The day before the results of the recent Assembly polls were announced, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi took the first concrete step to attempt to build a national coalition to challenge the Bharatiya Janata Party at the next national elections in 2019, people familiar with the situation said.

On March 10, even before news of the BJP’s stunning victory in Uttar Pradesh was known, Gandhi held a one-on-one meeting with Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar and asked the veteran parliamentarian to take the initiative to create a national alternative to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Following the meeting, the two parties decided to join hands in local bodies in Maharashtra. Together, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party hope to wrest more than half of the local bodies in the state.

According to officials in the Nationalist Congress Party, Pawar was appreciative of Gandhi’s initiative and expressed the willingness to explore the possiblity of building a grand alliance throughout the country.

This was the first time in his 13-year parliamentary career that Gandhi had formally arranged a political discussion with Pawar. Their previous encounters have been social engagements.

Good relations

The decision to let the veteran parliamentarian explore the possibility of a national coalition is significant because Pawar is known to have good relations with regional parties throughout the country.

In fact, it was this unrevealed Gandhi-Pawar meeting that seems to hold the secret of a sudden change in the language of senior Congress leaders, who have started emphasising the need for a mahagathbandhan in 2019.

“We will do everything to create a larger coalition,” Congress general secretary CP Joshi told journalists at the party’s official briefing in Parliament House on March 16. “We will see to it that in 2019, we will give a formidable challenge to Narendra Modi brand of politics .”

The same day in a blog, senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar wrote: “What, therefore, is now required is a restoration of the spirit of 2004. Inclusive India lost in 2014 because the rainbow alliance of the decade 2004-2014 withered away. What could restore Inclusive India is for the UPA’s rainbow alliance to come together again.”

Officials in the Congress said the chorus about a national coalition might get stronger after March 23, when Rahul Gandhi, who left for the US on March 16 to attend to ailing party president Sonia Gandhi, returns to India along with his mother.