The Congress leadership has stepped up back-channel talks with regional powerhouses in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar with an eye on maximising the Opposition vote against the formidable Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2019 general election.
Talks are under way with parties like the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) in UP at different levels.
Senior Congress managers are also open to the possibility of a patch-up with Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), or JDU, if such a situation presents itself. The problem is that Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) veteran Lalu Prasad and his children are vehemently opposed to any space for Nitish Kumar after the latter quit their “grand alliance” and joined hands with the BJP last year.
Opposition parties are counting on UP (80 Lok Sabha seats) and Bihar (40 seats) to increase their tally in 2019 as they seek to stop the march of the BJP, which now has 69 seats in the former and 23 in the latter.
A senior Congress strategist said on condition of anonymity an informal group of party leaders has been formed to talk to Akhilesh Yadav’s SP, Mayawati’s BSP and Ajit Singh’s RLD in UP to pave the way for an alliance or at least a seat-sharing arrangement in the country’s largest state. Congress’s UP in-charge, Ghulam Nabi Azad, is also in touch with the leadership of these regional parties.
“While Azad is in talks with the top regional leadership, the senior leaders of these parties are also engaged in their own way to discuss seat-specific issues and hurdles at the local levels. The senior leadership of these four parties meet at a regular interval,” this person said.
A second Congress strategist added that the BSP and SP had so far indicated that they wanted at least 65-70 seats for themselves, keeping 10-15 seats for the Congress and RLD.
“In the last few meetings, the SP and BSP insisted that given the strength of the Congress and RLD, they can’t take more than 10-15 seats. But we have a support base across the state and certainly have the ability to field more candidates. Looks like it will be a hard bargain,” said this person, also on condition of anonymity.
In Bihar, the Congress and the RJD are all set for a pact. While the RJD has repeatedly said no to any link with the JDU, the Congress has received feelers from Nitish Kumar’s camp. A senior Congress leader flew from Delhi to Mumbai last week to meet RJD veteran, Lalu Prasad and, according to an RJD associate, spoke about the growing disenchantment about the BJP in the JDU’s rank and file. “Prasad, however, remained unmoved,” said a third Congress leader.