With the election for India’s next prime minister barely six months away, opposition party leaders have one question on their minds: how to beat the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA)?

Like the main opposition party — the Indian National Congress, whose United Progressive Alliance (UPA) ruled the country from 2004 to 2014 — most of the political parties currently in the opposition ranks suffered their biggest defeat at the hands of team Modi at the last election. The Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the primary constituent of the NDA.

Assembly elections are also due in four states by the end of the year. These include Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which together account for 65 out of 545 parliamentary seats.

In the race to lead the country, a pre-poll alliance of all non-NDA outfits is being seen as the most viable strategy to take on Modi. With such an alliance in place, the opposition could field a single candidate against their right-wing counterpart and avoid the division of votes that helped Modi to power in 2014.

Any such coalition will be led by the Congress party, the chief national opponent of the BJP. But with no consensus yet reached on seat-sharing or indeed on a prime ministerial candidate, the opposition remains far from building a coherent alliance.

Meanwhile, a few regional parties, including the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, the two main parties of Uttar Pradesh state, believe that a united opposition, perhaps without the Congress, may have a better chance of defeating the BJP. A win in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, can be a game-changer in national elections, as it accounts for 80 out of 545 parliamentary seats.

Both parties fear that the Congress might act as a “big brother” in an alliance and jeopardize their own party interests. Senior leaders of the two parties say that the Congress does not fit into the political narrative that the SP and BSP want to build against the BJP. Their confidence is buoyed by victories in by-elections held in Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur and Phulpur parliamentary seats in March. The two parties had contested both elections together, while the Congress had fielded separate candidates.

Issues of vote-banks, seat-sharing and leadership are complex, and sensitive for regional leaders, many of whom have long-held hopes of becoming prime minister. The limited presence of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh, and even then only among upper castes, is another deterrent, feel other parties.

“No positive statement has come yet from the SP or BSP for the Congress. Both the parties skipped the recent bharat bandh [nationwide shutdown] of the opposition led by Congress last week to protest rising fuel prices, which indicates their reluctance to join hands with us. A day after the bandh, BSP chief Mayawati blamed Congress and BJP for the exorbitant prices of petroleum products. Additionally, she aspires for the top job,” a senior Congress leader said.

Mixed messages

Nevertheless, both Mayawati and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav spoke of a grand alliance this week. The BSP chief said she would join the alliance if her party is offered a “respectable” number of seats. Yadav said he is ready to take “two steps back” if the Congress would do the same for the larger goal of defeating Modi.

Congress plans to contest at least 20 seats in Uttar Pradesh, mostly those where its candidates were runners up or polled third in 2014. “Being the chief opponent party, the Congress must take the lead in initiating talks with regional parties, but it must remain realistic about seat negotiations,” Samajwadi party leader Sunil Yadav said.

“Congress has just two members from UP in the current Lok Sabha [lower house of India’s Parliament] — party chief Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia Gandhi — as against seven of the SP and none from the BSP. Moreover, Congress’ vote share was 7.5% in 2014, compared to 22% and 20% of votes won by the SP and BSP respectively,” a BSP leader said.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s recent admission that he was in the race to be prime minister has also made regional leaders anxious, despite the party’s eventual clarification that a decision on the candidate for prime minister will be made after the election result.

The Samajwadi Party has another reason to be worried: its defeat in the 2017 assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, in which it allied with arch-rival Congress. “(A) potpourri of political parties sometimes confuses the electorate,” a senior SP leader said.

Both SP and BSP derive their strength from the Backward Class caste (also known as the Middle Class) and from Muslims and schedule castes/tribes, which together comprise 85% of the state’s electorate. A chunk of these already favor the BJP. The saffron party also has a share in the remaining 15% upper caste votes in the state.

The Congress votes, however, are non-transferable. “In case of a grand alliance, Congress will get some advantage as Dalits [a marginalized community, often referred to as “untouchables”], other Backward Classes and Muslims had been its vote bank in the past. However, Congress’ upper caste vote will not be transferred to our candidates but might go the BJP,” a SP leader said.

Bleak prospects

The idea of a grand alliance first took root in 2015, when two regional parties contested Bihar state polls together and defeated the NDA. The tactic gained fresh momentum early this year when joint opposition candidates won three key parliamentary by-elections in Uttar Pradesh. Overall, the opposition has won 19 out of 23 Lok Sabha by-elections since the 2014 election.

“Prospects of Congress being in the grand alliance in UP seem bleak. However, a lot depends on results in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Congress’ performance in these states will decide the outcome of the grand alliance,” political analyst Shailendra Singh said.

“Modi and NDA both emerged stronger post 2014, following victories in several states one by one. However, due to failure on the economic front, rising unemployment, slow pace of development and an amendment to SC/ST Atrocities Act, the ruling alliance faces serious erosion of votes in 2019. Yet, the opposition needs to work hard to cash in on anti-incumbency because its engine (Congress) is weak and lacks organizational strength in UP,” senior journalist Harendra Shukla said.

Observers say Congress should have built an anti-BJP momentum already, by transforming itself into a cluster of regional parties. “This is important since voters are still wary of any (political alliances) as previous coalition governments have never lasted their full term. The confusion over the formation of an alliance and its PM candidate might further affect the opposition’s prospects,” Uttar Pradesh resident Mani Srivastava said.

Congress leader Virendra Madan, however, defended the party. “Alliances do happen at the last minute. Central and state leadership are preparing the strategy and things will be clear soon.”