The Congress' call for a nationwide strike against rising fuel prices has ended up exposing more fault lines within the Opposition camp.
As Congress President Rahul Gandhi led the charge against the Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre, his speech on the occasion left no doubt that the strike would be used as yet another show of Opposition unity.
Rahul made not one, but several references to how all political parties have come together to defeat the BJP in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
The bandh, as expected, put the ruling BJP on the backfoot, but unexpectedly, also ended up revealing all was not fine within the Opposition camp.
BSP chief Mayawati took on the Congress, along with the BJP, for the rising fuel prices. She blamed the Congress for deregulation of petrol in 2010 and said the BJP was at fault forr carrying forward the wrong financial policies made by the Congress, instead of withdrawing those.
But was the BSP chief just calling out the wrong policies of the previous government, which have apparently led to the steepest rise in fuel prices – or was the former Uttar Pradesh CM sending across a political message to the grand old party?
There is more to this than meets the eye.
The bone of contention seems to be seat-sharing talks between the BSP and the Congress for the upcoming Assembly polls in the three crucial BJP ruled states of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, stated to be held in November 2018.
According to the Congress' calculations, the BSP can sway voters in 25 seats of Madhya Pradesh, bordering Uttar Pradesh - the Bundelkhand region too has a substantial number of Schedule Caste voters, therefore a tie-up with Mayawati in the state would benefit the party.
The party also hopes to gain votes by fighting the Chhattisgarh Assembly elections along with the BSP.
The problem lies in Rajasthan.
While the Delhi unit of the Congress believes the party should tie up with the BSP in Rajasthan, the local unit of the party is not too keen on ceding space to Mayawati.
Scheduled Castes account for 17 per cent of Rajasthan's electorate, and the Congress has traditionally been the voters' first preference.
In the last Assembly elections, the BSP fielded 182 candidates and won just 3 seats with 3.37 per cent votes.
Rajasthan Congress president Sachin Pilot has already said that the party was capable of defeating the BJP on all seats in the state on its own, and there were no ongoing talks regarding an alliance with any specific party.
In the 2013 Assembly polls, the BJP won 165 out of 200 seats in Rajasthan, polling 45.2 per cent votes, while the Congress won 21 seats with 33.1 per cent votes. But the electoral prospects for the Vasundhare Raje government are not that bright this time.
The Congress believes, given the anti-incumbency against the BJP, it is better poised to take on the Raje government. The results of the by-polls in 22 constituencies of the state in the last four years – the party won 20 out of these 22 elections – also support the Congress' claims.
On the other hand, Mayawati is eyeing the 34 seats reserved for Scheduled Castes in the state – a tie-up with the Congress would dramatically increase her chances of winning some of these.
The problem troubling the Congress strategists is if they don't give in to Mayawati's demands in Rajasthan, it would adversely affect seat-sharing talks in Uttar Pradesh for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
With 80 seats up for grabs in UP, the Congress would not want to rock the boat.
The future of the Mahagathbandhan depends on its performance in the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh. And Mayawati's BSP is a major player here.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BSP polled nearly 20 per cent votes in Uttar Pradesh – third largest after the BJP (42.3 per cent) and the Samajwadi Party (22.2 per cent) – although it failed to win a single seat.
With the Modi wave receding, Mayawati expects the rising anger within the community over crimes against SC/STs will make her a major player in UP.
Targeting the Congress over the fuel price hike seems to be her message to not take the BSP lightly.
If the Congress plans to seriously take on the Narendra Modi-led BJP in 2019, it will have to give ground to regional player like Mayawati.
Not doing so will further reduce its own bargaining power in states where it is now playing second fiddle to regional leaders.
The Congress, fighting for its own political survival, can ill-afford to antagonise major regional players – and risk losing further ground to the BJP.