On Saturday, when four non-BJP chief ministers came out in support of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who is on a sit-in protest against Delhi Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal, the Congress was conspicuous by its absence.

Chief ministers Mamata Banerjee, Chandrababu Naidu, HD Kumaraswamy and Pinayari Vijayan first addressed a press conference on Saturday urging the Centre to end the Delhi deadlock, and then followed it up with a personal message to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the NITI Aayog meeting in the Capital the next day.

Instead of joining the four chief ministers in what would have been yet another opportunity to showcase Opposition unity, the Congress chose to stay away from the meeting, signalling the party’s dilemma in Delhi, where it has lost its base to the Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party. While its potential allies in the proposed anti-BJP front stood solidly with the Delhi chief minister, the Congress instead decided to launch a two-front battle against the BJP and the Aam Aadmi Party as it is unable to decide which of the two parties is its bigger enemy.

In the process, the Congress found itself isolated in the Opposition camp. Moreover, the confusion in its ranks presented an opportunity to the regional satraps to emerge as the dominant partners of the anti-BJP alliance being planned for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

On their part, the regional leaders, especially West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, sent out an unmistakable message that as the prime movers of the proposed Opposition coalition, the Congress will have to join the grouping on their terms.

Advantage: Regional leaders

Even before the Delhi drama unfolded, the absence of top Opposition leaders at the iftar hosted by Congress president Rahul Gandhi last week had offered a similar pointer to the unfolding political situation ahead of the 2019 general elections.

Though Opposition parties have been talking about forging a common front against the Bharatiya Janata Party, regional parties seem to have realised that they must strengthen in their respective states to have a shot at power in New Delhi. Indeed, states are where next year’s electoral battle will likely be won, or lost. This has become clear with the BJP’s string of election defeats across the country. As such, regional leaders are gaining clout at the expense of the Congress – which has been fighting for electoral relevance in most of India’s large states – and they indicated as much by staying away from Gandhi’s iftar, even though it would have offered a chance to show their combined strength.

It is telling that most Opposition parties sent their second-rung leaders to Gandhi’s iftar while the Samajwadi Party and the National Conference did not bother at all.

Twitter/Rahul Gandhi
Twitter/Rahul Gandhi

The absence of Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati, Nationalist Congress Party’s Sharad Pawar and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee was also put down to the fact that they are not willing to accept the Gandhi scion as the leader of the proposed alliance. But even younger leaders who are not as averse to Gandhi such as Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Tejashwi Yadav, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav and HD Kumaraswamy of the Janata Dal (Secular) kept away. Tejashwi Yadav, though, excused himself saying he was hosting an iftar the same day.

In the past, regional parties have depended on a national party to anchor a coalition at the Centre, but now the balance of power seems to have shifted in their favour. So, while regional satraps readily accepted the Congress’s leadership of the United Progressive Alliance, painstakingly cobbled together by Sonia Gandhi, in 2004, they want to set terms for the grand old party now. They contend that a weakened Congress is far more dependent on them than the other way around. This line of thinking was seemingly validated when the Congress readily agreed to play second fiddle to the numerically inferior Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka, and by last month’s bye-polls. Regional parties did impressively in the elections, with the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal wresting a seat each from the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, and the Rashtriya Janata Dal trouncing the ruling Janata Dal (United) in Bihar. The Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha also did well.

On the margins

In Uttar Pradesh, after joining hands to defeat the BJP on the prestigious Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Kairana parliamentary seats, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party have declared they would contest together in next year’s election. Getting the Congress into the coalition is not high on their priority list. Relegated to the margins, electorally and organisationally, in India’s largest state, the Congress can banish any thought of extracting a respectable seat-sharing arrangement from these two dominant players.

It is the same story in West Bengal, where the Congress is a just bit player now. Aware that she is in an unassailable position, Banerjee has proposed that instead of forming a grand coalition to take on the BJP nationally, the regional party best placed to defeat the saffron alliance in a particular state should be allowed to lead the battle there. It is a clear message that she has national ambitions and is this disinclined to accept Gandhi’s leadership.

In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the Congress has been nearly wiped out, yielding space to the Telugu Desam Party, YSR Congress and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi. The party has been edged out in Bihar as well and must forge an alliance with one of the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu to stay relevant. Similarly, it cannot but ally with the Nationalist Congress Party to regain power in Maharashtra. In Odisha, where the Biju Janata Dal remains the dominant force, the Congress has been replaced as the main Opposition party by a resurgent BJP.

The Congress is now banking on winning the year-end Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh to establish that as a pan-Indian party, it has the right to lead the proposed national alliance. But, having found an opening in Karnataka and in the bye-polls, regional satraps are unlikely to be easily persuaded. As indicated by their absence at Gandhi’s iftar, they may agree to accommodate the Congress in the anti-BJP alliance but not as a dominant player. It would be difficult for Gandhi to concede, given that, in the wake of the Karnataka arrangement, the Congress’s rank and file is upset that instead of strengthening the party, the leadership is giving in to the demands of regional parties that have essentially grown at its expense.