The results of bypolls in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar do not bode well for the Congress as the strengthening of regional outfits may weaken the grand old party's chances of leading a joint opposition front for the 2019 general elections.
Political observers feel that unless the Congress reclaims some states from the BJP and retains Karnataka in Assembly elections slated to be held later this year, its chances of leading such an alliance may weaken further.
The Congress, however, feels that the victory of the SP-BSP combine in Uttar Pradesh is an "aberration" and it is the only party with a pan-India presence capable of cobbling together and leading a coalition to defeat the BJP.
The Congress was left out of the SP-BSP combine in the Uttar Pradesh bypolls, where the alliance elbowed out the BJP in Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's bastion of Gorakhpur and his deputy Keshav Prasad Maurya's constituency in Phulpur.
While on the one hand, the Congress is seeking to put together a joint Opposition alliance to take the BJP on in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, regional parties are hoping to forge a united front without the Congress as another alternative.
TRS chief and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao has already taken the lead in this and has been in touch with leaders of other regional parties, such as Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress.
The Congress is also carrying on with its efforts to keep the Opposition together. Party leader Sonia Gandhi hosted a dinner recently for all non-BJP parties, an event that was attended by leaders of 20 Opposition parties, including the Congress.
Congress communications in-charge Randeep Surjewala said it was now "crystal clear" that the people of the country had given its "no confidence" to the "Modi brand of politics, driven by rhetoric than reality and guided by headline management than the country's management".
"Naturally they are looking at alternatives. Opposition political parties are driven by the pressure and will of India's people to save the essence of India's foundational values and come together to defend them despite disagreement of politics and conflict of interest at times," he said.
The Congress was the "only natural party with a pan-India appeal" which could stitch the coalition together in the fight for "India's foundational and civilisational values", he told PTI.
Surjewala was not unduly worried about the party losing ground in the states -- its two candidates lost their deposits in the UP bypolls -- and said this was an "aberration".
"There will be some aberrations like we saw yesterday, yet the umbrella or the path to tread upon will be laid by the Congress, so that everyone can walk ahead hand-in-hand together," he said.
Another Congress leader, former Union minister S Jaipal Reddy, said the idea of a third front as propagated by Rao was merely a "stunt" to "befool" the people.
Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, however, had said yesterday that the verdict of the bypolls showed the anger of the people against the BJP and that they would vote for any non-BJP candidate who had the potential to win.
Gandhi also said the Congress party was keen to rebuild the party in Uttar Pradesh but that would not happen overnight.
"The Congress is keen on rebuilding the party in Uttar Pradesh, but that will not happen overnight," he tweeted in Hindi yesterday.
A senior Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh and a former minister feared that after the bypolls, regional parties SP and BSP might think the Congress was "irrelevant" in the state.
He said if this idea gained ground, the bargaining power of the Congress could take a severe hit and the party may be given just 5 to 6 seats out of a total of 80 in the state in an electoral arrangement for the next Lok Sabha polls.
"The fate of the Congress is now totally in the hands of these two parties. And neither will want the Congress to contest in more than 5-6 seats out of a total of 80 Lok Sabha seats in UP," the former minister told PTI.
The SP and BSP have their own vote banks and will not want the Congress to be strengthened as they fear that it could eat into their constituencies.
In the last Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress contested only 103 of the 403 seats while the SP fought from 298.
The situation is not very different in other states such as Karnataka, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, where regional players are seeking to flex their muscles and will demand a greater pound of flesh from the Congress.
In Karnataka, the BSP and regional outfit JD-S have already tied up and in states such as Maharashtra and West Bengal, the NCP and the TMC would want to dominate the electoral arrangements.
The Congress, poll analysts said, can strengthen its position only if it wins Karnataka and later states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, where it is in a direct contest with the BJP. PTI