Third Front Looks Unlikely, But Regional Parties Will Shape 2019
While a third front may not work out, it’s almost certain that regional parties will have a bigger role to play.
A week is indeed a long time in politics. The BJP’s decisive victory in Tripura, and its ability to form governments in Meghalaya and Nagaland on 4 March 2018, bolstered the argument of political pundits who believe that 2019 is a done deal for the BJP-led NDA alliance.
The results of by-elections held for 3 parliamentary seats (with non-BJP parties winning all 3) and 2 assembly seats (BJP winning one), Bihar has reiterated the point, that nothing is to be taken for granted.
Many analysts are attributing the wins in Gorakhpur and Phulpur to the cooperation between the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) after a gap of 25 years. The Gorakhpur seat was earlier held by CM Yogi Adityanath, and Phulpur was earlier held by current Deputy CM, Keshav Prasad Maurya.
A close look at the figures clearly shows that the wins are not based purely on arithmetic. Going by the verdict of 2014 for instance, the BJP in spite of the SP-BSP combo should have cruised through in Gorakhpur and Phulpur (the former ended up losing both seats by 59,500 and nearly 22,000 votes respectively). Other factors such as low voter turnout, especially in urban areas, has been cited as a reason for BJP’s dismal performance.
While it is naïve to attribute an electoral verdict to one specific factor, what the result has done is revive talks about a grand alliance, not just between regional parties, but led by the Congress. Interestingly, Congress President Sonia Gandhi hosted a dinner for regional parties on 13 March 2018.
The dinner was attended by leaders from 20 regional parties including the Trinamool Congress (TMC), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Samajwadi Party (SP), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), DMK, National Conference.
While the SP-BSP alliance is one important factor which has given a thrust to the grand alliance narrative, a number of other regional leaders have been pitching for such an alliance for some time now.
Chief Minister of West Bengal and Trinamool Congress Supremo, Mamata Banerjee and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao proposed a ‘Third Front’ (a Non Congress, Non BJP) alliance to take on the might of the BJP. While the Telangana CM spoke about the possibility of such a front on 4 March 2018, the day the results of the assembly elections held in the three North Eastern states, the West Bengal Chief Minister responded positively to the Telangana CM’s proposal. She said:
People are looking for change. Can we expect something new to happen if Congress comes to power after BJP? It can be a third front or any front.. Discussions are going on. There is no secret about it...
The West Bengal CM has been in touch with other regional parties, including the Shiv Sena, which has been having problems with the BJP for some time, but is part of the NDA.
Other Alliances in the Offing
What further spurred talks of a Non-BJP/Non Congress alliance consisting of regional parties (dubbed as ‘Third Front’) was the exit of the TDP (Telugu Desam Party) in pulling out its ministers from the Modi Cabinet. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu cited the inability of the BJP government to grant Andhra Pradesh special status as the main cause for removing his ministers.
It is not just the developments of 4 March 2018 which need to be taken note of. Other alliances too are developing. At the launch of Kamal Hasan’s political party Makkal Needhi Maiam, Delhi Chief Minister and Aam Aadmi Party supremo, Arvind Kejriwal was present in Madurai.
Many analysts are also of the opinion that talk of a ‘third front’ is mere posturing, and ultimately regional parties will gravitate towards an alliance led by the dominant national party. There is absolutely no doubt that a ‘third front’ minus one of the national parties is impossible.
VP Singh’s (1989) United Front government had the backing of the BJP, while Chandrashekhar’s government was backed by the Congress. HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral received outside support from the Congress.
Cong’s Role in Non-BJP Alliance
Derek O Brien, one of the articulate voices of the TMC, commenting on the role of the Indian National Congress in leading a non-BJP alliance, highlighted the relevance of the INC in a non-BJP alliance:
Of course they have a role to play. They add considerable momentum to the concept of the federal force in those states where it matters and where it has the local leadership and organisation to present an alternative to the BJP. We gladly acknowledge that in at least six states, the Congress is the BJP’s principal opponent.
Pavan K Varma, commenting on the potential role of the Congress in a third front alliance stated:
Congress, which could emerge as the single largest party within the current opposition, must acquire the organisational rigour to micromanage elections, and the maturity to build alliances with other parties on a proactive, timely and accommodating basis…
Challenges to a Third Front
Mamata Banerjee too realises the problems of a third front of regional parties, and in a clear overture towards the Congress party, has announced her party’s support for Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Congress Party’s RS bid. The CM of West Bengal, an astute politician, summed up the potential role which her party would like to play in getting together all non-BJP parties on one platform.
The problems of a so-called ‘third front’ coalition of regional parties are not just restricted to the numbers; there are many prime ministerial candidates in such a front. It is not just Mamata who nurtures ambitions, though she has dismissed such talk. Apart from this, such a front would lack a cohesive agenda.
Finally, while the SP and BSP have got together, there are certain regional parties like TDP (Andhra Pradesh), Shiv Sena (Maharashtra) and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) for which it would be impossible to be party to a grouping led by the Congress. The INC happens to be the main opponent of these regional parties, in their respective states.
Need for a Pressure Group of Regional Parties
What cannot be denied is that the role of regional parties, even in a Congress-led alliance, would be much more important than earlier, since they have been more proactive in stitching together anti-BJP coalitions and at many times have been more vociferous in taking on the central government.
If one were to look beyond electoral politics, it is time that regional parties set up a front consisting of different regional parties so as to influence the discourse on key economic and foreign policy issues, and also learn from each other’s policy experiments.
Currently, regional parties seldom speak up collectively on concrete policy issues and are reactive, rather than being proactive. Apart from this, they are divided on the basis of the alliance they belong to (NDA or UPA).
A genuine pressure group is important, because both national parties – Congress and BJP – need to be kept on their toes and are out of sync with transformations taking place at the state level. There is an obsession with what is dubbed as ‘national interest’ (this is decided by a few experts in Delhi who are cut of from the ground reality), and regional aspirations are often ignored.
Second, a few states which have a larger number of seats in parliament, tend to have an inordinate influence on the narrative, and sometimes this detracts from the real developmental/economic issues.
Third, it is unfair to label chief ministers for not possessing a vision. Most chief ministers today have a much better understanding of not just economic, but also foreign policy issues, as a result of their outreach. That they do not utilise this sufficiently is a different issue.
In conclusion, a ‘third front’ may not seem possible, but regional parties will play a key role in determining which alliance emerges as the victor in 2019. A decisive electoral mandate is no panacea for India’s problems and neither does a coalition – steered by a national party – will spell disaster.
(Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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