Even in a campaign season of daily surprises,this one stands out. The secular alliance announced this week by Mulayam Singh Yadav,Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan is as intriguing for the conflicted history these politicians share as it is for the possibilities it could open up in north India. As leaders of three of the many fragments of the Janata Dals Mandal moment of 1989-1990,they announced that together they will contest the 120 seats of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Accordingly,the SP will withdraw its candidates from Bihar,and the RJD and LJP from UP. This cooperation will of course be seen from another angle: the breakdown of their seat-sharing talks with the Congress. Lalu,especially,is emphatic that he is still part of the UPA,but by forging another pole in the multi-polar contests in these two large states,he has thrown down the gauntlet to the Congress too.
This profusion of poles not just in UP and Bihar,but also in states as far apart as,say,Orissa and Tamil Nadu draws from a perception amongst most political parties that the seat-sharing deals on offer do not allow them to test the exact expanse of their potential. But in a certain sense the bipolar adjustments of the last decade are also being reversed. This is not only because of the Lefts revival of the third alternative. At one level the RJD-SP-LJP alliance could signal the regional parties attempt to keep their options open. But given the moderation in their rhetoric,the alliance is not yet being portrayed as a repudiation of the Congress-led UPA. Indeed,the decision is also born of the Congresss refusal to accept the paltry offerings from the three parties in seat-sharing deals and thereby discourage local units. Nonetheless,when allies fight each other in more than the odd friendly contest,the cohesiveness of the larger alliance is bound to be threatened.
And that is the challenge before the Congress. The party would be confident of defending its 2004 tally in UP and Bihar. But the contrast to the 2004 preparation could not be starker. Then,Sonia Gandhi had signalled her partys accommo-dative resolve by walking to Paswans office. Now as the Congress once again acts upon ambitions of growing to its older glory in the Hindi heartland,it will have to find more inventive ways of keeping with it allies in these states.