Until Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification as Member of Parliament on March 24 over a criminal defamation proceeding, widely seen as “rushed” and “politically expedited”, several opposition leaders appeared to be aggressively promoting the agenda of a third front in which the Congress would not control the levers of power. This was evident from the absence of key regional satraps in Rahul’s Bharat Jodo Yatra finale in Srinagar on January 30.
The prominent players of a non-Congress front against the Narendra Modi regime are Mamata Banerjee (Trinamool Congress), Nitish Kumar (Janata Dal (United)), Akhilesh Yadav (Samajwadi Party), and Tejashwi Yadav (Rashtriya Janata Dal), who together have clout in 162 Lok Sabha seats in West Bengal, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh; the BJP currently holds 99 of these seats. They believe that if they can win 100 or more seats together, that will not only reduce the BJP’s majority drastically but also serve as a platform for other opposition parties to come together.
Infuriated by the BJP’s relentless pursuit of Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee said that it was a ploy to divert attention from their political front. Addressing her party members over telephone on March 19 in a programme that was telecast live in several local news channels, she said, “Rahul Gandhi is Modi’s biggest TRP.”
It was only a couple of days earlier, on March 17, that Sudip Bandyopadhyay, leader of the Trinamool Congress in the Lok Sabha, stated his party’s intent to maintain distance from both the BJP and the Congress, stressing that the grand old party was not the “big boss” of the opposition stable. “The Trinamool Congress will prove how to remove the BJP from power with the support of regional parties,” he boasted. In Uttar Pradesh, the SP has categorically ruled out any electoral adjustments with the Congress.
Shifting battle lines
However, the latest developments have shifted the political battle lines, with opposition parties carefully avoiding conflict among themselves while prioritising a common fight against the Modi government’s “electoral autocracy” and standing by Rahul Gandhi, who has emerged as the front-line opposition figurehead.
Mamata Banerjee called Gandhi’s disqualification a “new low of our constitutional democracy” and K. Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) called it a “black day”. As many as 16 parties, including the Trinamool, KCR’s Bharat Rashtra Samithi, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), attended a meeting convened by Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge on March 27.
In fact, Mamata Banerjee, who thus far presented herself as Modi’s main adversary (particularly after her resounding victory over the BJP in the 2021 Bengal Assembly election), put aside “leadership” issues and exhorted parties opposed to the BJP to “unite” for the 2024 election. She used a two-day dharna in Kolkata on March 29 and 30, ostensibly in protest against the Centre’s stepmotherly attitude towards the State, to sound the bugle for opposition unity.
“This is not a fight to be the ‘neta’ [of the opposition alliance]. Every citizen in this country is a neta. This is a fight to save the country,” she said. Pointing out that all opposition parties have been at the receiving end of BJP’s heavy-handed rule, she said, “All opposition parties will have to fight together and remove the BJP from the chair.”
Political observers are not surprised by the sudden shift in the political stance of the Trinamool and the AAP vis-a-vis the Congress. According to psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, “Rahul Gandhi is emerging as the unopposed consensus opposition leader. He is now being perceived as a symbol of sacrifice…. It will be difficult for the Trinamool and the AAP to create a third front without the Congress.”
Jawhar Sircar, Trinamool’s Rajya Sabha member and the party’s national spokesperson, agreed that the foundations of democracy were under attack and that opposition unity mattered. “We saw one of the highest assaults on democratic freedom, and it is sensible for everyone to come together and protest against this…. What we have here is a sign of opposition unity against an act that was patently unfair,” he said.
But is this opposition unity durable? Will regional players jettison their personal aspirations for the more pressing goal of safeguarding democracy?
Sources in the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Janata Dal (United), and the Trinamool grudgingly acknowledge that now is not the time to quarrel with the Congress, but remain sceptical about Rahul Gandhi’s candidature. This means the efforts for an alternative front will not die down, but the pursuit will be quieter, or at least, without jarring remarks against the grand old party.
People in West Bengal believe the fracas will resurface because Mamata Banerjee is unlikely to play a subordinate role in the run-up to the 2024 election. In the one week between March 17 and March 24, Mamata Banerjee met Akhilesh Yadav; Naveen Patnaik, Odisha Chief Minister and president of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD); and H.D. Kumaraswamy, former Karnataka Chief Minister and Janata Dal (Secular) leader. Her repeated swipes at the Congress and attempts to bypass it in forging an alliance against the BJP have prompted the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress, both electoral allies in West Bengal, to accuse the Trinamool of being “in league with the BJP”.
Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha and president of its West Bengal unit, recently told Frontline that “Mamata Banerjee is more vituperative against the Congress than the BJP”.
Explaining the Trinamool’s vote-cutter role, Biswanath Chakraborty said: “Time and again it has been seen that Mamata’s presence in different States has split the opposition votes, which ultimately worked in the BJP’s favour. It is also now a common phenomenon that whenever the Trinamool is cornered by central investigating agencies on corruption issues, Mamata’s attacks against the Congress become more strident.”
The Trinamool’s swipes at the Congress are sometimes inexplicable. After its recent defeat at the hands of the Congress-Left combine in the byelection to the Sagardighi Assembly constituency, a seat Trinamool had won three times consecutively, Mamata alleged that the Congress had the support of the RSS. Asked why she was snubbing the Congress, she replied curtly, “We cannot go with those who are in alliance with the BJP.”
- Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification from Parliament has shifted the political battle lines, with opposition parties avoiding conflict among themselves while prioritising a common fight against the Modi government’s “electoral autocracy”. Gandhi has emerged as the front-line opposition figurehead.
- Everyone agrees that the regional parties have an important role to play in preventing the BJP juggernaut in the 2024 election and, more importantly, the Indian polity’s rapid transformation into competitive authoritarianism.
- A significant hurdle to the idea of a third front is that the electorate today favours a strongman executive who is globally acknowledged. What is also debated in political and media circles is whether a conglomerate of regional parties is capable of winning a national election, as it did in 1977, morphing into the Janata Party that succeeded Indira Gandhi’s regime after the Emergency.
Wooing the backward class
In electorally significant Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the SP, the RJD, and the JD(U) are preparing for a backward class-centric political duel with the BJP, with some observers framing it as a reinvention of the “mandal versus kamandal” politics of the 1980s. This is being done without the involvement of the Congress. The three parties, which trace their origins to the Janata Dal, realise that they need to fundamentally churn the intricate caste mosaic in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to defeat the BJP’s rainbow Hindu consolidation.
At the centre of their strategy is the demand for a caste census. Ahead of the 2022 Assembly election, Akhilesh Yadav promised to hold a caste census within three months of being voted to power. According to him, such a head count would allow for a fair assessment of the disadvantaged castes’ quantum of representation in Parliament and in State Assemblies, and bolster the call for their adequate participation. In Bihar, in June 2022, Nitish Kumar coerced his then ally, the BJP, into seconding the JD(U)-BJP government’s proposal for a caste census, which is currently under way in the State.
The underlying objective seems to be to form a coalition of backward castes and Dalits against the BJP and limit its appeal to “savarna”, or forward caste, voters. Akhilesh Yadav’s recent focus on Dalits apart from Other Backward Classes (OBCs) supports this. He even gave Awadhesh Prasad, a party leader from the Pasi community, a seat next to him in the Assembly.
Historically, Dalits and OBCs have had competing identities. Though both are politically and economically behind the forward castes, the OBCs’ social dominance has forced Dalits to enter into some form of understanding with the forward castes, which gives them protection networks and nominal power-sharing. This savarna-Dalit coalition, once the mainstay of Congress’ electoral engineering, is what the BJP is copying. The question on everyone’s mind is: How will Akhilesh Yadav assemble a social coalition of OBCs and Dalits?
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Major Himanshu Singh, a political commentator, has an interesting take on that. “In the post-Mandal era, reservation emerged as the triggering topic for both OBCs and Dalits, making it possible for some regional players to realign social dynamics and mould otherwise warring factions into an electoral monolith. This happens when there is a considerable threat or threat-mongering vis-a-vis reservation,” Singh told Frontline.
Interestingly, Akhilesh Yadav often accuses the BJP of trying to do away with reservation. “Privatisation is being encouraged by the BJP in all public sector units. Slowly they want to do away with the very provisions of reservation,” he keeps iterating.
Row over Ramcharitmanas
The recent row over Ramcharitmanas has emerged as a rallying point for Dalit-OBC consolidation. The controversy was triggered by Bihar Education Minister and RJD leader Chandra Shekhar alleging in January that the Hindu religious book spreads “hatred in society”. “Ramcharitmanas says that once educated, lower-caste people become as poisonous as a snake,” he said. Akhilesh’s colleague Swami Prasad Maurya alleged that the text is insensitive towards backward castes, tribal people, Dalits, and women.
Akhilesh Yadav, who, until some time ago, had been careful not to relay any message that may go against Hindu forward caste sentiment, was forthcoming when mediapersons asked him about Maurya’s accusations. He said, “Our Chief Minister is from an institution and is a yogi. I will ask him about the lines of Ramcharitmanas on which discussions are being held today. What is the meaning of tadan in the verse and for whom is it used.” Maurya had alleged that some of the verses said shudras deserve tadan, which roughly translates to “punishment”. So far, the BJP’s response to the controversy lacks the ferocity it usually displays when it comes to Hindutva’s signature items. Its recent framing of Rahul Gandhi’s comments on the Modi surname as “anti-OBC” is apparently part of the effort to bolster its image as an advocate of the backward classes. This also highlights the challenge it is facing over the caste census that it opposes.
“A significant hurdle to the idea of a third front is that the electorate today favours a strongman executive who is globally acknowledged.”
The viability of the four-party experiment to chart out a path for 2024 sans the Congress is being debated in political and media circles. The grounds: Is a conglomerate of regional parties capable of winning a national election, as it did in 1977, morphing into the Janata Party that succeeded Indira Gandhi’s regime after the Emergency (1975-1977)?; can these parties match the BJP’s wide-scale economic incentivisation of the poor, a chief ingredient of its recent electoral victories? Will their considerable dependence on the Muslim vote not be the ammunition the BJP needs to shout “appeasement” and scare the electorate into backing it blindly?
A significant hurdle to the idea of a third front is that the electorate today favours a strongman executive who is globally acknowledged, understands the intricacies of geopolitics, and can be trusted to place a positive spin on the country’s international relations. A compelling articulation on national security is a must. On both counts, there is a feeling that Mamata Banerjee and Nitish Kumar are no match for Narendra Modi.
In an interaction with Frontline, Congress leader Acharya Pramod Krishnan underlined the limitations of a third front. “The pitch of national politics has changed fundamentally. Religion and nation are two overwhelming metrics the electorate uses to determine who should be the Prime Minister. This is why the Congress, and not the regional parties, can be the challenger to Narendra Modi,” he said. In his view, in the event of Rahul Gandhi not returning to Parliament, an “immensely engaging and gifted communicator, Priyanka Gandhi, should be launched as the party’s prime ministerial face”.
Pramod Krishnan’s observations on the third front match the sentiment on the ground. Amit Prakash, a senior advocate in Patna High Court, said, “A third front government with way too many regional leaders and disparate ideologies risks spurting regionalism, and with Punjab simmering, such experiments are best avoided, even as Mamata Banerjee and Nitish Kumar are accomplished leaders within their own domains.”
Not just the privileged middle class but also the working class support this argument. “It is one thing to defeat the BJP in a State and another thing to take it on nationally,” said an auto driver in Noida.
Yet, everyone agrees that the regional parties have an important role to play in preventing the BJP juggernaut in the 2024 election and, more importantly, the Indian polity’s frighteningly rapid transformation into competitive authoritarianism, which yields an electoral democracy but not a substantial one.