The year 1996 marks an important year in Indian politics. The BJP became the second pan Indian party in the general elections held that year. Ever since then we get to hear of the mythical third front every five years. Infact the third front enjoyed two years of power under the leadership of Deve Gowda and Gujral between 1996-1998. The third front is typically the conglomerate of independant regional parties along with the usual communist variants like the CPI, CPM or AAP thrown in. The latest attempts for third front creation have come from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) founder and ex Maharashtra CM Sharad Pawar.
Pawar senses that at the grand old age of 80, this is his last chance to make an attempt for the Prime Ministerial chair. Not that it is easy for anyone to defeat Modi in 2024, but the right vacuum exists in the opposition space. Congress under Rahul Gandhi has failed to give a fight to Modi in 2014 and 2019 and is still floundering. Regional satraps like the Yadavs (Mulayam/ Laloo/ Akhilesh) are not at their strongest and another contender Mamata is struggling in her own state. The other major contenders Stalin and Jagan do not seem interested to lead at the national stage. Hence Pawar looks to stretch his luck one last time.
Mamata is increasingly looking lost as the West Bengal assembly election progresses. Irrespective of the election result, her national standing is diminished and not even WB may vote whole heartedly if she throws her hat in the ring at the national level. Stalin is still the young leader at the age of 67 and looking to be a first time CM. His condition is similar to that of Prince Charles who missed his chance to be King as the old queen Lizzie lived beyond 90. Karunanidhi’s exit allowed Stalin the chance to finally seek his place under the sun. Jagan is still finding his feet in Andhra and is still not in the clear from the corruption cases that haunt him. Akhilesh Yadav and Tejaswi Yadav are not big on the national level. Naveen Patnaik does not seem keen to work at the national level. Kejriwal is trying hard to increase his national profile but he is still treated as a pariah even among the third front constituents.
The grand old party Congress is floundering ever since Modi delivered the killer punch in 2014. They have now been reduced to having CM in just three states, Rajasthan, Chhatisgarh and Punjab. They lost power in Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Puducherry in the last two years. Congress is part of the ruling coalition in Maharashtra but that amounts to nothing as the party has no real authority. Brother – sister duo are stumbling their way through politics and hoping that anti-incumbency will hand them the top chair in the country. Meanwhile Sonia Gandhi who has some political experience and the required cunning is out of day-to-day politics due to advanced age and illness.
In such a situation, Sharad Pawar sees an opening for himself to lead the third front challenge in the 2024 elections. It is undoubtedly the last fight of his life. He is the only leader among the non-Congress and non-BJP lot who has had a better last year. He was able to hijack the mandate of the Maharashtra assembly election and become a part of the state government. By giving the chief minister’s post to Uddhav Thackeray, Pawar was able to get most important ministeries in the state cabinet. This allows him access to the coffers of the richest state of the country and allows him to potentially build a war chest to fund his national ambitions.
However, Modi government has hit Pawar financially in multiple ways through centre or through the last BJP government led by Devendra Fadnavis. Be it bringing the district co-operative banks under the RBI purview, IT raids on Pawar’s partymen like Avinash Bhosale or the new farm laws that have hit the volume of agri business done by APMC’s (Pawar’s fiefdom in Maharashtra). And the current Vaze-Parambir Singh episode and accusations on Maharashtra Home minister Anil Deshmukh have brought back the corruption focus back on Pawar. Pawar fears allegations of corruption and collusion with the underworld (read Dawood). The allegations by then MH leader of opposition Gopinath Munde in 1995 had sullied Pawar’s name and had led to Congress losing power in the state. A repeat of that episode could sink Pawar’s national ambitions.
If the corruption charges levelled by former Mumbai police commisioner Parambir Singh on Anil Deshmukh about collection (extortion) target of 100 crores per month are true, then it might be an attempt by Pawar to build a war chest for his third front play. Especially since the Modi government is choking NCP’s traditional sources of funds. Remember the hullabaloo created by Pawar’s ecosystem about the RBI not accepting huge amount of demonetized notes from the district co-operative banks in Maharashtra. NCP has always used its hold over the co-operative sector in rural Maharashtra to loot these banks. Now that these sources are increasingly become difficult to milk, the restuarants, bars and businessmen in urban Maharashtra especially Mumbai are easy targets. The alacrity with which NIA has acted on the Ambani extortion case shows that the centre is trying to checkmate Pawar.
On the other side, the Congress is happy in private that NCP is under the corruption spotlight. Congress has reacted sharply to suggestions that Pawar should replace Sonia Gandhi as the UPA chairperson. Pawar has tried to fire from the Shiv Sena’s shoulders this time with motormouth Sanjay Raut repeatedly broaching this subject. Congress can suffer any humiliation to cling on to power in Maharashtra, but any attempt to reduce the importance of it’s first family is met with fierce resistance. State Congress leaders who had taken every insult silently as part of the MVA alliance, gave fierce responses to Sanjay Raut. Pawar is now trying to create a third front independent of the Congress.
If you ask me, Modi’s best ally has been the Congress for the past 8 years. While old allies like the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Shiv Sena have betrayed the BJP recently, Congress is always at the forefront of not allowing opposition unity and thus indirectly allowing Modi a headstart in the race for Prime Minister. The Congress cannot bear the idea of any other leader from the opposition space being considered as better than their heir Rahul Gandhi. So they actively sabotage the chances of any leader who tries to assume the leadership of the anti Modi votebank. Congress’s strategy seems clear. Rahul Gandhi is just 50 years old right now. Assuming 2024-2029 to be Modi’s last term, Rahul would be 58 years old by 2029. While that is the superannuation age for most Indians, 58 years is a young age in politics. The Congress feels that Rahul Gandhi has a lot of time left in politics and his chance would come after Modi leaves the political scene by 2029. In the meantime they will sabotage the chances of any other leader to take up Rahul Gandhi’s position as the PM in waiting. Not even not spared Sharad Pawar who has been the perpetual PM post hopeful.
Thus any third front formation for the 2024 general elections cannot fight will full strength against the massive election war machine of the BJP. Modi government through its effective implementation of social welfare schemes is not providing hopes to the opposition that anti-incumbency will take them to the throne. In such an hostile environment, the Congress is putting up additional road blocks for any non Congress leader who wants to try his luck. Congress wont even consider an old ally like Sharad Pawar and show him any sympathy for his last chance for the PM post. So take it from me, unless Modi slips on his own, Congress is ready to facilitate his path towards a hattrick again in 2024.