The Congress party’s plans to build a broad coalition of like-minded parties to take on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the coming assembly polls and the 2019 Lok Sabha election hit a major hurdle on Thursday with the Bahujan Samaj Party, a key component of the proposed alliance, making it clear that it cannot be taken for granted.

In a surprise move, the BSP chief Mayawati announced a tie-up with Ajit Jogi in Chhattisgarh and put out a list of 22 candidates in Madhya Pradesh. This announcement comes at a time when the Congress has been in advanced seat-sharing talks with the BSP in Madhya Pradesh. In fact, Kamal Nath, president of the party’s Madhya Pradesh unit, has publicly declared on several occasions that an alliance with the BSP was imminent.

Mayawati’s alliance with Jogi is not a total surprise as the two leaders had announced their partnership several months ago. Jogi, a rebel Congress leader, formed the Chhattisgarh Janata Congress after he was expelled from the grand old party in 2016.

However, the BSP chief’s decision to name 22 candidates in Madhya Pradesh was undoubtedly a jolt for the Congress which was confident that its tie-up with Mayawati would fructify shortly. It is entirely possible that Mayawati made the unilateral announcement on Madhya Pradesh to extract a better deal for the BSP in the forthcoming state polls. The BSP chief has consistently maintained that she would only enter into partnerships if her party was given a respectable number of seats.

A question mark

But for now, Thursday’s development has raised doubts about the Congress leadership’s ability to forge alliances and put a question mark on the future of anti-BJP coalition being planned for next year’s Lok Sabha poll.

The Congress president Rahul Gandhi, says a section of party insiders, does not not have the required gravitas to negotiate with allies. Unlike his mother and former Congress president Sonia Gandhi, he has also not imbibed the cardinal principle of politics, which is flexibility and pragmatism, say these critics. Instead of allowing Mayawati to tie-up with Jogi, this section of the party feels that Rahul Gandhi should have reached out to the estranged party leader who is learnt to have sent feelers for a reconciliation with the Congress. However, the anti-Jogi lobby in the party seems to have prevailed in convincing Rahul Gandhi to go solo in Chhattisgarh on the ground that the expelled leader would continue to foment trouble even if he was re-admitted to the Congress.

The fresh turn of events has also shown that a weakened Congress is in no position to dictate terms to potential allies. Though the Congress maintains it is the lead anchor of the opposition front on the ground that it is a pan-Indian party, its shrinking footprint, a weak organisation and the loss of a social base has made it difficult for the Congress to build sufficient pressure on the regional satraps.

In fact, the Congress party’s strategy for next year’s Lok Sabha elections is entirely dependent on forging tactical alliances in key states. Well aware that it is not in the driver’s seat, regional parties are predictably putting their price up.

The alliances in the year-end assembly polls were seen as a test case for the Congress and were to lay the foundation for an opposition front in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. But the so-called mahagathbandhan or mega-alliance is now up in the air as no one can predict the future of the anti-BJP coalition. The saffron party is said to be putting pressure on regional parties against joining the united opposition front and if Mayawati’s announcement on Thursday is any indication, it would be happy with the outcome. The BJP will pull out all stops to see that its political rivals do not band together, especially in Uttar Pradesh, as the results of the bypolls in Gorakhpur, Phulpur, and Kairana showed that a combined opposition can prove lethal for the saffron party.

Bargaining chip?

Though taken aback by Mayawati’s announcement, Congress leaders still held out the hope that the BSP chief is using its Madhya Pradesh list as a bargaining chip and their alliance will eventually come through. “There is still time and I am sure we can arrive at a settlement with the BSP,” remarked a senior Congress leader even as Kamal Nath, chief of the party’s state unit, went into a huddle with his colleagues to discuss the party’s strategy.

For the fact remains that the Congress finds itself in a spot here. The BSP has demanded 50 seats in Madhya Pradesh but the Congress is not willing to concede more than 30. It cannot afford to give away too many seats from its kitty for fear that it could lead to rebellion in its own ranks. On the other hand, the Congress realises that a tie-up with Mayawati will prove to be advantageous because her party’s presence in pockets of the state will consolidate the Dalit vote in its favour and go a long way in dislodging the three-term BJP government in Madhya Pradesh.

Similarly, a tie-up with Mayawati in Chhattisgarh would have put the opposition in a commanding position. As in the case of neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, the BSP can help mop up the crucial Dalit vote here. Chhattisgarh has always been a bipolar state and the difference in the vote share of the Congress and the BJP is a little over 1%. The margins of victory and defeat here are extremely narrow. The arrival of a third front in Chhattisgarh will only be advantage BJP and a big relief for the three-term chief minister Raman Singh.