New Delhi: Rahul Gandhi-led Congress party has started preparations for the 2019 general elections, taking steps to ensure a better political understanding with important regional parties with the aim of defeating the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The decision to forge alliances reflects a major rethink within the Congress and constitutes a reversal of the post-2014 election rout when Gandhi wanted the party to build its organizational strength in states rather than join hands with regional parties.

Now, taking the first steps towards forging alliances, senior Congress leaders are already at advanced stages of talks with Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh; Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in both Maharashtra and Gujarat; and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) for Jharkhand.

The Congress has already finalized its alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular) or JD(S) in Karnataka, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar and is confident of taking ahead its alliance with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) in Tamil Nadu, party leaders said.

“Pre-poll understanding with our natural allies like RJD will continue and both parties have been in talks. After the recent bypoll win in Maharashtra with NCP, there is a rethink in the party that this alliance should continue in Gujarat as well, something we did not do in the state polls," a top party leader and state incharge said requesting anonymity.

Within the Congress leadership, assembly elections due this year in three BJP-ruled states—Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh—are being seen as a key testing ground for its alliance pitch. In Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Congress is in talks with the BSP and the Gondwana Ganatantra Party (GPP), a regional party with a focus on tribals.

“In both these states, our focus is on smaller parties and tribal parties, many of whom finished third in a considerable number of seats in previous assembly elections. Alliance talks are happening with both BSP and GPP. A guiding principle for pre-poll alignment with other parties is that there should be a respectful seat sharing without diluting our dominance," a senior Congress leader from Chhattisgarh said requesting anonymity.

A key focus in Congress’ alliance strategy is to renew formal talks with former allies who may not be officially on board as yet. A key example is that of Farooq Abdullah-led Jammu & Kashmir National Conference which had broken ties with the Congress soon after general elections in 2014.

“Omar Abdullah and Rahul Gandhi have known each other for years and have continued to remain in touch. Both the parties have been in alliance previously, both in the Centre and in the state. As of now, things are developing slowly," a party leader added.

As the Congress looks at striking alliances, Gandhi has been taking a re-look at whether such alliances will come at the cost of impacting the party’s own growth in these states. According to party leaders, Gandhi’s stand on alliances has evolved over the last three years and he has been taking a keen interest in reaching out to like-minded opposition parties.

“It is a call that the party’s top leadership has to take. We have witnessed serious erosion in our support base and most of these alliances will help us improve our own performance," a Congress state unit president said requesting anonymity.

“However, while it is easier to ally with smaller regional parties limited to one or two states, the real challenge will come when we align with parties which have a dominant presence in their states or in more than one state," the leader added.

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