Congress president Rahul Gandhi and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu during an election rally ahead of the state assembly elections in Gadwal, Telangana, on December 03, 2018. Photo: The Times of India/Venkat Rao M/AFP
Congress president Rahul Gandhi and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu during an election rally ahead of the state assembly elections in Gadwal, Telangana, on December 03, 2018. Photo: The Times of India/Venkat Rao M/AFP

The victory of the Indian National Congress in three of the five state assembly elections held recently, where it was engaged in a direct two-way fight with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), reaffirms its position and stature as the lead opposition force to the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

It sets the stage for a bipolar Congress-versus-BJP battle in the 2019 general elections. The regional parties may now have to decide which side of the fence they are on. Those opposed to the BJP will have to accept the Congress as the leader and one that can build a cohesive alliance.

Over the past few months N Chandrababu Naidu, chief minister of the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, had taken the lead in reaching out to regional parties and projected himself as the politician bringing together an anti-BJP alliance.

Though Naidu’s effort was in an alliance with the Congress, it appeared as if regional players would lead the way and the Congress would have to accept them as equals.

First, regional parties that were open to a Congress alliance wanted to establish a strong and collective bargaining position with the grand old party. Second, and perhaps more important, there were doubts whether the Congress, under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi, had the mettle to lead the fight against the BJP.

In fact, Naidu reiterated on several occasions that the prime-ministerial face of the anti-BJP alliance was left open and their focus was to build a cohesive force to combat Modi. This was an indication that regional players were not ready to accept the Congress as the unconditional leader.

However, with its victory against the BJP in the ruling party’s bastions in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, those doubts have to give way to a new sense of confidence and clarity and set the platform for a clear bipolar battle in the 2019 polls.

It is important to note that, in these three states, the Congress won against the BJP on its own. It had alliances with small subregional forces, but did not plead for one with major regional parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

On the other hand, the worst results for Congress came in India’s youngest state, Telangana. The Congress was in an alliance with Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party, but in fact, the Congress gave away more than a fair share of seats to the TDP. The allies were decimated by incumbent Chief Minster K Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) and his Telangana Rashtriya Samiti (TRS), which won a landslide victory, wresting 88 of the 119 seats.

In terms of vote shares, the TDP polled just 3.5% as compared with around 14% in 2014. The Congress raised its vote share from around 25% in 2014 to 28.4%, but Rao’s TRS surged from 34.5% in 2014 to nearly 47%.

Naidu had not supported the decision to create Telangana by dividing a united Andhra Pradesh in 2014, but the 2018 results are an emphatic assertion that his party has lost its base, almost entirely, in India’s youngest state.

The Telangana defeat, which leaves Naidu confined to Andhra Pradesh, dents his stature and alters the power equation in the Congress’ favor. The Congress, which has stated that the alliance remains intact, will have to reassess this. It needs the TDP as an ally in Andhra Pradesh, but there is a backlash in Telangana and it’s not clear how it can balance the two.

On the other hand, the Telangana verdict bolsters a regional leader opposed to the Congress, KCR and his TRS. Though publicly he claims to be keen on a non-Congress, non-BJP platform, he is seen as being close to the BJP.

But an open alliance could alienate the minority vote, and as a regional party the TRS would like to win as many seats as possible to negotiate terms in a post-poll scenario. This is why it would prefer a tacit understanding with the BJP over an open alliance.

In a broad sense, the TDP and TRS represent two ends of the regional-party spectrum.

Those that have taken a clear anti-BJP position will now have to accept the Congress’ national leadership. They may be lead players in their respective states, like the TDP in Andhra Pradesh, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu and Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, but they will have to go into the election as part of a Congress-led national alliance.

On the other hand, those that seem to lean toward the BJP will have to take a stand, sooner or later.

In other words, the possibility of a credible third front of regional parties is a non-starter. There could be an odd regional party, like the TRS, that may contest independently and keep its options open for a post-poll bargain, but a credible national third alternative is ruled out.

Finally, the issue of a prime-ministerial candidate for the Congress-led front remains a tricky one. Doubts remain over whether Congress president Rahul Gandhi has the charisma and stature to match Prime Minister Modi.

This is why allies, and perhaps the Congress itself, may like to leave Gandhi as the prime-ministerial face a subtly understood issue rather than overtly stated.

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