Defeat is an absolute fact, it seems, and leaves no room for grace marks. Akhilesh Yadav may have given the fight of his life in the recent Uttar Pradesh assembly election, in no way humiliated by a loss that saw his Samajwadi Party (SP) notch up its highest vote share ever. But the combined Opposition did crumble, and it was not going to pass without comment. The performance by Akhilesh’s main ally, the Jayant Chaudhary-led Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), was indeed underwhelming—for all the fire and brimstone from Jat quarters in the past two years, the community largely favoured the BJP. As for the Congress, even obituary writers are tiring by now. And so, the inevitable is happening. It’s the season for Cassandras—all parties are facing a flurry of criticism from within, from insiders who see no hope if the present patterns persist.
The first signs of internal combustion came from the RLD. Soon after the results, senior leader Masood Ahmad resigned from the post of state president after alleging that tickets were “sold” to undeserving candidates, while Muslims and Dalits were sidelined. In an open letter to Chaudhary, Ahmad also asked why the top leadership was quiet on issues concerning the two communities. Blaming both Chaudhary and Akhilesh for the poll debacle, he alleged the alliance couldn’t beat the BJP because of “internal dictatorship”. Taking a jibe at Akhilesh, he wrote: “The key to Mulayam Singh Yadav’s politics was that he stayed among the people. People don’t like it if their leader becomes active only during election time.”
Even in the SP and the Congress, voices questioning those who handled the poll campaign and demanding a relook at political and organisational strategy are getting louder. Where this goes in the days ahead could significantly impact the future of Akhilesh and Chaudhary as well as Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who led the Congress campaign in the state.
In the initial disappointment with the election results, despite the SP increasing its seat tally by two-and-a-half times, many of its leaders had put the blame on EVM tampering. But Akhilesh’s formerly estranged uncle Shivpal Singh Yadav, who won the Jaswantnagar seat with a margin of 90,979 votes, struck a different note—he made it a point to say that the presence of VVPAT (Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail) makes such tampering unlikely. He also said that opposition parties should focus instead on organisation-building, besides well-planned ticket distribution, if they want to defeat the BJP—a not-so-veiled critique of his nephew’s perceived aloofness during peacetime.
Some SP leaders worry about what being out of power for another five years could do to the morale of party workers. Another key issue being discussed—and no one will miss the significance—is the need to prepare a second rung of leadership. “That’s what we should focus on now,” says a senior leader who didn’t want to be identified. “Most of us were expecting victory in this election, but somewhere we are lagging behind. We should understand where we went wrong.” According to this leader, it’s high time the SP went beyond its image of being a Muslim-Yadav party. “We must rework our strategy,” he says.
Agreeing on the need for a second line of leaders, another senior functionary says, “As a star campaigner, we have only Akhileshji. He has to handle the whole party and also ticket distribution. He is our face in the media and also represents the party in the Lok Sabha. How much can one leader do?” The senior functionary adds that Shivpal and other experienced leaders must have a greater role. “Shivpal floated his own party, but he is still an asset for us,” he says.
But striking someone who’s down is an old game in politics, and Akhilesh may be able to tide over things with enough ease. With SP’s vote share rising to 32.06 per cent in this election from 21.8 per cent in 2017, and its seat tally going up to 111 from 47, spokesperson Ashutosh Verma says the party plans to build on it and move forward.
The RLD, meanwhile, may have the dubious distinction of witnessing the biggest gap between expectation and performance. Its leaders had moved with a degree of certitude before the election, riding as they were on the farmers’ agitation, but the party ended up with just eight seats out of the 33 it contested, with a vote share of 2.85 per cent. But the loyalists are holding on for now. Dismissing Masood’s allegations against the party leadership as “baseless and false”, RLD spokesperson Anupam Mishra says, “He resigned because he did not get a ticket. We have full respect for Jayantji, and we will continue to support him in his decisions.”
But introspection is carrying on apace. “The results were disappointing. We were expecting at least 20 seats. We need to relook at our strategy. The party needs to figure out why only about 40 per cent of the Jats voted for us even though we were hoping to bag at least 70 per cent of their votes,” says a senior functionary of the RLD. He adds that the party should also think beyond the Jats and find ways to stop being seen as just a ‘Jat party’. In the complex caste matrix of western UP, being associated with a politically dominant but numerically modest community perhaps has its downside. Not only does the rest of the landscape unite against you, the Jats themselves have often proved to be not a rock-solid catchment for the RLD, like the Yadavs are for the SP. It may be time to move towards a more pan-community approach.
For the Congress, the UP results not only brought intense disappointment, they also raised a disturbing question mark over party general secretary Priyanka Gandhi’s brand value in politics. This was to be her first serious solo plunge into electoral politics. And even if battling the BJP of the Modi-Yogi era is tantamount to jumping off the deep end, the party’s worst performance ever in the state’s 70-year electoral history is a bitter truth to swallow. Just two seats, down from seven, and a vote share of 2.33 per cent, down from 6.25 per cent—where do you go from here?
While Priyanka’s ‘Ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon’ experiment of giving 40 per cent tickets to women made headlines, it flopped on the ground with most of the 159 female candidates losing their deposit. This made many in the party question the campaign strategists. However, women weren’t the only ones who lost their deposit—it was a fate 387 out of the total 399 Congress candidates met.
Photo: Chandradeep Kumar
Party spokesperson Zishan Haider blamed people close to Priyanka for the poor performance. He was expelled after his statement went viral. “These people have not done anything on the ground and all the leaders who left the party in the recent past did so because of them. I had not said anything against Priyanka, but had blamed a handful of people for misleading her and selling tickets,” says Haider.
“The opposition should learn from the BJP’s style of booth-level organisation building,” says former Lucknow University professor S.K. Dwivedi
According to a senior party functionary, the Congress needs to make serious organisational changes in UP if it is keen to survive the 2024 Lok Sabha election. “Otherwise, we will be finished here,” he says, adding that the party should also look at forging some sort of tactical understanding with the SP and the RLD ahead of the general election to avoid the splitting of opposition votes.
S.K. Dwivedi, a former professor of political science at Lucknow University, says the Opposition should learn from its mistakes as well as from the BJP’s style of booth-level organisation-building. “Opposition leaders should focus on developing a second-line leadership and reworking their strategy to challenge the BJP in the state,” he adds. Taking a leaf out of the BJP playbook may be a good place to start.