There was a minor commotion in the political space occupied by parties in the opposition this week. The move to assemble leaders and prominent citizens at the residence of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar created ripples across the otherwise placid waters.
The decision of a prominent member of the NCP to invite leaders from various parties in the opposition led to an interpretation that steps were underway to raise a structure around parties who stand up against the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Raising once again the bogey of a ‘Third Front’ the meeting occupied space in the breathless cycle of round-the-clock news, which worked up lather but soon the froth dissolved.
Seasoned political leaders preferred to play down the meeting as one convened under the aegis of Rashtra Manch, a platform that came into being before the last Lok Sabha elections.
Prominent among those who were associated with the forum were the likes of Yashwant Sinha. It is a platform where concerned citizens and leaders from various parties assemble to share their idea of the country and build public opinion around critical analysis on contemporary issues.
Congress party representatives at the June 22 meeting were conspicuous by their absence while the Left parties, the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) preferred to send members of its Executive instead of the general secretaries marking their presence.
Suddenly, the development fell flat with a veteran political leader Sharad Pawar articulating that any political alternative to take on the BJP cannot be conceived without the Indian National Congress.
Was the NCP leader testing the waters? In the run-up to the assembly and after it, reports of Prashant Kishore, considered a formidable political strategist in the country, meeting Sharad Pawar did the rounds adding to the romantic tale of a Third Front.
The spiel masters were on the roll. Pawar, the wily politician with wide cross-party contacts was preparing for a game and in the absence of the Grand Old Party, the Third Front talked gained ground.
It requires a glance back into Indian history just a few decades to make one realise that the only time the Third Front came to form a government at the Centre was in 1996. It was a post-election development forced by a fractured mandate.
Such was the arithmetic of the Lok Sabha that former Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao surmised the results, as electorates’ mandate for all parties was to sit in the opposition.
Congress under Rao could not get the numbers after running a government between 1991-96 while BJP under Atal Behari Vajpayee had to throw in the towel after 13 days in government and eventually H D Deve Gowda was asked to lead the United Front government with the Congress supporting from the outside.
Since then all central governments built around one of the two poles, the Congress and the BJP assumed power. Even though the BJP under Narendra Modi won a majority, the National Democratic Alliance formation is still a coalition of parties sharing power.
The third Front remains a chimaera in Indian politics since. Ahead of every general election, several experiments were conducted. After the disintegration of the United Front, CPI (M) Harkishen Singh Surjeet chiselled a Peoples’ Front (Lok Morcha) with Left parties and Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh. The arrangement came unstuck over time and eventually ‘Netaji’ Mulayam Singh supported the Congress during the crucial confidence vote following the Indo-US nuclear deal.
Ahead of the 2009 general elections, Surjeet’s successor Prakash Karat made attempt to bring about parties opposed to both the Congress and BJP drafting in Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam, the trial went nowhere.
Exploring possibilities in politics is understandable but the landscape in the country has changed drastically since 2014. The BJP under PM Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah is a formidable election machine backed by committed cadres and a war chest that appears intimidating. Adding to the opposition woes, the credibility of many of its leaders is pockmarked, some severely.
The creditable victory march of Trinamool Congress under Mamata Banerjee rekindled the spirits of several parties in the opposition but the road ahead of long.
Enduring criticism over its handling of the COVID-19 second wave, the Modi government will have three years to repair its image. On the way to the 2024 general elections, the party would get multiple opportunities to refine its strategy and fine-tune tactics in a series of assembly elections over the next two years with Uttar Pradesh offering the biggest test next year.
Meanwhile, parties opposed to the BJP would continue to explore openings to detect chinks in the armour of a challenging political rival. Above all, those coming together would need much more than mere political manoeuvres.
It would require a grand, national alternative vision that would fire the imagination of the people on a range of issues that touched lives over two cycles of national elections.
—The author is a senior journalist and has earlier worked with The Hindu and The Tribune. The views expressed are personal.
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First Published: IST