance is a gamble the two parties have undertaken. Whether it succeeds or not, March 11, when the results come out, will show.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)