A 'federal front' ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha elections: Will regional parties shower 'mamata' over Congress?

As the clamour for a political alternative to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections gathers momentum and regional party leaders flock to Delhi to discuss the formation of what Mamata Banerjee is calling the 'federal front', BJP may be having the last laugh in hindsight. Because contrary to what the likes of Mamata must be hoping for, history tells us that a 'third-front' without the backing of a national party, Congress, in this case, has only trodden on choppy waters before eventually drowning in the political slugfest.

While Mamata has very cleverly remained non-committal on the proposal to keep Congress out of the anti-BJP platform, other regional leaders like Telangana chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao and Kerala chief minister and veteran CPM leader Pinarayi Vijayan have made it clear that they do not want Congress to be a part of the next political alternative they plan to offer to the country. "Regional parties are strong these days. Regional tie-ups can be considered during elections for a real political alternative. There is no point in joining hands with one particular party at the national level," Vijayan told PTI.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi with West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. PTI

Congress president Rahul Gandhi with West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. PTI

As of now, Mamata has been the most active in meeting various state leaders and ministers including Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and disgruntled BJP members like Shatrughan Sinha, Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie. However, she has termed KCR's alternative as the "people’s front of India" and extended support to him as well. “Ham aap se sahmat hai. Aap ke saath rahenge" (I am in agreement with you. I will work with you), Banerjee was quoted as saying in response to KCR’s call for a qualitative change in the national political narrative.

Meanwhile though, Yashwant Sinha did not clarify on whether he or Shatrughan Sinha would join a united force against the BJP. He instead said, "Mamata is our old cabinet colleague. Her personality is known to everyone. The role she has taken to save the country is appreciable. In future also, we will support her." Despite her positioning, Mamata, however, has still kept her cards close to her chest as she met former Congress president Sonia Gandhi but has maintained a marked distance from the current Congress chief Rahul Gandhi.

On the other hand, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar who is known to be a close ally fo the Congress, has advised the Opposition to shed the anti-Congress tag if it is to fight ably fight the BJP. "The Congress is required for the country. It cannot be bypassed. Even in its weakened state, it alone has the pan-Indian reach other parties lack,” he has been quoted as saying. However, he was quick to add that the Congress, for its part, should also acknowledge the strength of regional players and be ready for a compromise, if needed.

His reference was to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, where the Congress tried to set foot beyond its electoral reach. For example, in the recent by-polls in Gorakhpur and Phulpur, it set up candidates against the SP-BSP combine. The NCP, on the other hand, has decided against fielding “unnecessary” candidates that will weaken the anti-BJP challenge in the upcoming Assembly elections in Karnataka on 12 May.

So, even though the Opposition might see BJP's loss in the Uttar Pradesh Lok Sabha by-polls to the alliance of Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party as a chance of comeback for the state-grown parties, it is the internal friction and the lack of a unanimously chosen leader which may cost the 'third-front' another election.

For instance, in 1996, a group of regional parties and the Left formed the United Front government. This front too was formed with the primary objective of keeping the BJP out of power. The Congress supported the coalition from outside. In a recent interview, CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury indicated that the country may see a 1996 type situation once again. However, the draft political resolution adopted at CPM’s Central Committee meeting in Kolkata in January this year had ruled out any electoral alliance or understanding with the Congress.

A hung Parliament emerged from the 1996 elections in which the Congress government of PV Narasimha Rao was defeated. The BJP became the largest party in Parliament with 161 MPs and formed a government under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee but this only lasted 13 days. Regional and Left leaders came together and offered the leadership to former prime minister VP Singh, who declined it. They then turned to CPM veteran Jyoti Basu, but he too declined the offer, a decision he would later go on to describe as a "historic blunder". Finally, the baton was passed to Janata Dal's HD Deve Gowda but even after having the support of the Left Front and Congress, the Deve Gowda government couldn’t last beyond a year. Post this, Inder Kumar Gujral came to the fore but even under his leadership, the government did not complete its full term due to constant internal squabble and a volatile relationship with Congress. Finally, the country went to polls again in 1998a and the BJP came to power.

The fragile nature of the Third Front became a powerful poll plank for the BJP. Its 1998 government lasted only 13 months, but in 1999, it returned to power and was able to form the first stable National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government that ran a full course. The BJP, which had earlier been snubbed because of its strong Hindutva agenda, gained the confidence of allies. This episode also led to the formation of more stable coalition governments in the future. Both the NDA and the two Congress-led UPA governments that followed, remained stable because regional parties did not want frequent elections.

The experiment also showed the importance of a larger, national party being the anchor of a coalition. It marked the consolidation and subsequently rather quick fragmentation of regional parties. The Janata Dal, which promised to be an alternative to the national parties, got reduced to a fallacious political figment and all its various constituents drifted apart.

Coming back to the current scenario, the latest entrant to the upcoming third front is NDA's estranged partner, N Chandrababu Naidu, whose Telegu Desam Party had moved a no-confidence motion against the Centre. But even Naidu has fewer friends in the political circle than he would like. The YSR Congress suspects that Naidu came to Delhi to look for a new alliance partner. “That he is coming to Delhi to fight for the interests of the state is a humbug. Now that he has become isolated in state politics, he is trying for support from other parties,” YSRC Rajya Sabha member V Vijaya Sai Reddy was quoted as telling Hindustan Times.

Jana Sena Party founder-president Pawan Kalyan also termed Naidu's visit as a “political ploy” of  TDP, accusing the chief minister of lacking a “strong will and commitment”. The Left parties also believe that Naidu’s party is to be equally blamed along with the BJP for the injustice done to Andhra Pradesh after its bifurcation and hence, they did not support Naidu's resolution at their meeting with him.

In the Hindi heartland, however, Samajwadi Party's Akhilesh Yadav is sounding confident after the by-poll victory and wishes to continue the alliance with BSP. He had admitted that this alliance will be only be limited to Uttar Pradesh, thus, rendering his party bereft of any possible national appeal. Akhilesh too has acknowledged Mamata's attempts to set up a 'federal front. But Congress doesn't seem convinced of her plans.

West Bengal Congress president Adhir Chowdhury took a dig at Banerjee’s proposal of putting up a “one-to-one” fight against the BJP and shot back saying that the Congress did not need any advice from her. Chowdhury claimed that Banerjee was trying to project herself as a 'pan-India leader'. “She is advising the Congress on what to do and what not to. Who has appointed her as an adviser to the Congress? If you are serious about fighting the communal forces, you have to fight under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi. Anti-BJP front will succeed only under Rahul’s leadership,” he said, according to PTI .

This mud-slinging has made the BJP leaders in Bengal happy. “The people of India have seen enough of such political gimmicks and they are tired of it. Such attempts are a futile exercise to satisfy their ego and greed for power. The more they do such things the public support to Prime Minister Narendra Modi will increase,” said Rahul Sinha, BJP’s national secretary and former president of the state unit.

It is interesting to note here that the Left under the leadership of CPM leader Prakash Karat too had tried for a similar non-BJP, non-Congress front but had failed miserably.

The Congress on its part is taking things as they come. “The battle for 2019 will be to preserve the founding vision of India. All people and forces who believe in this inclusive policy and idea of India have to come together and defeat the incumbent government. The objective is not about who will take the leadership position,” Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari told Hindustan Times.

Excluding the Congress completely may not be the most astute of strategies for the Third Front if they actually dare to conquer the BJP in the next Lok Sabha elections. The absence of a personality like Narendra Modi in the third front camp, at least for now, only makes the task even harder. After all these meetings in different parts of the country, the Third Front won't really love to see a third-rate performance going ahead in the next general elections. For now, here's hoping that all the power contenders keep their best 'front' forward.

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Updated Date: Apr 05, 2018 19:28:39 IST

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