Within hours of her sweeping victory in Bengal, at a crowded press conference in Kolkata, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee categorically ruled out the possibility of an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2019 elections. When asked who her political “friends” were, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) Chief Minister trotted out a string of names of potential third front leaders. “I have so many friends — Kejri (Arvind Kejriwal), Nitish Kumar, Jayalalithaa, Naveen Patnaik, Mulayam Singh Yadav — all are my friends,” she said in her inimitable style. However, she had no such comforting words to offer to her arch enemies, the Congress and the Left Front, both badly mauled in the recently concluded state elections.
In Bihar, the Janata Dal (United) Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, too, echoed the same sentiment. Soon after the election results became clear, Kumar said the outcome in the five states has more than ever highlighted the need to craft a national level alliance against the BJP. In recent days, Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has time and again emphasised the urgency of working towards such an anti-BJP, anti-Congress political front.
In the coming days, such efforts are likely to gain pace. One thing however seems clear: a future third front — if and when it does materialise — would look fundamentally distinct from its predecessors in the 1990s. Having lost their bargaining power, the Congress and the Left, the two pivots of such a third axis in the past, are in no position to be decision-makers in this process. While the Congress has been replaced by the BJP as the sole national party, the Left’s rout in Bengal (despite its victory in Kerala) has stripped it off the numbers needed to be considered an important political presence on the national stage.
A future third front would look fundamentally distinct from its predecessors in the 1990s.
Gone is the 1996 moment when an entire range of regional leaders, from every corner of the country, virtually pleaded with Bengal’s then CPI(M) Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, to lead the anti-BJP coalition at the Centre. The Congress, (which was supporting the third-front coalition from outside,) put its full weight behind Basu’s candidacy. But flatly rejecting their collective and repeated appeals to Basu, the CPI(M) central committee argued that the party programme did not allow its leaders to be part of a central government.
Times since have indeed changed. Today, the CPI(M)’s bête noire Mamata Banerjee is calling the shots. She has stepped into the space vacated by the Left, and is basking in the same prominence the Left once enjoyed in the national politics. Given her extraordinary electoral mandate for a second consecutive term, Banerjee is now the cynosure of all eyes, while the CPI(M) is struggling to keep its head above water. In the changed scenario, the AAP and the TMC, have emerged as a sort of “new Left” bloc. Not saddled with the dogma of traditional Left parties, they have nonetheless kept the interests of subaltern classes at the centre of their governance agenda.
The Congress for its part has been reduced to the position of a virtual regional player. But even in this scenario, the party lacks the vibrancy that defines other regional parties like the TMC, Janata Dal (United) and the AAP. In such a situation, the Congress can hardly hope to be treated as a valued partner in a potential third front. The party also has little hope of making substantive gains in the forthcoming Uttar Pradesh and Punjab elections. In both states, the AAP, Samajwadi Party, and the Bahujan Samaj Party are the main anti-BJP forces to watch out for.
The Congress and the CPI-M will have to get used to the new political weather. The Left will have to abandon fanciful projects of reclaiming political space through clumsy alliances. Most important, the Congress high command at 10 Janpath will have to adjust to a new political landscape where their regional allies take charge. Both Congress and Left – which have shared a downward electoral spiral since 2009 — will need to do something they are essentially incapable of: real course correction and the shedding of hubris.
The CPI(M) leaders in Kolkata are already blaming the Congress for not transferring their votes to the CPI(M). But that was bound to happen in the backdrop of the mutual bloodshed that historically marks the Congress-Left relationship in Bengal. The fact is like the Congress, the CPI(M) too, seems incapable of doing what is takes to rebuild its party organisation –a task requiring both structural changes and massive ideological transformations. Without effecting such moves, both players face a long future in the shadows.
Still, today, the only thing more unlikely than a radical change in the stance of the Congress or the CPI(M) is the possibility of either party re-emerging as a major national force. The key question, in other words, is: will actors like Banerjee agree to co-exist in a potential front which includes Congress and the CPI(M)? While some regional parties will surely be open to such an alliance, the Bengal Chief Minister is a different case altogether.
The Congress high command at 10 Janpath will have to adjust to a new political landscape where their regional allies take charge.
Relations between Banerjee and the Left have particularly soured after the latter teamed up with the Congress in the recent polls. No doubt, Mamata has had the last laugh. Not only has the Left’s tally plummeted from 2011, it has even ceded ground to the Congress, now the second largest party in Bengal. Given her acrimonious personal history with the CPI(M) and the never-ending template of revenge based politics that has become a feature of Bengali culture, turning Banerjee around is easier said than done.
In the past, regional parties used to spend a lot of time knocking on the doors of the CPI(M) leadership — particularly former General Secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet and then Chief Minister Jyoti Basu. It looks increasingly likely that they will now be flocking to Banerjee’s humble lodgings in Kalighat. It is there that the blueprint of a future third front could well be put together.