One of his party seniors had once drawn Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s attention to similarities between him and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee: “Both of you are single, chief ministers, floated your own party.”
Patnaik listened patiently. But when the person said, “Both of you are painters and love to draw flowers,” Patnaik, a connoisseur of art, cut him short: “No way! I am a follower of the Abanindranath Tagore school of art. She belongs to Kalighat patachitra.”
The art of politics practised by the two chief ministers of neighbouring states is as different from each other’s as it is from their Bihar counterpart Nitish Kumar’s.
Banerjee banks on populism and personal charisma, Patnaik is reclusive but focuses on pulling Odisha out of its backwardness, while Nitish thrives on social engineering and pro-minority politics. But ahead of the Lok Sabha polls next year, all three eastern leaders are preparing to forge a third political alternative, packaging it as a Federal Front of non-Congress, non-BJP parties and hoping to draw regional leaders from other parts of the country into it.
Will this effort for a regional rhapsody succeed when all such previous experiments have failed?
It doesn’t take Nitish Kumar’s civil engineering degree or Patnaik’s Doon School sophistication to understand that even a stupendous performance by their regional parties would not enable them to reach the 272-mark majority in the Lok Sabha.
And it is next to impossible that the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh, Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSR Congress and Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh and the Trinamool and the Left in Bengal would share the same waiting room with rival forces from their own states.
For the Bengal CM, the first aim is to keep the Left out of a third front. Banerjee can also try to establish that she has political acceptability across a broad spectrum despite her highly unpredictable nature. But more importantly, such posturing could help her get a good seat-sharing deal from the Congress if the situation arises.
If Nitish Kumar dumps the BJP, he too will need alternative support to run his government till 2015 and possibly a partner for the next Lok Sabha and assembly polls. He has already gone too far against Gujarat strongman Narendra Modi to step back now. And if he emerges as the PM candidate of the third front, his secularism plank may compel the Congress to provide him outside support. So, he’s keeping various options open.
Naveen Patnaik is perhaps the only leader who needs a Federal Front more than any other. The Congress is his main rival in Odisha and snapping ties with the BJP helped him return to power for a third term in 2009. If a non-Congress, non-BJP alternative forms the next government at the centre, Patnaik can leverage a special package and other benefits for Odisha.
But the stability of such a disparate alliance depends entirely on how long these leaders accommodate each other. Former Congress secretary Shakeel uz Zaman Ansari says, “All these leaders want to become Prime Minister. This is why this formation won’t last.” BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman says, “This idea of a Federal Front has emerged because the UPA has encroached on the space of the state governments.”
With both the Congress and the BJP likely to woo regional partners if they are better placed to form the next government, a tough challenge lies before the Federal Front leaders to keep their flock united, let alone run a government for five years.