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Cong works on twin deals

Rabri Devi plays with her grandchildren at her residence in Patna on Tuesday. Husband Lalu Prasad, who walked out of jail on Monday, started for his Patna residence from Ranchi on Tuesday morning. Picture by Ashok Sinha

New Delhi, Dec. 17: The Congress’s alliance negotiations with Mayawati have reached an advanced stage while an agreement is close to be sealed with Lalu Prasad.

A tie-up with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in Uttar Pradesh will mark a reversal of Rahul Gandhi’s strategy to revive the Congress in the country’s most populous state that accounts for 80 Lok Sabha seats.

The rise of Narendra Modi seems to have influenced the rethink by the party leadership, and the recent electoral routs have injected a sense of purpose into the negotiations.

Sources said Mayawati too was serious about an alliance with the Congress and that what was holding back a final agreement was a tussle over how many seats each would contest.

While the Congress wants to contest at least 30 Lok Sabha seats in the heartland state, the BSP is willing to spare only 22. The Congress now has 22 Lok Sabha members from Uttar Pradesh but the general perception is that the party’s stock has fallen since the last general election.

Mayawati, however, understands the symbolic importance of a tie-up with the Congress in terms of Muslim votes, which will be a key factor in the polarisation wrought by Modi.

The Samajwadi Party had swept last year’s Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh but the popular mood seems to have changed in the last few months, particularly after the Muzaffarnagar violence. Muslim voters are now expected to explore options during the Lok Sabha polls next summer.

Mayawati

The Congress’s status as Modi’s main challenger is bound to influence minority votes, which could give a fillip to Mayawati’s quest to recover lost ground.

In Bihar, the scene is much clearer. Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal is struggling for survival and licking the wounds that the last general election inflicted on it after the collapse of its alliance with the Congress. The Rashtriya Janata Dal’s tally fell from 24 to just four, the defeat rendering Lalu Prasad irrelevant in national politics.

Now the former chief minister, jailed in a fodder scam case, is out on bail and is desperate to restore his party’s health. Getting into an antagonistic relationship with all the three major players — the BJP, the Janata Dal (United) and the Congress — would be too risky for him. So he wants a three-way tie-up with the Congress and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party.

The Congress has demanded 15 of Bihar’s 40 Lok Sabha seats but could sew up the alliance even with 10 seats. The Congress has two MPs in the state and fears a possible whitewash in the next election.

The general perception is that the break-up between the Janata Dal (United) and the BJP has created a new opening for a Congress-Lalu Prasad-Paswan alliance. The BJP is rising fast but the Congress believes that Lalu Prasad is still capable of turning the tide.

Although the upper castes are expected to consolidate behind the BJP, the Yadav-Dalit-Muslim combination could prove strong enough to corner the bulk of the 40 seats.

Some in the Congress believe that chief minister Nitish Kumar is on a downswing and his party may end up as the worst loser in a three-way contest.

Although one Congress lobby is against alliances either in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, the party’s key strategists view the tie-up option as a means of survival against the rampaging Modi, who is paying special attention to both these states.

The 120 seats up for grabs in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar would be figuring high on the Congress’s mind after the Assembly poll drubbing in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.