Congress party president Rahul Gandhi hurriedly organised a press conference in Dubai on Saturday. It came in response to the pre-poll alliance of two of India’s regional power brokers, Mayawati’s Samajwadi Party (SP) and Akhilesh Yadav’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh. Back home, rivals and supporters alike were glued to their televisions.

A calm and composed Gandhi surprised everyone when he said: “I am not disappointed about Congress being overlooked in the SP-BSP alliance as long as they succeed in overthrowing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Now, we have to fight on all 80 seats of Uttar Pradesh alone.”

Interestingly, the Congress party currently holds just two Uttar Pradesh seats out of 80. One is held by Gandhi himself in Amethi and the other by his mother and United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi in Rae Bareli. This makes the party a small player in India’s most politically significant state.

There was speculation that all opposition parties and regional outfits in Uttar Pradesh would come together to form alliances to fight against the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the BJP.

Congress’s back channel talks with SP-BSP were reportedly taking place in Delhi. But Gandhi’s choice of words and body language both indicated that contesting the general elections alone was his party’s preferred strategy.

Meanwhile, in Uttar Pradesh’s Lucknow, other Congress leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and Raj Babbar dropped cursory hints that Congress was still open for an alliance, pre- or even post-elections.

“[Congress] Party was never inclined to be the part of the pre-poll alliance of SP-BSP for many reasons. It was decided in the March 2017 itself when our tie-up with SP miserably failed in Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections,” a senior Congress leader told Asia Times.

He added, “We could have given the [Mahaghatbandhan] Grand-Alliance a thought in Uttar Pradesh provided SP-BSP had considered our……past performances into account and not just 2014 elections which was washed away in the [Narendra] Modi and media wave.”

The SP-BSP announced that it would contest 38 seats each in Uttar Pradesh leaving two seats available for other possible allies. They also offered Congress walkovers in the Amethi and Rai Bareli seats by not fielding Congress candidates so that the main opposition party “is not tied-up in Uttar Pradesh only”.

A Congress leader said: “Despite humiliating treatment by the regional player SP-BSP, Congress remains non-aggressive mainly because it hopes it would help to portray that Congress seeks to oust communal BJP, keeping (the) larger interests of people in mind. But the SP-BSP have preferred personal gains and caste-politics over it.”

Congress’s dismissal

Despite Congress party bargaining hard, the much-hyped grand-alliance didn’t work out since the SP-BSP were not ready to offer Congress more than eight seats to contest, two seats which it won last time and six on which it was runners-up.

The seat-sharing formula was not acceptable to Congress as it felt it was disproportionate and unsuited to its national stature.

In the 2014 polls, the SP won five seats, Congress took two while the BSP came up empty-handed. The NDA won a whopping 73 seats with a combined vote-share of over 42% of votes, while Congress attracted only 7.5% of votes.

In the Assembly elections of 2017, the SP and BSP’s vote-share remained the same while the Congress party’s declined to 6.3%.

Analyst Ramesh Dixit told Asia Times: “Congress rejected the alliance offer due to over confidence and miscalculations. It forgot that it was a non-decisive victory in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The party has lost ground in Uttar Praesh over the years and can’t win more than eight seats alone.”

Congress aims high

The ambitious Congress party hopes to double its 2009 tally this time following its victories in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, key states in India’s Hindi heartland, in the Assembly elections in December 2018.

“Don’t consider 2014 elections only, which was anyway not an election but magnanimous propaganda dubbed as ‘Modi wave’. Have a look at our past performance – 21 seats in 2009 with 12.2% vote-share. Even before that we have had more than 20 seats. The party and its vote bank, both, have expanded now,” Congress leaders said.

However many political observers believe differently, with some of the opinion that Congress is actually helping the BJP by contesting elections alone. Dixit said: “Had the grand-alliance taken shape, BJP would have (been) decimated to (only) 10 seats in Uttar Pradesh. Now, it can win up to 25.”

Not everyone agrees, and political commentator Hemant Tiwari feels Congress’s chances of winning more seats are low: “Alliance or no alliance, Congress is unlikely to win more than 10 seats in Uttar Pradesh.”

Compulsion versus ambition 

Contesting 80 seats is not an easy job for the Congress party due to skewed resources, though some feel they have no choice but to go all in.

Congress leaders said: “We have no other option but to do so. Congress would not like to play second fiddle to regional parties in Uttar Pradesh where it is already on the verge of extinction. Besides, the grand-alliance would have helped SP-BSP to further grow in the state at the cost of Congress.”

Another Congress leader admitted that the party’s victory in three key states has made it more confident and ambitious. He said: “Being India’s main opposition party, Congress is expected to take BJP head on by offering people a credible option. Most voters prefer a national party over the regional ones in the parliamentary elections.”

Congress gets into action mode

Congress will roll out its “Mission Uttar Pradesh” in the first week of February. Gandhi is set to address 12 public meetings, with the first slated for February 2 in Lucknow.

He will also visit Prayagraj during the Ardh Kumbh Mela – a mass Hindu pilgrimage of faith in which Hindus gather to bathe in a sacred or holy river. A list of candidates is still being worked out but big names, including outsiders such as Hardik Patel in Varanasi, are being considered.

Election plans

Congress spokesperson Anshu Awasthi rejects charges of overconfidence and any possibility of a pre-poll alliance with SP-BSP. He said: “Congress has never allied with anyone for Lok Sabha polls in Uttar Pradesh. We are confident enough to win 45 seats alone.”

Explaining their election strategy, Awasthi added, “We have decided to project major achievements of 10 years of UPA rule such as Right to Information Act, Right to Education Act, Right to Food Act and Employment Guarantee scheme in the electoral campaigns. Besides, we will highlight the misrule of BJP in last four years.”

The “Per-booth-10-youth” campaign is on to establish an on-the-ground network across Uttar Pradesh. Farmer rallies and “Constitution to Self-esteem” rallies for reaching out to the Dalit (a term used for members of the lowest social group in the Hindu caste system) are being held, Awasthi said.

The Grand Old Party has also launched a Shakti App to reach out to voters and booth workers directly.

The app is being used to get feedback about potential candidates, and to assign tasks to workers such as door-to-door campaigning, meetings and rallies.