India's dominant Left party, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), is ready to hunt for new allies to form a Third Front to exclude both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) as it begins its 19th congress on Saturday.
CPI-M leaders say they are happy with the love-hate relationship they have had with the ruling Congress and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) it heads since the multi-party alliance took power in 2004 with Left backing. But the Marxists - the third biggest force in the 545-seat parliament - admit they are facing problem areas too, notably the infighting that has gripped West Bengal's ruling Left Front in an unprecedented manner.
CPI-M general secretary Prakash Karat, the youngest to lead the Stalinist party since its birth in 1964, still enjoys high marks in the party. Some 700 leaders who will attend the congress are expected to give him another three-year tenure.
"The Congress will review political tactics we have pursued. Only after assessing the pros and cons we can decide our strategies," said politburo member S Ramachandra Pillai.
Also gracing the Congress in this bustling industrial town in Tamil Nadu will be about 70 representatives of communist parties abroad, including China.
The main issues that will be discussed threadbare include the self-assessment of the CPI-M's performance in the last three years, the possibility of a "third alternative" and organisational issues confronting the party.
These include factionalism in the party, particularly in Kerala, and internal troubles in the Marxist-led coalitions.
"Areas of focus would be on how to expand our influence in areas where we are weak and on building a non-BJP, non-Congress national alternative," Pillai told IANS.
"Although a third alternative is not in our immediate agenda, we are working on it because the Congress and the BJP have just 283 seats in the Lok Sabha. If you talk about vote share, others have more than 50 percent," Pillai explained.
At the same time, matured by the National Front and United Front alliances they helped form in the 1980s and 1990s, the Marxists are clear that any new national coalition should not be election-centric but be based on certain shared values.
But contrary to apprehensions among party cadres - a view shared by the smaller Left parties - CPI-M leaders insist that joining hands with the Congress has not been counter productive.
"State elections indicate that our support base has not eroded. In fact, in Tripura it has increased. So we feel that our decision to support the Congress government will help us in gaining more influence," Pillai said. The CPI-M-led Left Front won a landslide in assembly elections in Tripura.
"We supported the Congress-led government to keep the BJP out of power. We consider the BJP more reactionary. We have succeeded in forcing the government to take several popular measures," Pillai said.
According to the CPI-M leaders, it was the Left that prompted the government to introduce several welfare measures and legislations including the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (to provide a job to an able-bodied person in each rural family for 100 days).
At the same time, the communists are happy having blocked the India-US civil nuclear deal. They cite their success in derailing economic polices they argue violated the mutually agreed governance agenda, the common minimum programme.
CPI-M leaders argue that the decision to prop up the Congress-led government helped in other ways too. The central government was soft vis-à-vis the Marxists over the violence in Nandigram in West Bengal where a police firing on people opposed to takeover of farmland for industry left many dead.
But some Marxist leaders admit that despite its advocacy of a third alternative, the Left has not ruled out supporting another Congress-led government - if the situation demands.
"The Left will continue to play a crucial role in future too, even if our tally of 61 Lok Sabha seats falls in another election," pointed out a CPI-M leader.