N Kalyani Shankar
Will too many cooks spoil the Opposition broth? Many players in the national opposition camp are trying to come together ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls against the BJP. You have Congress President Sonia Gandhi attempting to form a united opposition coalition. You have West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee trying to develop a non-Congress non-BJP coalition with the help of Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar. Then you have the Telangana chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao who wants to form a federal front without Congress. Tamil Nadu chief minister M K Stalin is the new entrant to this effort.
Talk of a federal front of regional parties without Congress to take on the BJP in 2024 elections has gained ground in the last few weeks. By leading a national party, Congress gets the prime place to unite the Opposition. Without Congress, however weak it is today, any Opposition front will not succeed. Sonia Gandhi held a meeting last August of 19 political parties but did not take it further. She then appealed to the Opposition to come together, focusing on defeating the BJP in 2024 Lok Sabha polls. Congress party is waiting for the current five state Assembly election results on March 10 to take further steps.
Therefore, there is an inherent contradiction in the splintered Opposition camp—regional satraps, with a stronghold in their respective fiefdoms, dream of succeeding Narendra Modi. The precedents of Deve Gowda, I K Gujral and Chandrasekhar give them this hope.
If it retains Punjab, succeeds in Goa, and snatches Uttarakhand in the current Assembly polls, the Congress party has a chance of uniting the Opposition. In 2017, though Congress emerged as the single largest party in Goa and Manipur, the BJP formed the government in both states, luring defections. Moreover, while Opposition leaders like Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee, and others might agree to work under Sonia Gandhi, they do not accept Rahul Gandhi as their leader.
Mamata proposes calling a non-BJP chief ministers’ conference in Delhi, where KCR, Tamil Nadu chief minister M K Stalin, Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray, will participate in the emerging federal front. Stalin’s recent statement that a convention of non-NDA CMs will be organised in Delhi confirms it. Efforts are on to mobilise as many non-BJP CMs as possible, including BJD, YSR Congress, and the CPI(M-led government in Kerala..
The CPI-M mouthpiece ‘People’s Democracy’ said in its latest editorial, “Talk of a federal front by Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao or Mamata Banerjee’s attempt to project herself as heading an alternative alliance are political matters, which should not be mixed up with the task of bringing all chief ministers of non-BJP state governments together.”
The second reason is the souring of Centre-state relations on various issues — from expanding role of investigative agencies to GST, IAS cadre rules, and sharing of PDS data. CMs of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Kerala, etc., have also been complaining that their respective governors are infringing on the rights of the elected government. Mamata Banerjee claims they try to “protect the country’s federal structure from getting bulldozed”.
Thirdly, some regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee, K. Chandrasekhar Rao, and Arvind Kejriwal have won the state continuously in the past decade. These politically strong state leaders believe that the time for moving to the Centre has come now. In other words, regionalism is raising its head.
India had seen such an alternate front before. This coalition included the Janata Party in 1977, the National Front in 1989, United Front in 1996 but all of them had a brief rule. National parties like The National Front (supported by BJP) and the United Front (supported by Congress) came later. There are two problems for these alternate fronts to survive. The first is that they lack programmatic coherence, and the second is who will lead this Front.
There are pros and cons of such a ragtag coalition of regional parties. As former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and also Dr. Manmohan Singh experienced, they keep the coalition leader under check.
Like Telugu Desam chief Chandrababu Naidu, they could bargain funds for their respective states or, like Jayalalithaa, demand cabinet berths of their choice. But all these are at the cost of a stable government. Except for UPA and NDA, other coalition governments did not last long.
Indeed, the contours of the federal front are likely to emerge after March 10, when the results of five assembly elections are out. Whether Congress has a role in this front will depend on how it performs in these states. The Opposition needs a concrete programme for various regional players to stay together, just anti-BJP position is not enough. Congress participation can only ensure a strong foundation. IPA Service