How Rahul Gandhi Could Cost Akhilesh Yadav This UP Election

Akhilesh Yadav wants to be re-elected as Uttar Pradesh chief minister. Rahul Gandhi wants something to show as achievement in UP so he can finally claim to have achieved something in politics, and thus finally ascend to the throne of the president of the Congress party.

Akhilesh needs the campaign over the next few weeks to become chief minister. For Rahul Gandhi, the campaign itself is more important than the end result.

The end result, in any case, is at most going to double the Congress Party's seats in the UP assembly from 28 to 56. It will still be the fourth largest party in the state, as it has been for years. It will mean nothing for the grassroots re-invention of the Congress. Just as 8 of those 28 ran away to greener pastures in other parties, the Congress MLAs elected in 2017 could just as easily do the same. Samajwadi Party leaders openly say if the Congress is too much of a pain, it would take a day to break the Congress legislature party.

It is result day on March 11 but until then that is crucial for Rahul Gandhi to project himself, not so much in UP but nationally, as a leader on the rise, a good boy who has finally come into his own as a politician, as someone who's not always on the losing side with an empty grin.

When Akhilesh looks back at the 2017 assembly election, it is very likely he may see the Congress alliance to be his single greatest mistake. Having wrested even the cycle symbol from the old guard of his party, having neutralised his own father, Akhilesh's election campaign is being hijacked by a wily Congress party.

The lack of chemistry between Rahul and Akhilesh at their joint press conference was apparent. What was worse was Rahul Gandhi's attempt to play Big Brother and run away with the credit. There was no chemistry, and the optics was all wrong.

The Congress is contesting about a fourth of the seats, the Samajwadi Party the rest two-thirds. The way the press conference and the ensuing road-show were organised, it appeared as if they are equal partners, contesting 200 odd seats each. Rahul Gandhi went further and patronised Akhilesh as if it were the Congress that were contesting 298 seats, and the SP 105.

Both the roadshow and the press conference were executed by the Congress, the press conference was moderated by a Congress leader, Rahul Gandhi didn't let Akhilesh Yadav speak much. It was as if Akhilesh Yadav was doing a guest appearance at a Congress event.

In the 2012 assembly elections five years ago, Akhilesh Yadav became CM with 224 seats. The Congress won only 28. But yesterday in Lucknow, it seemed as though the Congress was the bigger party. Akhilesh Yadav came across as a timid junior waiting to be allowed to speak by Rahul.

Why Rahul Is Undermining Akhilesh

Rahul Gandhi spoke in his faux-aggressive style, self-righteously telling us how this alliance was going to save India from Modi, from Modi's politics of anger, from demonetisation and divisiveness. The attempt to make this election about Modi deflects attention away from Akhilesh's campaign, which is about Akhilesh, but Rahul needs it to be about Rahul and Modi, Congress and BJP.

Akhilesh Yadav seemed shifty and nervous at the end when Rahul Gandhi undermined Akhilesh's own campaign and image. A journalist asked Akhilesh Yadav what he thought of the Congress' performance at the centre from 2004 to 2014, and asked Rahul Gandhi what he thought of the Akhilesh Yadav government's performance over the last five years.

The ten years of Congress-led UPA ended with the Congress reaching its lowest vote and seat share ever, whereas Akhilesh Yadav is selling his government's achievements to voters this election.

But Rahul Gandhi went on to equate the UPA with Akhilesh's government. To Akhilesh Yadav's apparent surprise, Rahul Gandhi said Akhilesh Yadav's intentions were right but there had been some shortcomings in his government. That sounds like the chiding of a mother, not the support of a junior partner.

He said in Hindi with a smattering of English words: "A question was asked earlier that went unanswered... Akhilesh's intentions are right. His niyat is right. Some work happened under his rule, some perhaps didn't happen. That is how it was with the Congress government. The intentions were absolutely pure. Work was done, but there were some shortcomings. You won't find any government where there are no shortcomings. But that's past now. It's over. UPA-2 won't come again. UPA-3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 will return. But UPA-2, or 1, won't return. Similarly, work that Akhilesh did over the last five years, what he gave to UP, and no one can say he gave nothing, but it's over now. Now we'll start on a fresh note, we want to create a new platform for the youth. The Congress has excellent policymakers across the country, They will all join in to change UP."

Akhilesh Yadav immediately responded: "All the journalists here know my government has performed. Nobody can say the Samajwadis haven't worked. I can say on the issue of roads, the speed with which the Lucknow-Agra expressway was built is an example for the rest of the country to follow. Nowhere in India has a metro been built with the speed that it has in Lucknow. The new Dial 100 service of UP Police is in keeping with the best policing standards in the world. Other parties are forced to say they will do it even better. The people believe there has been development. And that is why I have said, kaam bolta hai, work speaks for itself. It took me courage to say that, but I wanted to keep my work before you. What's going to happen in the next five years... you (media) used to say there are five and a half chief ministers..."

At this point he was cut short by moderator Randeep Surjewala of the Congress, who let another journalist ask a question.

This exchange was no spur-of-the-moment mistake by Rahul Gandhi. It was deliberate strategy. Rahul Gandhi is seeking to downplay Akhilesh Yadav's achievements, because Gandhi has none to show for himself, and the contrast would be noticed.

This exchange was no spur-of-the-moment mistake by Rahul Gandhi. It was deliberate strategy. Rahul Gandhi is seeking to downplay Akhilesh Yadav's achievements, because Gandhi has none to show for himself, and the contrast would be noticed. Akhilesh Yadav's kaam bolta hai, Rahul Gandhi's been losing election after election and has zero governance or development record to tom-tom.

Yamuna Wants To Be Ganga

Rahul Gandhi said repeatedly in the press conference that the alliance was like the meeting of the Yamuna and Ganga rivers in Sangam in Allahbad. A journalist asked who was Ganga and who was Yamuna. Rahul Gandhi replied, with typical arrogance, "Have you ever been to Sangam?" I have, the journalist replied. "Gaye hain?" Rahul Gandhi said with contempt. "You have seen in Sangam, where Ganga and Yamuna meet, which is Ganga and which is Yamuna?"

In other words, Rahul Gandhi wants to pretend the two parties are merging together. Rahul Gandhi refuses to have the humility to say that as a junior alliance partner, his is the smaller river.

The large board behind them had their joint campaign slogan written so large as if the slogan was more important than the alliance. "UP ko yeh saath pasand hai," it read, 'UP likes them together'. The phraseology is deliberately designed to suggest that UP doesn't like them alone. Once again the effort is to show up Rahul as an equal to Akhilesh, not a junior alliance partner.

There's a joint campaign song, vehicles ready with the joint slogan. Photos of Akhilesh and Rahul together are going to become a common sight across the state. Akhilesh Yadav will soon realise he's been had. The Congress is taking much more than 105 seats. It is taking away Akhilesh's campaign, branding, pitch and strategy. Akhilesh Yadav thought he was going to fight an Akhilesh election but turns out, it's an Akhilesh-Rahul election. Or, if you notice the placement of photos, a Rahul-Akhilesh election, with Rahul's photo appearing marginally bigger.

The Congress effort is to overshadow Akhilesh's "#KamBoltaHai" campaign with "UP ko yeh saath pasand hai". This reflects the contradictions between the two objectives: what the Congress wants out of this alliance is to use Akhilesh to bring some credibility for itself. Being on the winning side is incidental for the Congress. For Akhilesh, it's everything at stake.

Akhilesh Yadav won the cycle symbol on 16 January and his campaign should have begun forthwith. But figuring out the Congress alliance took away more crucial campaign time. Even now, there are three seats in the first phase where the Congress and SP have both fielded candidates. The last date to withdraw nominations is over. The polling is less than two weeks ago and in this weakest phase for the SP, there is no perceptible Akhilesh wave.

As the BJP might do well in the first phase, there could be a sense across the state that the SP-Congress alliance is not winning. The two parties have never pre-poll allies before, and there are places where SP workers are openly opposing the alliance. There is still confusion over seat-sharing in Rae Bareli and Amethi.

The only reason Akhilesh needed this alliance was to prevent the Muslim vote from going to the BSP, but that could still happen if Akhilesh is unable to create an Akhilesh wave.

Whether the Samajwadi vote base will transfer to Congress candidates remains an open question. There is no Congress vote-base so the question of it transferring to the SP does not arise. The only thing this pre-poll alliance may achieve is to transfer some of the public goodwill of Akhilesh Yadav to Rahul Gandhi. But Rahul Gandhi has no goodwill to transfer to Akhilesh.

The only reason Akhilesh needed this alliance was to prevent the Muslim vote from going to the BSP, but that could still happen if Akhilesh is unable to create an Akhilesh wave. The Congress is making that harder by demanding it be an Akhilesh-Rahul wave. To create any wave, you need a campaign, which the BJP and BSP have been up to for months, while Akhilesh has been pre-occupied in Lucknow.

A hasty, unnatural and messy SP-Congress alliance could well turn out to be Akhilesh Yadav's undoing, throwing away a winnable election to a weakening BJP.