A lunch hosted by Nationalist Congress Party leader Praful Patel last week at his Gurdwara Rakabganj Road home in New Delhi was inadvertently converted into an occasion to showcase the bonhomie among Opposition parties ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Patel hosts a lunch for media persons every winter. But this year’s event was perhaps the first time in many years that a wide range of political leaders from the Opposition were also in attendance. Besides Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, who is always present at these events, the line-up included senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel, Ram Gopal Yadav from the Samajwadi Party, Satish Mishra of the Bahujan Samaj Party, Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’Brien, Communist Party of India (Marxist) chief Sitaram Yechury, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s Kanimozhi and Misa Bharati from the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

The changed political equations were evident with former arch-rivals Yadav and Mishra seated at the same table. When Mishra got up to leave early, the Samajwadi Party leader asked him to wait as Ahmed Patel was on his way. Mishra stayed back and left only after the smiling Opposition leaders were photographed by media persons several times.

The camaraderie that afternoon was hard to miss. Though it was not the right occasion to discuss future plans, the unasked question that was topmost in everyone’s mind was: Will this afternoon’s friendship blossom into a tangible electoral bond in the run-up to the coming Lok Sabha polls.

Congress and allies

As the elections approach, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Opposition parties are unlikely to form a grand alliance or a mahagathbandhan. Instead, they seem inclined towards forming state-specific partnerships. This is because a national alliance will necessarily require the declaration of a prime ministerial candidate, a proposition that could sabotage the coalition even before it can take-off given the number of contenders for the post.

As a national party, the Congress is arguably the automatic choice to anchor such an alliance. But regional parties, with the exception of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief MK Stalin, are wary of accepting Congress president Rahul Gandhi as its face. The overwhelming view is to see how the numbers stack up after the general election and then decide on the contours of any alliance.

The Congress cadre is predictably enthused after its victories in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh and believe the party has a fighting chance in the northern belt in the Lok Sabha polls.

The Congress is convinced that if it is to succeed in its mission to beat the Bharatiya Janata Party, the better option is to form alliances in states where it is weak – for instance where there are strong regional players – and to focus on strengthening the party organisation in states where it is locked in a direct contest with the BJP.

Senior party leaders like P Chidambaram, Ahmed Patel and Ghulam Nabi Azad have consistently advocated that the Congress should concentrate on sealing electoral pacts in key states like Maharashtra, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal. The other states also identified for alliances include Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand and Karnataka.

While its partnership with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra and the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka is on course, the Congress is struggling in the key states of Uttar Pradesh (80 seats) and West Bengal (42 seats).

As of today, it appears that the Congress will go it alone in these two states. But because back-channel discussions among political parties go on till the bitter end, an alliance cannot be completely ruled out in both states. Seat-sharing negotiations are never easy as political parties always strive to drive a hard bargain as they are wary of ceding too much space to the coalition partner.

Uttar Pradesh

In Uttar Pradesh, Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati and the Samajwadi Party boss Akhilesh Yadav are said to have finalised their alliance, which incudes Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal. However, they are not willing to give the Congress more than two seats – Rae Bareli and Amethi – for Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.

While publicly stating that the party is ready to contest the polls on its own, Congress leaders privately maintain that the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party are essentially indulging in brinkmanship and that attitudes will change as elections draw closer. “This is only posturing…a lot can happen as there is still a while to go for the election,” said a senior Congress leader, who did not wish to be identified.

Congress insiders said that according to the formula devised by the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, parties can claim seats won by them or where they stood second in the last election. According to this formula, the Congress share in Uttar Pradesh is eight seats. But it is pushing for a larger share on the basis of the 21 seats it won in the 2009 election.

Additionally, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav want the Congress to accommodate their parties in states outside Uttar Pradesh where it is a dominant force. But the Congress is loath to do so as demonstrated in the November-December Assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh.

West Bengal

The Congress is in an equally tough spot in West Bengal, where it has been reduced to a marginal force. It had aligned with the Left in the 2014 elections.

Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has previously announced that her party will contest all the seats in the state. There is a suggestion that it would make better political sense if even the Congress, and the Left contested the elections independently so that the anti-Mamata vote is divided and more Opposition space is not ceded to the BJP. The saffron party, which has put down roots in West Bengal over the last few years, is well on course in replacing the Left as the main Opposition force in the state.

The Congress cadres in West Bengal are insisting that the party should contest the polls alone. State unit chief Somendra Nath Mitra has argued that instead of looking for crutches, attempts should be made to strengthen the party by charting an independent path. He is vehemently opposed to an alliance with the Trinamool Congress as any such partnership, according to him, will decimate the state unit, which would be absorbed by Banerjee’s party.

Given this, the West Bengal Congress unit has appealed to Rahul Gandhi that the party should not participate in the January 19 public rally called by Banerjee in Kolkata, for which she has invited all Opposition leaders, including Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Party workers argue that the Congress cannot afford to be seen on the same platform as the Trinamool Congress as it would destroy its credibility in the state. But the Congress cannot afford to stay away from the meeting as it is meant primarily to demonstrate Opposition unity ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.

As Opposition parties try to get their act together, the BJP is keeping a keen eye on developments in the rival camp. Its chief attempt is to weaken and isolate the Congress since it is seen as the saffron party’s main rival and also because it has the potential of emerging as an anchor of an Opposition coalition because of its larger footprint. However, the BJP does not seem too worried about the growing presence of regional parties, which, it believes, are known to be ideologically flexible. “Except for the Left parties and the RJD, all the other regional parties, be it the DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam], the National Conference, the BSP [Bahujan Samaj Party], the Trinamool Congress or the Janata Dal (Secular), have all been our partners in the past,” a BJP minister pointed out.