Beyond Bharat Jodo: Can a Third Front challenge BJP-Congress hegemony?
Rahul Gandhi and Mallikarjun Kharge during the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Kashmir

Of the 21 parties invited, about a dozen arrived in Srinagar to participate in the concluding function of Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra (BJY). 

While Congress leaders have consciously sought to dissociate the Yatra from any electoral objectives, Kharge’s outreach to ‘like-minded’ parties cannot be overlooked. This is because the move is in tune with the party’s calls for the Opposition to come together. 

It is in this light that the names of a few parties that have refrained from travelling to Srinagar assume significance. These include, among others, major players like Trinamool Congress (TMC), Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Telugu Desam Party (TDP). A few weeks ago, when the Yatra passed through Uttar Pradesh, both SP and BSP stayed away from joining Gandhi. 

But while these parties did not heed Congress’ invitation, there are a few others whom the Grand Old Party did not even bother to reach out to. Among others, this set includes parties like Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) and Aam Admi Party (AAP). 

Of course, the reason for avoiding them makes sense. Many parties have not exactly responded to Congress’ recent appeals for Opposition unity in the way that the latter would have liked. In fact, just a few weeks back, the Telangana chief minister and BRS supremo organised a mega opposition rally keeping the Congress out. During his address, attended by Arvind Pinyari Vijayan and Akhilesh Yadav among others, KC Rao not only attacked BJP, but also equated the Congress with the former and blamed it for many of the state’s problems. Notably, the SP supremo had also made a similar remark equating Congress with BJP last December. 

Given how some opposition parties are trying to steer clear of being seen with the Congress, it is quite reasonable to say that many are not very keen on calls for a rainbow coalition coming from various quarters. While they are still holding the cards close to their chests, it doesn’t require much guessing that most of these parties are more inclined towards having an alternate flank of opposition, which in Indian political parlance is popularly referred to as a Third Front. 

This would not be the first time such a step is being contemplated. 

Rather, since the late 1980s, efforts to forge such coalitions have become a regular feature of Indian political life, especially in the run-up to general elections. Sometimes these plans acquire a concrete shape while at other times they remain mostly on paper. Notably, such experiments have been instrumental in the formation of the National Front (1989) and United Front (1996) governments. 

So given the efforts being made by a section of the Opposition to forge such an alternate front to take on the BJP, the question is how effective can such an experiment be? The answer however is contingent on whether the proposed Third Front would be able to satisfy a few conditions. 

Firstly, any effort to shape an alternate electoral front, that seeks to keep away both BJP and the Congress, can hope to succeed only if it rests on a broad coalition of political parties. As things stand now, with only say the BRS and AAP along with a few more groups here and there, it is unlikely that the experiment will go anywhere. 

In the coming days, any evaluation of the prospects of Third Front politics should therefore look at two variables. One of them is how many of the more effective players, like say, TMC or YSRC each having 22 parliamentarians right now, actively come on board in the coming days? The other question to look out for would be the extent to which the Third Front is able to consolidate support in the bigger states. For instance, in 2019, while the NDA won about 51 per cent of the popular vote in Uttar Pradesh, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Samajwadi Party (SP) and Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) together could secure around 39 per cent votes. 

The possibility of stitching a broad coalition of parties, apart from BJP and Congress, is however itself contingent upon another condition. That is the extent to which many of the parties of the proposed coalition are able to put aside their differences with each other. This has been one of the biggest challenges to having a viable Third Front. 

For instance, bitter rivals like TDP and YSRC who are standing on opposite sides of the ring together hold about 89 per cent of the popular vote, if the last assembly elections are to go by. A similar challenge also exists say, in West Bengal, where the coming together of TMC and Left can give a big push to any electoral equation. But the fact of the matter is that it is much easier said than done. Most of these players are fierce competitors at the state level, the more crucial arena of operations for them. As such, how easy it would be to persuade these parties to come together by conceding space to their arch-opponents is anybody’s guess. 

Being able to achieve both of these conditions would certainly emasculate any Third Front experiment. However, whether or not it manages to effectively impact the flow of politics in the coming days would also depend on the extent to which the coalition’s constituents are able to improve their own electoral standings. This is especially important for two reasons. 

One, because the BJP would be going to polls from a much higher threshold of support. The other reason relates to the Third Front’s exclusion of Congress. The latter, it should be remembered, still holds around 19 per cent of the popular vote. Any political strategy that hopes to take on BJP without involving the Congress would therefore have to first shore up enough support that wouldn’t keep it dependent on the latter. Besides having a broad coalition and including non-BJP and non-Congress players, this would therefore require that these groups considerably expand their share of popular support. And this has to happen not at the cost of each other but rather by eating into the BJP and Congress’ base. 

Apart from these conditions, an effective Third Front experiment would also have to arrive at a consensus about the Face that would lead it. It may be argued by its constituents that Third Front politics is not centred on an individual. Or even the choice of who would lead it is a question that would arise only after the results. But notwithstanding such arguments, it has to be conceded that over the years, Indian politics has become increasingly personality centric. And nobody else illustrates the big gains that a credible leadership face can bring to a party other than the BJP. After all, prime minister Modi continues to be its strongest bet for success. It should here be recalled that even in 1989, it was V.P Singh’s newfound image as a crusader against corruption, which served as a major rallying point for voters against the Congress. 

Finally, a Third Front experiment has to be extremely careful about managing perceptions well. This would be invaluably important in gaining people’s confidence. What is important to realise is that Third Front politics in India has come to be associated with a lot of instability and consequent failings in governance. This is particularly in view of the chaotic careers of both the National Front and United Front governments. It would therefore be imperative for candidates hoping to shape a Third Front in the run-up to elections to build an image of being a credible and durable alternative. How it can achieve this can of course be the subject of another discussion. 

The promise of a Third Front in Indian politics that can counter the Hindutva agenda of the ruling dispensation without carrying the unenviable baggage of the Congress’ own past is certainly alluring. But for it to become an effective force to reckon with would require that it treads a long and difficult course. 

The author is a doctoral student at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and can be contacted at Views expressed are personal.

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