Will the opposition unite to fight against the BJP, with rumours that the Lok Sabha elections will be advanced to be held by the end of the year? UPA chief Sonia Gandhi, who has taken a back seat after handing over the Congress party to her son Rahul Gandhi recently is in the forefront again and had convened a meeting of leaders of opposition parties this week in an attempt to unite them in Parliament and outside.

The reason for her coming forward is because many senior leaders like Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee and others would not like to work under Raul Gandhi. Also Sonia has the stature. Did she not unite the opposition in 2004 when the BJP was at its height and not only form the government but also come back to power in 2009? Now she has left the reorganisation of the party to Rahul while she could concentrate on opposition unity despite her deteriorating health.

The timing of the meeting is also important because the Congress is raising its head again after its impressive performance in Gujarat. Thursday’s bye poll results in Rajasthan are an indicator to the rising fortunes of the Congress as it trounced the BJP in Rajasthan winning two Lok Sabha and one Assembly seats with huge margins. Assembly elections are due later this year in Rajasthan where the Congress and the BJP are in a direct fight. Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Chattisgarh where elections will be held later this year will also see a direct fight between the two national parties.

Will Sonia Gandhi be able to succeed in her efforts to unite the opposition? It is too early to predict, as each party will look to its own interests. She has many challenges to face. First of all 2019 is not 2004 when she was younger and healthier. The Congress was the main recognised opposition party and not as demoralised as it is today and the party was ruling many more states than today.

Secondly, while Atal Behari Vajpayee was a tall leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a showman and his popularity has not declined much even after not delivering on all his promises. The BJP is today much stronger than it was in 2004 and the RSS is working for the BJP wholeheartedly. In comparison, the Congress is yet to rebuild the party in many states.

Thirdly, the Congress has to build its second-rung leaders in states. The party has started to do this. It allowed the state leaders a free hand in Punjab and Karnataka and now in Rajasthan. It may have to do so in Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh too. Rahul Gandhi is now depending on his young friends like Sachin Pilot (Rajasthan) and Jyotiraditya Scindia (Madhya Pradesh) to perform. The local leadership is crucial for winning the states.

Fourthly, the Congress has to come up with a new narrative for uniting the UPA. In 2004, the party came up with the ‘Aam Aadmi’ slogan, which clicked. Unless it finds a new narrative, just Modi-bashing is not going to help.

Fifthly, the UPA has shrunk. Sonia needs to find new allies and keep the old partners intact for her unity efforts. For instance, BSP leader Mayawati did not send her representative to Sonia’s meeting this week. The DMK is in two minds whether to go with the UPA or the NDA. Prime Minister Modi personally wooed them by visiting the ailing DMK chief M. Karunanidhi.

After all the DMK was part of the NDA at one time. The DMK and the BSP are two important regional parties. The CPI-M is not keen to have any electoral tie up with the Congress. RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav is in jail. Sonia needs to mobilise the support of many smaller and regional parties and bring them on the UPA platform. After all, the BJP came to power with just 30 per cent of the vote share and 70 per cent are still outside.

Sixthly, there is competition in mobilising the opposition. The Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar, who had been part of the UPA, has also made a move to unite the opposition and has held meetings in Maharashtra and Delhi. He also took out a ‘Save Constitution’ march in Mumbai on 26 January in a show of strength of the opposition.

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s coterie is putting forward her claim to be the opposition face, and will flex its muscle after the recent massive bye-election victory in West Bengal. So Sonia has to smoothen all these irritants. After all, the Congress is the second biggest national party after the BJP today.

Seventhly, the UPA has to come up with an acceptable common minimum programme and also a seat-sharing formula satisfactory to all partners. This will be a big challenge with the inherent contradictions among the various partners.

To do all this, there is not much time if Modi advances the Lok Sabha polls. The Congress is looking up but much depends upon Assembly elections to Karnataka next month and the three Assembly polls in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh. The Congress now has just five states of which Karnataka is the biggest. If the party could retain Karnataka and snatch even one or two of BJP-ruled states like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the chances of the Congress looking up will be brighter.