As it became clear that the Samajwadi Party was heading to victory in the bye-elections in Uttar Pradesh and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, Congress president Rahul Gandhi tweeted to congratulate the winners, claiming the result showed anger was simmering against the Bharatiya Janata Party.

But the truth is that the Congress found itself in a difficult situation on Wednesday: the party did not know whether it should be happy about these results or worried.

Congress members celebrated the Opposition’s convincing victory over the BJP as further proof that the electoral machine created by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah was not invincible. As beaming Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal leaders distributed sweets in Parliament to celebrate their victory, Congress members joined in, saying the entire Opposition was united in its goal to defeat the BJP in the 2019 general election. “It is not an impossible task,” said a senior Congress leader. “These elections have once again demonstrated that the adulation for Modi has turned into anger.”

But amid all the celebrations, there were signs of worry. For one, today’s results will make it difficult for the party to forge a major alliance for the 2019 election on its terms. “The good news is that the first step towards the formation of an opposition alliance has been taken but, in the process, our bargaining power has been reduced,” said a Congress functionary from Uttar Pradesh. That the party suffered a drubbing in both Gorakhpur and Phulpur parliamentary seats in Uttar Pradesh – its candidates finished far behind those of the Samajwadi Party, which was supported by the Bahujan Samaj Party, and the BJP – showed it has little presence in this crucial heartland state. The Congress’s footprint, in fact, has shrunk across India, having being marginalised also in states such as Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha and Tamil Nadu, where it has ceded space to regional forces.

In Uttar Pradesh particularly, the Congress has much to worry about now that it stands isolated by the partnership of Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati. After today’s results, the leaders of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party have reason to believe that there is no advantage in aligning with the Congress as the party would only erode their Dalit and minority support without offering much in return.

‘Not the leader’

As a pan-India party, the Congress cannot possibly be kept out of any major alliance that the Opposition may form in the near future, but its shrinking footprint makes it increasingly difficult for the grand old party to play a lead role in such a coalition. The Congress, though, has an opportunity to regain its pre-eminent position among Opposition parties if it retains Karnataka and wrests Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh from the BJP in the Assembly elections later this year. The party is hoping the “positive momentum” generated by today’s results would see it through the upcoming elections.

For now, with the Congress still to prove itself, regional satraps such as West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee and Telangana’s K Chandrashekar Rao are attempting to form a non-Congress, non-BJP “third front”. The West Bengal chief minister in particular has been actively pushing for such a grouping with Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s MK Stalin, Telugu Desam Party’s N Chandrababu Naidu and Akhilesh Yadav.

The regional forces are not convinced that Rahul Gandhi has the capability to lead an anti-BJP alliance and the ongoing effort to form a third front is essentially aimed at denying the leadership of a future opposition alliance to the Nehru-Gandhi scion. Banerjee conveyed precisely this point when she chose to send a second-rung leader – Sudip Bandyopadhyay – for the dinner hosted by Congress leader Sonia Gandhi for opposition leaders on Tuesday. As if to stress the point, the Trinamool Congress chief will personally attend a meeting of opposition parties being organised by Nationalist Congress Party’s Sharad Pawar in Delhi on March 27. Indeed, Trinamool Congress leaders said that while it would be difficult to keep the Congress out of any opposition alliance, there was no way it could be accepted as the lead player. “By going for the dinner we have indicated that we have not shut the door on the Congress,” a senior Trinamool leader pointed out, referring to Sonia Gandhi’s meeting. “But, at the same time, we do not want it to hog the limelight.”

The Congress did not help its case by not allying with the Samajwadi Party for Gorakhpur and Phulpur bye-polls. It is learnt that talks to form such an alliance broke down because the Congress insisted that the Samajwadi Party forfeit its claim to one of the seats. The Congress decided to contest on its own when the Samajwadi Party rejected its claim. Congress leaders said they could still have saved face had they withdrawn their candidates in the interest of opposition unity after Mayawati extended support to the Samajwadi Party. “We could have taken credit for the results today,” a senior Congress leader said. “But we ended up exposing our flanks.”