The forthcoming presidential polls will provide a pointer to whether a third front is at all possible.
Leaders of a number of regional parties met in Hyderabad on Wednesday to explore the possibility of setting up a non-UPA, non-NDA alternative ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. During a three-hour meeting, they also decided to chalk out a common strategy for the presidential and vice-presidential elections.
The meeting ended with the decision to wait and watch before articulating their support for any particular candidate for the two posts. The leaders agreed to meet again in Chennai to discuss the matter further.
The meeting — attended by N Chandrababu Naidu (Telugu Desam Party), J Jayalalitha (AIADMK), Mulayam Singh Yadav and Amar Singh (Samajwadi Party), Brindavan Goswami (Asom Gana Parishad), Om Prakash Chautala (Indian National Lok Dal), Babulal Marandi (Jharkhand Vikas Morcha), Vaiko (MDMK) and former Congress leader S Bangarappa — sent out two clear signals.
One: the leaders were well aware that in the electoral college of over 10 lakh voters that chooses the new president, the 1.20-lakh votes they control is crucial. The UPA and Left parties have a decisive edge in this electoral college, and the BJP-led NDA is not in a position to make a contest of it unless it wins the support of most among the regional leaders.
Two: the leaders will coordinate their strategy to take on the UPA in Parliament on issues ranging from the India-US nuclear deal to price rise and farmers' problems.
After the meeting, Jayalalitha said: "All the leaders resolved to firmly oppose the Indo-US nuclear deal which, we feel, is totally detrimental to India's interests… We feel the wrong and skewed economic policies of the UPA government are to blame for the all-round price increase that has made life very difficult for the common man."
She said the prime minister, the finance minister and the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission were out of touch with the problems faced by farmers. The move to form a third front all over again was dismissed by other parties, including the CPM that, ironically, has earlier spoken of the need for it. While the Congress downplayed it and the Left cold-shouldered it, the BJP dubbed it a "classic illusion".
"It is an electoral get-together with no specific programmes and ideas. It will have no relevance as it will not help in the development of a proper third front," said CPM's MK Pandhe. CPI general secretary AB Bardhan too did not think that the coming together of disparate elements added up to a third front. "A third front has to emerge through common struggle with ideas, programmes and policies."
BJP's Ravi Shankar Prasad saw no future for a third front in Indian politics. Congress spokeswoman Jayanti Natarajan said, "If there is healthy opposition, we will face it." She denied the allegation that the UPA's economic policies were on the wrong track.
Sources said the regional parties are keen to support a Left nominee for the top job — a preference that would help them establish their secular credentials, while driving a wedge within and between the UPA and its Left partners. The Congress's core group, which includes the prime minister and party chief Sonia Gandhi, on Tuesday took stock of the presidential polls. The Congress has so far refrained from stating whether the nominee would be from its ranks, although UPA allies like the NCP, RJD and LJP have said they would back the Congress's choice. The Left has openly pitched for Pranab Mukherjee while Shivraj Patil is also in the race.
Like the regional parties, the BJP too hopes to divide the UPA and win the support of non-UPA, non-NDA parties by fielding Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat as an independent candidate.
"I know that the UPA has more votes than the NDA. That is why if Shekhawat contests as an NDA nominee, it will be difficult. But as an independent, it is different. Then many others will come out in support," BJP's Sushma Swaraj told CNN-IBN.