As the Madhya Pradesh election approaches, cracks in the INDIA opposition alliance have begun to appear. Far from presenting a united front, the Congress and the Samajwadi Party are engaged in verbal sparring in the state. Meanwhile, other alliance members are also in the fray, pitting their candidates against each other.

On Friday, Congress state president Kamal Nath stated that the Samajwadi Party’s choice of seats would ultimately favour the BJP.

Speaking to reporters in Chhindwara, he stated, “We tried to form an alliance: it wasn’t merely about seats. The issue was which seats to choose. Regrettably, disagreements arose over the seats where our supporters believed the BJP would gain.”

A day earlier, SP president Akhilesh Yadav expressed his dissatisfaction with the Congress party. “If they state there’s no alliance, we accept it,” he told reporters. “If they seek an alliance in Uttar Pradesh for the general election, we will decide when the time comes. Our decision will be based on how we are treated.”

Yadav added that had he known the INDIA parties were planning to contest only the Lok Sabha election jointly he would not have entertained phone calls from Congress leaders.

Discussions between the two parties faced an immediate setback on October 15, when the Congress published an initial list of 144 candidates. Shortly after, the SP responded by announcing nine candidates, five of them pitched against Congress contenders. The SP has since declared 70 candidates in the 230 Assembly seats, while the Congress has declared 229 contenders.

As things stand, it appears these candidates will campaign against each other in all the available seats, whether or not the parties announce more contenders. Meanwhile, the Congress leadership is trying to portray the situation as amicable, citing past instances of friendly competition between alliance partners in electoral history.

Congress leader Digvijaya Singh remarked, "INDIA Alliance will contest the Lok Sabha elections together, but we have different issues in the state elections. Akhilesh is a sincere person. He is educated, and he is managing the party and the family. I am unsure where the discussion went wrong, but Kamal Nath aimed for an agreement with complete honesty. Friendly disputes are common in alliances.”

Congress party sources attributed the discord to internal conflicts between Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh over seat sharing with the alliance, adding that several Congress leaders had refused to contest on Samajwadi Party tickets.

“The alliance couldn’t materialise in the state because Kamal Nath was unwilling to allocate four seats to the Samajwadi Party which they demanded. Digvijaya Singh had agreed to allot four seats to the Samajwadi Party, but Kamal Nath refused to accommodate this,” a senior Congress leader told The Citizen.

Asked to comment on the escalating tensions, Congress spokesperson KK Mishra reassured us that the situation was under control, emphasising that all speculation should cease as it had firmly been established that friendly competition in the state was the plan between the two parties. Both, he said, were dedicated to collaborating to thwart the BJP.

“All speculations and rumours should stop now. The Samajwadi Party and Congress have reached an understanding. Wherever candidates from both parties contest against each other it will be a friendly competition,” he told The Citizen emphatically. Mishra further stressed the situation would not impact the alliance at the national level, as it was resolute in its determination to strongly challenge the BJP.

His statements however are not sitting well with the state leaders of the Samajwadi Party, who have accused the Congress of arrogance and failing to understand the importance of teamwork to confront the BJP.

“This sheer arrogance displayed by the Congress party in the state is concerning. They appear to be neglecting their allies. There is a prevailing sentiment within Congress that they have already secured the government, with assumptions that Kamal Nath has been sworn in as the chief minister. While it’s true that Congress is the bigger partner in the state, they should recognise their role accordingly. Alienating allies will only serve to benefit the BJP,” said Yash Bhartiya, a senior SP leader in MP.

Lobbing back the argument about seat sharing, another SP leader highlighted instances where the Congress impacted the SP’s chances in 2018. These included Paraswara, won by the BJP with 57,395 votes. While the SP came in second with 47,787 votes, the Congress was a close third with 47,746. Similar results were seen in the Gurh and Nivari assembly seats, both won by the BJP.

In 2018, the SP contested 52 seats in Madhya Pradesh and only won Bijawar. Its winning candidate, Rajesh Shukla, joined the BJP last year. Shukla had lent crucial support to the formation of a Congress government in 2020 when the party fell short of the majority mark by just two seats.

Election Commission estimates show that in six of the 109 seats won by the BJP in 2018 (Niwari, Gurh, Paraswada, Chandla, Maihar, and Balaghat) the saffron party would have been defeated by the combined votes of the Congress and the SP.

And there were close contests in Prithvipur, won by the Congress, where the Samajwadi Party trailed by some 7,500 votes, and in Jabera, which the BJP narrowly won with 48,901 votes as against the Congress’s 45,416.

The SP is the only party from the INDIA alliance in the election fray in MP. Aam Aadmi Party and Janata Dal United candidates are also up against the Congress in at least 92 seats. 26 of these seats will see a competition between AAP and the SP, while in three the Congress candidate will face challengers from the JDU and Aam Aadmi Party.

The INDIA parties are at odds over the extent of the alliance and whether it should also encompass state elections. While the Congress insists seat-sharing is only for the parliamentary election, the rest are advocating broader cooperation at both the state and national levels to challenge the BJP.

In the Rajnagar seat in Madhya Pradesh, all four INDIA parties are vying for victory. The Congress holds a narrow margin of 732 votes here, one of nine constituencies it won narrowly in 2018. Most of these seats this time will have at least one other contender from the SP, JDU or AAP. In Gwalior South, where the Congress has a margin of just 121 votes, it will face competition from AAP. In Jabalpur North, which it won by 578 votes, the JDU has advanced a contender.

Yet some observers do not anticipate significant changes in state politics with the entry of non-Congress, non-BJP parties. According to political analyst Girija Shankar, these parties lack a robust organisation in Madhya Pradesh, a state where even the Bahujan Samaj Party, present in elections for 30-35 years, lacks a strong setup. Shankar says these parties’ occasional wins in regions like Vindhya, Chambal or Bundelkhand are often coincidental and can be attributed to specific candidates, with influence in the area but without a ticket from the Congress or BJP.

Meanwhile, some Muslim leaders and activists have questioned the fragmentation in the INDIA bloc in the fight against the BJP.

“These parties have accused Asaduddin Owaisi and AIMIM of dividing secular votes. Yet now they compete among themselves, eroding their own bases of support. Muslims are uncertain about whom to trust,” says Anas Ali, president of the Barkatullah Youth Forum.

Meanwhile, the All India Majlis-e Ittehadul Muslimeen has also nominated a candidate from Burhanpur, a region where Muslims are a significant portion of the electorate.