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Last Updated: Monday, 22 March, 2004, 11:24 GMT
Congress at the crossroads
By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News Online correspondent in Delhi

At the centre of Indian politics for most of its independent history, India's grand old party is trying to regain lost ground.

Congress party poster
Congress has seen a steady erosion of its support
Out of power for eight straight years, the Congress Party is seeking to oust the governing BJP-led coalition in the April-May elections.

Led by Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, it faces a stiff challenge.

In the last elections, it recorded its worst ever result winning a mere 112 seats, a considerable distance behind the BJP.

More recently, Congress lost three key state elections to the BJP last November, a move that prompted the ruling party to hold national polls six months ahead of schedule.

Now it has to quickly regroup in order to mount a credible challenge for power.

Lure of the dynasty

The Congress is hoping to counter the BJP's star campaigner, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, with its own trump card - the Gandhi family.

If we want to win an election we have to build alliances
Kapil Sibal
Congress spokesman
For a total of 44 years, Indian politics has revolved around the powerful Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi were leaders of Congress.

Now Rajiv's widow Sonia heads the party and is India's opposition leader, and his children, Rahul and Priyanka, are widely expected to campaign if not actually contest.

Congress party officials say that the Gandhis are the only ones who can keep the party from disintegrating and energise the party faithful.

Alliances

Under Sonia Gandhi the Congress has also made another key strategic move.

For the first time, it has formed alliances with powerful regional parties in states where it has lost ground.

Sheila Dikshit - chief minister of Delhi
Sheila Dikshit in Delhi - Congress's only winner in December's polls

With the BJP effectively running a multi-party coalition government for a full parliamentary term, Congress has recognised that the era of single-party governments is over.

"In a fragmented polity, if we want to win an election we have to build alliances," party spokesman Kapil Sibal told BBC News Online.

But critics point out that in doing so Congress may be harming itself in the long run.

"In an era of coalitions, the Congress faces two structural problems. First, the very parties it seeks as partners at the national level are its opponents regionally. The second derives from a squeezing of its social bases," says political scientist Sunil Khilnani in a recent magazine article.

Out of favour

For decades, the Congress always projected a staunchly secular image, and attracted support from India's minority communities.

But since the death of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, Congress has seen its standing as the dominant political force in the country gradually eroded by the growth of regional and religious forces.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the politically influential northern state of Uttar Pradesh (UP).

UP sends more members to parliament than any other state and most of India's prime ministers, including the incumbent, have been elected from here.

Once a Congress party bastion, the party won only 10 parliamentary seats the last time after having drawn a blank in 1998.

Most of the state's Muslims as well as lower caste Hindus, groups which form a significant voting block, have abandoned the Congress for two local socialist parties, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party.

Attempts to form an alliance with these parties have failed.

Despite the many reverses, Congress still enjoys a major national presence and is a major factor in more than 20 of India's 28 states - more than any other political party.

It is the reason why few are willing to write the party's obituary and also why it is hoping to be voted in at the head of a multi-party coalition of its own.


India votes 2004: Full in-depth coverage here

BJP ALLIANCE

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee Atal Behari Vajpayee
India's charismatic coalition builder

CONGRESS ALLIANCE

File photo of Sonia Gandhi, September 2008 Sonia Gandhi
The enigmatic Italian-born Congress leader

OUTSIDE THE COALITIONS


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