Observers say it is the only way the party can regain power Turning away from its traditional stand-alone strategy, the opposition Congress Party in India is set to woo smaller regional parties and forge alliances so it can take on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance in next year's election. Analysts say that the dramatic shift in the electoral battle plan will dominate discussions at a three-day brainstorming session from Sunday in Shimla, convened by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi to chart the future course of the 118-year-old party. The mood is upbeat because important regional parties have responded positively to the Congress's unusual overtures. 'The overall initial response is beyond our expectations,' said Ambica Soni, a key aide of Ms Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of former premier Rajiv Gandhi. Ms Soni and other senior Congress leaders say that the charm offensive will be a big topic of debate at Shimla. Congress has ruled India for 46 out of 56 years since independence, but it never sought allies to form the national government. But in today's India, according to political commentators, the only prospect it has of returning to power is through a formal, BJP-style coalition. The BJP broke the Congress' historic monopoly over power by cobbling together a coalition of 24 parties, known as the NDA, which has stuck together - barring periodic bouts of infighting and mud-slinging - since 1998. Out of the ruling NDA's combined strength of 297 in the 542-strong parliament, the BJP has only 183 MPs. But BJP allies number 113 - or nearly 40 per cent of the NDA - giving the coalition a comfortable majority to govern India. In the last elections, Congress won 110 seats - its worst performance ever. The left-over 135 seats were bagged by regional parties which refused to form alliances with either the BJP or Congress. Among them is the Mulayam Singh-led centrist Samajwadi Party (SP) with 27 MPs - all from the politically important Uttar Pradesh province. While rabidly anti-BJP, Mr Singh has also called Ms Gandhi a 'foreigner' at every opportunity and repeatedly said that his life's mission is to stop her from becoming prime minister. But last week, Mr Singh sang an altogether different tune. At an SP rally, he called the Congress chief a 'true Indian capable of holding the highest office in India'. Mr Singh's about-face in the runup to next year's elections is being attributed to the beginnings of the Congress campaign to win over smaller parties as allies. Another new convert is Sharad Pawar. He revolted against Ms Gandhi in 1998 and formed the National Congress Party, which has eight MPs. But he has also since had a change of heart and praised Ms Gandhi and the Congress, revealing new alignments in Indian politics. There are also reports that the Telegu Desam Party, a key NDA constituent with 29 MPs, is putting out feelers over an alliance with Ms Gandhi. Analysts also say the Trinamool Congress, with eight MPs, seems ready to jump on the Congress bandwagon. Declining to give details, Ms Soni said Congress was negotiating with groups across the country to forge an alliance to beat the BJP at its own game. Commentator Sajeda Momin said: 'Congress has taken a leaf out of the BJP's book, but only the elections will show whether it is capable of turning the tables on its new role model.'