With its footprint reduced to six states after the latest round of assembly elections, the Congress is staring at the prospect of losing allies and bargaining power in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. Though regional parties accept that the Congress will have a crucial role to play in binding together any anti-BJP coalition, they hint that it should also be ready to accept the leadership of a regional player.
“I am not for a weak Congress, but the Congress has to revive and reclaim its place, chances of which are low,” said K.C. Tyagi, leader of the Janata Dal (United). The Congress, he said, would have to assume leadership role in putting together an alliance. At the same time, however, he emphasised that his leader, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, was “PM material”.
If the Congress is not able to reclaim some of the lost ground in the next two years, its bargaining power would be highly reduced, leaving it to a situation where it has to make concessions to the regional leaders. And, experts say there may even arise a situation where the regional players form a federal front without the Congress. “If the Congress is not able to bolster its position, a coalition of a third kind could take shape. If the Congress has to get different forces together, it has to play the role of a principal opposition party effectively,” said political scientist Abhay Kumar Dubey.
There are parties that are not convinced about the Congress's performance as an opposition party. “The Congress is not that alternative,” said Aam Aadmi Party leader Ashutosh. “It has lost to the BJP wherever it has fought against it in the state elections after 2014, be it Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Haryana or Assam. So it is clear that the Congress cannot defeat the BJP. So the AAP is the principal opposition party and Arvind Kejriwal is the principal opponent of Modi.”
However, many others feel the Congress will have to bind together regional parties, whether by forming a formal alliance or by having just an understanding. And, Congress leaders insist that the party has been gaining ground in Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. “We won the byelections in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. We have done well in the panchayat elections in Gujarat. And, do not forget, in Bihar, the Congress, as part of the Mahagathbandhan, won 27 seats and has five ministers in the cabinet,” said Rajasthan Congress president Sachin Pilot.
While the regional parties are expected to vie for the leadership position, the Congress claims it alone can challenge Narendra Modi in 2019. “It is the only nationally relevant force with a pan-India presence,” said Pilot. The regional parties, he said, have no presence outside their states. Moreover, the Congress leadership has raised several questions to the Modi government, such as farm distress and corruption in BJP-ruled states. “Mamata Banerjee, J. Jayalalithaa or Akhilesh Yadav has not raised these questions,” he said. “It is the Congress party that will hold them accountable.”