Now that Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has returned from his two-week sojourn in Europe, discussions on stitching up alliances for the forthcoming assembly polls in Assam, Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry are expected to pick up pace in the coming weeks.

Although there is a section in the Congress which believes they should not play second fiddle to smaller parties and should instead work on a long-term plan to rebuild the party, the successful experiment in Bihar has led Rahul Gandhi to believe the party should be open to the idea of partnering with strong regional forces in their quest to stop the Bharatiya Janata Party from spreading its wings.

Stopping BJP expansion

“Our main aim at present is to see that the BJP does not expand its footprint,” said CP Joshi, Congress general secretary in charge of Assam and West Bengal. “No decision has been taken on alliances so far but we are clear on our objective.”

The Congress realises that it has a negligible presence in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu and faces anti-incumbency in Assam and Kerala. It is also well-aware that the BJP is working hard to displace the three-term Gogoi government in Assam and expand its base in West Bengal and Kerala following its encouraging performance in these states in the last Lok Sabha election.

The BJP pulled off a coup of sorts in 2014 when it won seven of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam and increased its vote share to 36.5%. Similarly, the saffron party registered its presence in West Bengal in the last general election when it won two Lok Sabha seats with 16.8% votes. Though it may not be in a position to form the government in Kerala, the BJP is confident of making inroads in this Southern state by consolidating the Hindu votes after it tied up with the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, an organisation representing the Ezhava caste.

Small mercies

While Congress insiders acknowledge that they face a serious challenge in Assam and Kerala, they are drawing comfort from the fact that regional parties are vying with each other to partner with the grand old party. “We may not have the numbers to form governments in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, yet parties are keen on tying up with us. It shows we cannot be written off,” remarked a senior Congress leader.

The Left Front in West Bengal has publicly said it wants to tie-up with the Congress. At the same time, the Trinamool Congress is also wooing the Congress. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is not averse to an alignment with the Congress. This became evident when she called on Congress president Sonia Gandhi on her last visit to Delhi and came out in support of the party in the National Herald case.

The Congress state unit in West Bengal is keen on joining hands with the Left Front as both parties regard the Trinamool Congress as their chief political opponent. The Trinamool Congress does not need any partners as it is comfortably placed in the state but Mamata Banerjee’s overtures to the Congress are primarily aimed at ensuring that it does not have an alliance with the Left Front.

The Congress leadership, however, is still weighing its options. It cannot ignore the fact that the Trinamool Congress has 34 members in the Lok Sabha and 12 members in the Rajya Sabha. “We need the Trinamool on our side if we want to take on the BJP in Parliament,“ said a senior Congress office bearer. The Congress is not sure about tying up with the Left Front in West Bengal, given that the party will be battling it out with the Communists in Kerala at the same time.

The Congress is also chuffed that it is being wooed again by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam despite the fact that the grand old party fared miserably in Tamil Nadu in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections with its vote share plummeting to a mere 6%. The DMK had parted company with the Congress before the last general election even though the two parties had a successful joint run in the past two Lok Sabha polls.

Like Mamata Bannerjee, Jayalalithaa is also well ahead of her rivals but the DMK believes it could have a shot at regaining power if it can forge the right alliances, which includes the Congress. Jayalalithaa has been in the line of fire for her shoddy handling of the recent floods in Tamil Nadu. She is also on shaky ground as the pending corruption case against her is coming up for hearing in the Supreme Court from February 2, close to the March-April assembly poll.

Little headway

Although the Congress has abandoned its earlier reservations to partnerships with regional parties, the possibility of forging an alliance in Assam has made little headway so far. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has made a concerted effort to bring together the Congress, the All-India United Democratic Front and the Asom Gana Parishad on the same lines as the Grand Alliance in his home state but to little avail.

Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi is not keen on tying with the AIUDF as the parties have traditionally competed for the minority vote. Moreover, the Congress believes that their partnership will polarise the polity and consolidate the Hindu vote in favour of the BJP. The Congress is also not convinced that the AIUDF chief Ajmal Badruddin is genuinely interested in an alliance as he wants to keep on the right side of the Modi government because of his business interests.

The BJP appears to be better prepared. It is on the verge of sealing a deal with the Bodo People’s Front and is also in talks with several small ethnic groups as it seeks to beat the Congress at forging partnerships. The BJP is also learnt to be encouraging the AIUDF to put up a strong fight against the Congress in the Muslim-dominated constituencies. On its part, the Congress is discrediting the AIUDF by spreading the word that it has entered into a secret understanding with the BJP.