THIRD FRONT ONCE MORE!
The talk of political alternative is in the air again. Ever since the coalition politics era started in 1989, the idea of third front, either as National Front or the United Front, was there in the political vocabulary. After 25 years of coalitions, when Narendra Modi lead BJP won majority on its own and then repeated that victory in 2019 the idea of third front vanished. Thanks largely to the projected challenger Rahul Gandhi and his ‘Pappu’ image Modi had a field day. But with the covid-19 exposing the deficiency of governance, ill planning, lack of preparedness and failure to communicate to the large audience, efficiency of Modi’s administration suffered a damage. Coupled with that, the defeat in Bengal elections overshadowed BJP’s win in Assam and its grand entry into southern Tamil dominated union territory Pondicherry. Now that BJP’s invincibility is challenged, the hope of rejuvenating the Third Front is discussed both in and outside the political circles.
This third front thought was made even during the recent state assembly elections by more than one leader, from regional parties. The DMK leader, now the CM of Tamil Nadu M.K. Stalin gave a call for the formation of a front at the national level and suggested that Congress should take lead in such formation and Rahul Gandhi be its leader. This call from south had a different echo from the east. The leader of TMC Mamata Banerjee, then not sure of her victory, wrote to few selected leaders calling for anti BJP unity but she kept the leadership issue open. Mamata Banerjee scored a thumping victory in Bengal and is itching to take on Narendra Modi now. She is not on the same page with Stalin in offering leadership to Congress or Rahul Gandhi. The Left which claim to be the ideological alternative to Narendra Modi was not open about the alternative political formation as their area of influence shrank.
Fresh from creating electoral history in Kerala where LDF retained power for second successive term, the CPM leader and CM Pinarayi vijayan is “certain of emerging alternatives” as he felt that “recent polls have dented BJP’s invincibility”. But he didn’t elaborate on the ‘alternative’ and two conclusions can be drawn from his hesitancy. One, he may be not sure of Left initiative on the third front secondly he may want to consolidate his grip on the state before projecting himself as an alternative at the national level. Since the political decisions, as a tradition, in CPM are taken by the politburo and it has the history of not allowing a regional leader to take up the national role. The episode of denying such a tall Left leader Jyoti Basu to be the PM of the country which CPM itself called a ‘historical blunder’ may be lingering in the mind of Kerala’s leader.
As it was, the question of leadership of the third front is haunting the regional parties. Who should be projected, collectively, as the challenger to Modi has to be sorted out first. There are no dearth of names and leaders who are ready to take up the mantle but there is no general acceptance among the parties on that leader’s name. The first and foremost self-declared challenger is Arvind Kejriwal who contested against Narendra Modi in Varanasi in 2014 but subsequently retracted to his Delhi centric politics. He is not a leader who has grown from the traditional politics but a clever manipulator of anti-corruption agitation of Anna Hazare to achieve political dream of sitting in CM chair. Though he subsequently consolidated his position as CM and politician he was not accepted by other regional parties as their collective leader.
Every leader of the regional party thinks they are untested but competent PM material and certainly better than Rahul Gandhi. While the Congress party think that there is no alternative to Modi except their own Rahul Gandhi. Unless this leadership issue is resolved there is no alternative to Modi. The leadership issue is needed to be settled at two levels, one among the regional parties and after that was sorted out, then the issue of talking to Congress party as there may not be a chance for third front PM without outside support of Congress. But this time around some of the regional parties are developing confidence that the third front government could be reality without the support of Congress. On the other hand the Congress feels that voters will resurrect the party without any effort from the party, as Nehru dynasty feels that Indians have already started believing that they made a mistake by rejecting such a ‘benevolent national family’.
There are many assumptions in the air and there lies the danger on the possible unity of opposition parties. The first assumption is that there is huge anger against Modi over covid-19 handling and consequential economic situation. The disappointment against Modi can’t be presumed as a disgust leading to throwing the incumbent out at any cost. Second assumption is that the voters who gave the mandate to regional parties to rule their respective states are ready to cheer them for a role in national politics. The third assumption, that leaders of regional parties holding hands together on a stage will send the message of unity to the voters. These photo ops were seen many times in the past including 2018 Karnataka elections where even Chandra Babu Naidu of TDP joined hands. That symbolic pre-election bonding was seen by people as ‘opportunistic’ and voted out Congress in Karnataka and TDP in Andhra Pradesh. During that opposition honeymoon in 2018 Rahul Gandhi was projected as Prime Ministerial candidate and Congress as the engine to pull them towards Delhi. Since then the Congress has shrunk and other regional parties got more teeth. The redesign of the unity structure, new political strategy and rejig of the engine to pull are felt by third front dreamers.
The problem with the opposition unity is lack of positivity. There is no ideological cohesion and common agenda barring ‘Modi Hatao’ slogan. This anti-Modi campaign has failed in 2019 and is bound to fail in coming elections. Modi is capable of coming out with a new narrative and he has the backing of highly motivated campaigners in BJP and RSS. The lack of credible messengers in the opposition, including Congress, is to the advantage of Modi. By targeting Modi personally the opposition runs the risk of making the campaign in Presidential election mode which is certainly advantageous to Modi.
The opposition having gained some confidence with victories in Bengal and Kerala is now hopeful of more gains in the next round of election scheduled for 2022, especially Uttar Pradesh where Akhilesh Yadav sees his SP’s ascendancy. If UP votes against Yogi Adityanadh government, then there comes another challenger from the opposition staple. Mamata already making preparations to edge out all others, Sharad Pawar of NCP waiting for his last chance to fulfil his life ambition of sitting in PM chair, Akhilesh will have to clash with both of them. The earlier experience of short lived Third Front experiments is fresh in memory of voters. That experience always brought political instability at the Centre to the detriment of the nation. The pre 1991 situation and also the 1996-98 happenings are well preserved in the memory of Indians. Voters want a solid, stable, convincing and cohesive political entity. With Congress not recovering in any state, internal troubles mounting, not in a position to anoint Rahul, the party’s chance of crossing 100 seats is bleak. Which means the regional parties put together should win over 250 seats to form the government and that is a tall order as things stand.
With regional parties mushrooming the identity politics threw new parties and new leaders. Some of the states like UP, AP, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra have more than one strong regional parties and both of them can’t join the same front. The regional party leaders are so ambitious, maintain intensive rivalry that they are more interested in seeing other regional leader out of any dominant position in the united opposition. Thus the unity remains a mirage.
Modi has completed two years and there are three more years to go before the political situation gets clarity. Once the vaccination against covid-19 is successfully completed, the plans for the recovery of economy takes shape as planned then the talk alternative is bound to fade and rivalry within the regional formations to retain their influences within their states takes the precedence. BSP and Mayavati is sure to target SP and Akhilesh rather than BJP and Modi. Chandrababu Naidu will be more interested in keeping his own TDP floating in its fight against Jagan and YSR Congress party. Tejeswi Yadav Vs Nitish in Bihar, H.D. Kumaraswamy Vs DK Shivakumar in Karnataka, the regional fights are endless. If at all there is any hurdle for BJP, it from their own cadre who remained diffident and not aware of their party’s achievements.
By Dr. Duggaraju Srinivasa Rao