The Samajwadi Party has agreed to spare 85 seats to the Congress, Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal and Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal United, in information available exclusively to this newspaper. A source in the Congress said that much progress on seat-sharing talks was made during a couple of meetings between the Congress’ election in-charge for Uttar Pradesh, Ghulam Nabi Azad and SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, during the former’s visit to the state this week. The source exclusively revealed to The Sunday Guardian that Azad met Mulayam Singh Yadav on Wednesday and it was then that an agreement was finally reached. 

The source said an announcement will follow once the high command approves the SP’s offer of seats to the Congress (likely 60), RLD (likely 20) and JDU (likely 5). “I think it is final, but the Congress leadership may want to make an increase in its share. This may take some time,” the source told The Sunday Guardian.

This newspaper was the first to report on 5 November that an alliance between the Congress and SP had been “agreed on principle” and Azad would be meeting Mulayam Singh Yadav for a seat-sharing discussion in the days ahead. But Mulayam Singh Yadav on 10 November gave a statement to the press that the SP would fight the UP Assembly elections without a tie-up, hampering the likely meeting between him and Azad. This newspaper maintained in a story published on 19 November, quoting Congress sources, that the SP veteran’s statement was meant to dissuade the Congress from demanding a large number of seats and that back-channel talks were on.

Although both Azad and Ajit Singh have refused to confirm an SP-Congress-RLD-JDU grand alliance, a source in the Congress said “an agreement over seat sharing has been reached.” “Azad met Mulayam Singh twice during his UP visit recently. He met him on Wednesday. The SP has given the go-ahead for the alliance, agreeing to allot 85 seats that the alliance partners will have to adjust amongst themselves. Since the Congress and the RLD are yet to reach an understanding, an announcement will take time,” the source told this correspondent. 

Azad, who returned to the national capital on Friday after campaigning in UP, told a news agency that “No discussions have taken place on the alliance and when the discussion has not taken place, then, there is no chance of seat distribution as well.” Ajit Singh, much on the same lines, told the media that “I haven’t had any meeting or talks with anyone in Congress in more than six months.”

But the source said that the SP, Congress and RLD in particular have been holding back channels talks for more than two months, and it is likely that the national party will settle for 60 seats, leaving 20 for the RLD that is dominant in pockets of Western UP. Other sources in the Congress said that the national party agreed to settle for fewer seats on the condition that a generous deal would be offered to it by the SP when the two parties tie up for the general elections of 2019.

The source quoted earlier added that the Congress was keen to fight on 100-110 plus seats on its own but the SP, in particular Mulayam Singh Yadav, remained adamant. It is generally believed that Mulayam Singh Yadav is apprehensive that an alliance with the Congress might help the national party to woo the Muslims back to its fold, ending years of alienation which has followed the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992. If that happens, the SP will lose its USP of being the lone “secular” option for the minorities. His apprehensions grew stronger after the Congress pressed for a large number of seats. This impelled him to snub the Congress publicly, rubbishing reports of a tie up in the media.

But Congress poll strategist Prashant Kishor kept pitching for an alliance with the SP and asked party leaders to wheel down their demand. PK’s thinking found support in Azad, who, the source said, convinced Rahul Gandhi that an alliance was imperative if the Congress has to stay in relevance in India’s largest state. Rahul Gandhi was believed to be not in favour of a coalition as his team had given him a very encouraging assessment of his month-long “Kisan Yatra” in UP that concluded on 6 October.

The Congress, the source said, gradually realised that its “Sheila Dikshit for CM” strategy may not be enough to attract the Brahmins. The poor response to Rahul Gandhi’s road show in Muslim dominated Muzafarnagar on 4 October also convinced the grand old party that it had virtually no hope in the UP elections if it went to the hustings alone.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, known to be Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bete noire, is learnt to have been working on the grand alliance agenda with the sole aim of ruining the BJP’s prospects in UP. He is learnt to have played a role to convince Mulayam Singh Yadav to seal the deal with the Congress. On 21 November, when Nitish Kumar formally declared an alliance with the RLD, many saw it as his tactic to put pressure on Mulayam Singh Yadav to form an anti-BJP axis.

The Congress has been out of power in UP since 1989 and in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections it secured only two seats—in Gandhi family pocket boroughs Amethi and Raebareli—out of 80. However, the SP, too, is facing a strong anti-incumbency and a tie-up with the Congress can help it retain the Muslim voters, who are disenchanted with it for its failure to prevent communal riots in the state. Mayawati has been aggressively wooing the Muslims, much to the SP’s worry. 

With the contest in UP narrowing down between the BJP and the BSP, which is eyeing a fifth term in office by forming a Dalit-Muslim axis, the SP and the Congress may have arrived at a compromise formula. The SP had secured 29.15% vote share in the 2012 elections, while the Congress secured 11.63%.

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