The possibilities, and limits, of a third front
The relentless search for a modern-day Chanakya has seen union home minister Amit Shah being projected as his contemporary avatar, even though there is much more to the Arthashastra than a “power at all costs” mantra. Now, after his role in the Bengal triumph, Prashant Kishor, the Trinamool Congress (TMC)’s prime election strategist, has been portrayed as a political Chanakya. Which might partly explain the buzz around Kishor’s three meetings with Maharashtra leader Sharad Pawar. Is there a plan to craft a new political alternative that could challenge the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2024?
Pawar and Kishor make a rather odd couple. The veteran Maratha strongman is an old-style well-networked mass leader with a wide range of connections. Kishor, on the other hand, is a tech-savvy backroom operator who talks surveys, branding and management. If there is one thing that unites the 80-year old politician and the 44-year old tactician, it is the scent of power. Pawar has smelt it for decades, Kishor has just had a whiff of it.
The speculation over the Pawar-Kishor engagement also reflects the desperation in the anti-Modi camp to somehow offer a concerted national challenge to the BJP before its too late. With the Congress besieged with self-destructive internal divisions, the prospect of a third front is alluring to Modi’s opponents. A third front is a strange political animal that keeps getting exhumed just when it appears on the verge of extinction. In the mid-1990s, when a non-BJP, non-Congress United Front government was created, former prime minister VP Singh who was an architect of this model, remarked, “The third front may seem undesirable but it is inevitable.”
Singh’s one-liner was a reflection of the turbulent 1990s when India witnessed eight governments and six prime ministers. Today’s India is vastly different, and has less of an appetite for short-lived governments, racked by chaos and instability. Under Modi’s leadership, the BJP is now a dominant party that has won two successive general election majorities while the Congress has shrunk even further. There is only one principle pole in Indian politics that has the cadre, the resources and the machine to monopolise the electoral system. Political alignments in the forseeable future will revolve around the axis of being pro- or anti-BJP/Modi.
This is why the idea of a cohesive third front is a non-starter. What is however still a possibility is a loose coalition of political interests terrified at the prospect of the country becoming a single-party, one-person democracy. As the recent assembly election results showed, the BJP can still be challenged by regional political forces that exemplify cultural-linguistic pride and refuse to be drawn into the BJP’s homogenised Hindutva nationalism embrace. Bringing together these forces on a platform of regional assertiveness remains an attractive option for the proponents of a political alternative, not necessarily as a pan-India federal front but as a more localised option to the BJP.
This is however easier said than done. For one, regional parties often have sharply conflicting interests with their home turf rivals. A Jagan Reddy and a Chandrababu Naidu are sworn enemies, the Trinamool and the Left will not share a common dais, Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati have zero chemistry. Other regional parties such as Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal or K Chandrashekhar Rao’s Telengana Rashtra Samithi would prefer a working relationship with a strong Centre than get tied into an ideological war with the Modi government.
Second, and more crucially, no such wider alliance can work at a national level without the Congress being a pivot. In the 2019 elections, the Congress still won 19.5% vote share; the next highest opposition party was the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam with a four per cent vote share. As the pragmatic Pawar has acknowledged, there can be no new opposition front without Congress involvement. In effect, he is calling on the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi experiment to be scaled up nationally, a difficult if not impossible task given the ground realities. Would the Congress for example be willing to share space with an Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi, Goa or Punjab? Or is AAP a fierce competitor for the Congress vote?
Third, there is the vexed question of who will lead an opposition front in a national election. As elections in a media-saturated universe acquire a presidential character, leadership becomes central to making credible political choices. In 2019, for example, a last-minute attempt to stitch together a united opposition ran into a roadblock with the Congress pitching Rahul Gandhi as its prime ministerial face. The choice before the Opposition was stark: Was the aim to try and defeat Narendra Modi or accept Rahul Gandhi as their leader? The dilemma persists. Does the Opposition wish to challenge Modi in a presidential-style race by projecting an individual leader as his alternative or build state-wise coalitions across 543 constituencies? Until this key question is resolved, opposition unity will remain elusive.
Post-script: While the Opposition struggles to come up with a joint strategy to challenge Modi in 2024, there is a more intriguing contest ahead that may offer pointers to the future. The presidential elections are scheduled for July 2022 and here the numbers game could be tighter depending on the outcome of next year’s Uttar Pradesh polls. While Pawar may have given up on his prime ministerial ambitions, Rashtrapati Bhavan could be a tantalising goal with Kishor as his advisor. Watch this space.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal