The strong performance of regional parties and satraps namely Mamata Banerjee (Trinamool Congress), Pinayari Vijayan (CPM) and M K Stalin (DMK) in the state elections has given rise to demands of the formation of a non-Congress, non-BJP Third Front at the national level.
While Mamata trounced BJP’s electoral might in Bengal, Vijayan thwarted Congress party’s attempts to come back to power in Kerala. Stalin led DMK to a simple majority on its own defeating BJP backed AIADMK. The regional parties have yet again shown that they have it in them to stop the BJP juggernaut.
As Viju Cherian sums it up - “The BJP’s Achilles heel remains its performance against regional parties. While the ruling party at the Centre performs well when the Congress is the opposition, it is yet to make significant inroads while facing a regional party. In its current power structure where the central leadership overshadows the state leaders, this deficiency will continue.”
Regional parties have a special place in Indian politics. Currently, 194 MPs in the Lok Sabha belong to such parties. Some of them are part of BJP led NDA, some part of Congress led UPA and some are non-aligned. Currently, 14 states have Chief Ministers belonging to regional parties.
From 1951 to 2021 Lok Sabha elections, regional parties in the aggregate have secured an average 50% vote share.
Mamata has emerged as a giant killer and the chorus is growing for her to lead the front against Narendra Modi in 2024 general elections. Many regional leaders like Tejashwi Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav, Sharad Pawar had pledged support to Mamata in the Bengal elections.
Even before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Nitish Kumar who had left NDA, was in talks with Mulayam Singh Yadav and Naveen Patnaik to form a Third Front. He was also trying to rope in the Left parties led by CPM. However, the talks failed.
Telangana Chief Minister K. C. Rao had proposed a front of regional parties sans the Congress and the BJP ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. He had even met Mamata, Mayawati, Akhilesh and Naveen Patnaik.
However, when a massive show of opposition unity was on display during the swearing-in ceremony of HD Kumaraswamy, KCR was absent. Some regional parties are wary of having Congress in any such front.
Any such front is likely to suffer from internal contradictions and shortcomings. Some regional parties who wish to have a good relationship with the centre may not join as such. Some big leaders do not see eye to eye and may not join because of ego issues, like Akhilesh and Mayawati.
Mamata could have issues with CPM joining the Front due to the bloody past between the two. Without Left parties which have strong presence and support in Kerala, the grand alliance would come a cropper.
From Uttar Pradesh either BSP or SP could join not both. Similarly from Andhra either YSRCP or TDP may join, but not both. If TDP joins this front, TRS may not join. There are various permutations and combinations which need to be worked out.
The TRS, YSRCP and BJD over the past few years have chosen to sit on the fence with regard to the national scenario. It remains to be seen if this changes in the coming months.
The most tricky part of this Front is of leadership. Who will be the leader of this alliance? Pawar will be very old by 2024. Mamata? But will the Left parties and ambitious men like KCR / Naidu or Hindi belt leaders like Akhilesh / Mayawati agree? The dark horse could be Arvind Kejriwal of AAP.
The challenge any such front faces is lack of any common ideology except for anti-BJPism. Since this is a negative formation just to stop BJP juggernaut and doesn’t have a positive agenda many neutral / swing voters may not back it.
Such formations in the past like Janata Party (1977) and Janata Dal (1989), did manage to win elections and form governments but they couldn’t complete their five year tenure which was marked by instability.
These parties will need to devise a common minimum program and go to people seeking a mandate for the same with a strong leadership which is acceptable on a pan India level.
The other issue is that there are many states which witness a bipolar contest between Congress and BJP, where regional parties do not have much presence, like, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Himachal. These states account for 90 seats and Third Front can’t think of winning any election on its own if it cannot win any seat in these states.
This brings us to the moot question whether Congress should formally join the front or back it from outside like in 1996 in case of a hung Parliament situation. The current depleted position of the Congress shows that regional leaders may not be enthused to take the grand old party in the front and explore the possibility of cooperation only after the elections, if the need arises.
In 1996, Janata Dal (with 46 seats) formed a government along with regional parties and backed by Left Front (44 seats), Congress (140 seats) from the outside. The government saw two Prime Ministerial tenures of 11 months each after which Congress pulled the plug. So the track record of a Third Front government is not great.
Any such Front will require a great deal of coordination across a number of regional parties, huge resources, investment of time and energy by regional satraps and commitment for the greater cause.
While theoretically the idea is fancy and the Third Front appears strong on paper, there are many practical challenges which it will face and need to sort out before it can pose a serious threat to BJP in 2024.