The upcoming general election has political parties in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh in chaos, with the Congress party among the most obviously affected.

At a recent press conference, Congress state chief Raj Babbar announced that the party would leave seven seats for the regional alliance of Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Lokdal (SP-BSP-RLD) in Uttar Pradesh. The decision was aimed to reciprocate the former’s gesture of leaving two seats -Amethi and Rai Bareli- for Congress stalwarts Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia Gandhi.

“The seven constituencies include Mainpuri, from where SP patriarch Mulayam Singh Yadav is contesting and Kannauj, where his daughter-in-law Dimple Yadav is expected to run. The Congress will also leave the seats [where] Mayawati (BSP chief) and Rashtriya Lok Dal’s chief Ajit Singh and his son Jayant Chaudhary will contest,” said Babbar.

However, the offer by Congress was flatly rejected by the alliance the next morning, which showed the confidence of regional parties in the state.

BSP leader Mayawati tweeted, “Congress should not create confusion by forcibly offering seven seats for us. Our party would not tie-up with the Congress either in Uttar Pradesh or any other part of the country,”

“Congress is free to contest all 80 seats of Uttar Pradesh. Our alliance is perfectly capable of defeating the BJP on its own,” Mayawati tweeted. Akhilesh Yadav also tweeted, ‘The alliance is capable of defeating the BJP in the state.”

Later, Congress also announced on Sunday that it would not contest nine more seats, two in support of Apna Dal (Krishna faction) and seven for the little-known Janadhikar Party.

But on Tuesday, Shivpal Yadav, leader of the Pragatisheel Samajwadi Party (PSP) claimed that Apna Dal (Krishna) is part of the Progressive Democratic Alliance, an umbrella group of 40-odd small parties headed by himself.

Congress bloopers

Critics observe that such errors by India’s oldest political party, in the state which is believed to be the key to national power, reveals its poor strategy, lack of vision and the ignorance of its leaders.

The developments are viewed as a major set-back for the Congress leadership, especially for Rahul and his younger sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra.

Vadra was formally inducted into the party recently to give it a boost in Uttar Pradesh. Congress is struggling to build a foothold in the state, where it has been in the wilderness for some years. Now, without an alliance, it faces stiff competition from regional players as well as from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Ramesh Dixit, a political commentator said, “The way Congress announced [that it would] skip seven seats was the height of its arrogance. While Congress’ top leaders Rahul and Priyanka are inexperienced, their advisers are also misguiding them. The party is ill-prepared to fight these general elections.”

Dixit further said, “Had the party been really serious about dethroning the BJP, it would have forged alliances across the states by making a few compromises on seats. Instead, it [over-confidently] rejected the alliance offers of regional parties following its victory in three states last December (in the assembly elections). It should have learnt from the BJP which accepted fewer seats in Bihar this time only to make sure that the alliance remains intact.”

Political analyst SK Dwivedi had this to say: “….It (Congress) didn’t ally with opposition parties in Uttar Pradesh despite requests. This indicates [the] poor leadership skills of Rahul Gandhi. Regional satraps [leaders] are not ready to accept him as [a] prime ministerial candidate. Priyanka is more capable than Rahul but she lacks experience.”

To make matters worse, Congress is announcing its candidate list in such a haphazard manner that even Babbar was unhappy with his seat in Moradabad. Economic Times quoted party sources as saying that he was not keen on contesting the seat in Moradabad, where the BJP is fielding its sitting MP Kunwar Sarvesh Kumar.

Babbar has now been switched to the seat at Fatehpur Sikri, which he had long wanted to contest. Seats of other leaders have also been changed days after the party made the list public.

Along with this, the singer Sapna Chaudhary episode may not augur well for votes in the state. Babbar and other leaders had released news about the singer joining the party. It was speculated that she would contest the seat of actress-turned-politician Hema Malini in Uttar Pradesh’s Mathura constituency.

Hours later, Chaudhary denied having joined the party and went to meet BJP leaders.

Chaos also reigns whenever there is discussion of when Priyanka will visit Uttar Pradesh. Party leaders remain clueless about dates, places to be visited and her travel route, making the jobs of journalists covering Congress an uphill task.

Now, with the state set for a three-way competition among the ruling BJP, the main opposition party Congress and the alliance of three regional players, state politics have become highly competitive.

An SP leader told Asia Times, “Multi-cornered contests will only divide opposition votes and help the BJP, which won a whopping 71 out of 80 seats in the 2014 election. Still, Congress decided not to join hands with us. Leaving a few seats here and there would hardly make any difference in the poll outcome.”

Banking on anti-incumbent sentiment, Congress hopes to clinch victory in 45 seats out of 80 by going solo. However, insiders estimate that it may win up to 16 constituencies, and is struggling to find strong candidates to be fielded across 80 constituencies.

BJP spokesperson Harishchandra Srivastava said, “Congress’ Uttar Pradesh strategy has gone haywire due to internal tussles and ego clashes. Priyanka was inducted into the party in January to revive the Congress [party] in the state but she kept away from the state for so long. Moreover, Congress doesn’t have enough candidates to contest on 80 seats. Hence, they seek to skip so many seats.”

Srivastava adds, “Congress hasn’t learnt from the past. Mayawati betrayed leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Due to her insecurity over the Dalit (a lower caste in the Hindu caste system) votebank, she will never allow Congress to come closer. Nevertheless, Other Backward Classes (OBC), Dalits and Muslims don’t vote en-mass now. A section of them supported us last time.”

‘Goodwill gesture’

Congress spokesperson Anshu Awasthi defended the party’s move: “We are neither inexperienced nor overconfident. Our offer was purely a goodwill gesture as the alliance had also left two seats-Amethi and Rai Bareli-for Rahul and Sonia Gandhi ji. And Apna Dal is with the Congress.”

It is unclear whether the Congress will now leave the seven seats uncontested. “Central leadership will take a call in this regard,” said Congress leader Virendra Madan.

Vote banks overlap

Analysts believe that by offering indirect support to the alliance, Congress intends to create confusion among voters as its vote banks overlap with the SP-BSP-RLD. This could prove to be beneficial for the ruling BJP.

The Samajwadi party relies largely on Muslims, who make up almost 20% of the state’s population, and OBC voters; the BSP has its base among Dalits, who constitute about 20% of Hindu voters, who themselves make up around 80% of the Uttar Pradesh population.

These communities and some upper castes (who shifted to the BJP) were the Congress party vote bank in the past, and now the party seeks to get them back.

Alliance upper hand

The SP-BSP-RLD alliance’s decision to not share seats with India’s Grand Old Party in the state shows its confidence and illustrates the fact that it has an upper hand in state politics.

SK Dwivedi said, “SP wields considerable power among minorities and backward classes while Dalits largely rally behind [the] BSP. Open support to Congress would damage SP-BSP’s caste calculations forever.”

“Muslims have rallied behind Congress ever since Independence. Since the Babri Mosque demolition in 1992 during the Congress government, Muslims shifted their loyalty towards the SP. However, Muslims now vote for those candidates who can defeat the BJP, irrespective of [what parties] they belong to”, said Athar Hussain, Director of the Centre for Objective Research and Development.

As usual, caste polarization will play a key role in Uttar Pradesh. What remains to be seen is whether the BJP will be able to take advantage of the struggle between Congress and the alliance and secure another term.