Chanakya may have lived in the fourth century BC but he keeps getting re-discovered in the twenty-first century. This relentless search for a modern-day Chanakya has seen union home minister Amit Shah being projected as his contemporary avatar when the BJP leader was helming the party to a series of election successes even though there is much more to the Arthashastra than a ‘power at all costs’ mantra. Now, post his Bengal triumph, Prashant Kishor, the Trinamool Congress’s prime election strategist has been portrayed as a political Chanakya. Which might partly explain the buzz around the three meetings Kishor has held with Maharashtra leader Sharad Pawar. Is there a plan to craft a new political alternative that could challenge a Narendra Modi-led BJP in 2024?
Pawar and Kishor make a rather odd couple. The veteran Maratha strongman is a well-networked mass connect politician, far more comfortable in engaging with the widest possible cross-section of people, from agriculturists to industrialists. Kishor, on the other hand, is a tech-savvy backroom operator who talks surveys and numbers. If there is one thing that unites the 80 year old politician and the 44 year old tactician, it is the scent of power. Pawar has smelt it for decades, Kishor has had a whiff of it for the last few years. So is there more to this emerging partnership than meets the eye?
Partly the speculation over the Pawar-Kishor engagement reflects the desperation in the anti-Modi camp to somehow forge a challenge to Modi’s supremacy in 2024 before its too late. With the Congress still unable to emerge out of a political ICU and besieged with self-destructive internal divides, the prospect of a ‘third front’ is alluring to the prime minister’s opponents. A ‘third front’ is a strange political animal that keeps getting exhumed just when it appears on the verge of extinction. In the mid-1990s, when a non-BJP, non-Congress United Front government was created, former prime minister VP Singh who was an architect of this model, remarked, “The third front may seem undesirable but it is inevitable.”
Singh’s one-liner was a reflection of the turbulent decade of the 1990s when India saw half a dozen prime ministers and eight governments in office. This was a period when the BJP was slowly rising as a national party of significance and the Congress was gradually retreating. The vacuum was filled by a range of ambitious leaders and their jelly-like political alliances that were forged out of a mix of anti-BJPism or anti-Congress sentiment or just rank opportunism. Today’s India is vastly different, and has less of an appetite for short-lived governments, racked by chaos and instability. Under Modi’s leadership, the BJP is now a dominant party that has won two successive national majorities while the Congress has shrunk even further. There is only one principle pole in Indian politics that has the cadre, the resources and the machine to monopolise the electoral system. Political alignments in the forseeable future will therefore be shaped by either pro or anti Modi-BJP politics.
This is why the idea of a cohesive third front is a non-starter in today’s saffron-hued political milieu. What is however still a possibility is a wider coalition of political interests who are terrified at the prospect of the country becoming a single party, one person democracy. As the recent assembly election results showed, the BJP can still be challenged by regional political forces that exemplify cultural-linguistic pride and refuse to be drawn into the BJP’s homogenised Hindutva nationalism embrace. It is bringing together these forces on a platform of regional assertiveness that remains an attractive option for the proponents of a political alternative to Modi Raj, not necessarily as a pan-India federal front but more as a ‘localised’ option to the BJP.
This is however easier said than done. In the first instance, the regional parties often have sharply conflicting interests with their home turf rivals. A Jagan Reddy and a Chandrababu Naidu wont break bread, the Trinamool and the left will not share a common dais, Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati have zero chemistry. Regional satraps often seek their worst enemies in their own backyard. Other regional parties like Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal or K Chandrashekhar Rao’s Telengana Rashtra Samiti would also prefer a working relationship with a strong Centre than get tied into an ideological war with the Modi government.
More crucially, no such wider alliance can work at a national level without the Congress being an integral pivot of it. In the 2019 elections, when the Congress had its worst ever Lok Sabha performance, it still won 19.5 per cent vote share; the next highest opposition party was the DMK with four per cent vote share. As the pragmatic Pawar has acknowledged, there can be no new opposition ‘front’ without Congress involvement. In effect, he is calling on the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi experiment to be scaled up nationally, a difficult if not impossible task given the ground realities. The Congress is in government with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra but would the party be similarly accommodative and share space with an Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi party in Delhi, Goa or Punjab? Or is AAP still viewed with suspicion and hostility as a fierce competitor for the Congress vote? Would the Congress dare choose between a Kejriwal and a BJP as to who is their enemy number one?
Moreover, there remains the vexed question of who will lead an opposition front in a ‘national’ election. As elections in a media saturated universe acquire a presidential character, leadership becomes central to making credible political choices. In 2019 for example, a last minute attempt to stitch together a united opposition ran into a roadblock with the Congress pitching Rahul Gandhi as its prime ministerial face. The choice at the time before the opposition was stark: was the aim to try and defeat Narendra Modi or accept Rahul Gandhi as their leader? In a sense, the dilemma persists: does the opposition wish to challenge Modi in a presidential-style race by projecting an individual leader as his alternate or else build state-wise coalitions across 543 constituencies. Until this key question is resolved, opposition unity will remain elusive. Post-script: While the opposition struggles to come up with a concerted strategy to challenge Modi in 2024, there is a more intriguing contest ahead that may offer pointers to the future. The Presidential elections are scheduled for July 2022 and here the numbers game could be tighter depending on the outcome of next year’s Uttar Pradesh polls. While Pawar may have given up on his prime ministerial ambitions, Rashtrapati Bhavan could be a tantalizing goal with Kishor as his advisor. Watch this space.