Regional politics and personal ambitions, with fragmented political agendas can render this an uphill task
Two months ago, TRS supremo and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) had declared that he had no interest in national politics and that his only goal in life was to transform Telangana into ‘Bangaru Telangana’ (Golden Telangana). This was in response to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s query on his interest in national politics, so that BJP could accommodate him in such an arrangement.
His announcement on Saturday, March 03, about his plans to launch a Third Front as a national alternative to the Congress and BJP, has come as a shock to the regional leaderships of both the national parties in the state. “KCR is once again playing his double-crossing game – trying to split the anti-Modi votes,” says A Revanth Reddy, Congress spokesperson. BJP state President Dr K Lakshman states, “TRS is a family affair for KCR and if heads the Third Front, it will be a cottage industry for him.”
KCR also announced his plans to hold regional conventions in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi and Kolkata at the earliest. He has also selected coordinators for the yet-to–be-named new entity in 15 states where the regional parties are in power or in majority.
It is interesting to note that KCR revealed his plans strategically, following the Congress washout in the North East.
KCR believes he is striking when the iron is hot. Of the 543 Lok Sabha seats, 255 are in the 14 states where it is a fight between the BJP and the Congress. Kerala is out of this equation with CPI (M) in the saddle. Of the remaining 288 seats in 15 states, the fight is among regional parties and national parties. Again here, in Uttar Pradesh, it is the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party and the BJP vying for 80 Lok Sabha seats.
So if a strong Third Front does emerge, it can cobble together 288 seats in 15 states that are dominated by regional parties, and KCR feels he can become kingmaker – at least in theory. But for this, he has to play his cards well, for keeping the regional satraps happy is no mean job.
Opposition Unity – A Nightmare Scenario
In the 1980s, legendary Parliamentarian Piloo Mody in his sick bed in Delhi’s Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, gave this writer an interview. The Janata Party experiment had just failed and Indira Gandhi was back in power.
On being asked as to why the Janata Party had collapsed, Piloo Mody said with his characteristic humour – “How can a parrot, an owl, an eagle, a deer, a lion and a bison (most of them were election symbols for the splinter groups of the Janata Party) ever live together? They can do so in a forest or a circus, but not among people!”
20 years later, in 1995, another legendary political leader, Biju Patnaik of Odisha, a good friend of NT Rama Rao, the founder of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh echoed these very same sentiments. “The Janata experiment failed as the Bharatiya Jan Sangh remained an untouchable in Indian polity then. The successive alliance regimes were just anti-Congress forums – the National Front and the United Front were dominated by power-hungry regional satraps who failed to behave like national leaders.”
He was right. Third fronts have always emerged as anti-Congress or anti-BJP coalitions, having no other common political goals that would stand the test in national politics.
The Third Fronts So Far: National Front
In the 1980s, TDP founder NT Rama Rao, brought together all the non-Congress opposition parties including the Left and the BJP on a single platform. He held the first conclave of opposition parties at Vijayawada, which spelled out the agenda and the preamble for opposition unity.
The constituents of what was called the National Front, in power between 1989 and 1991 had Janata Dal at the national level, the TDP, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), Asom Gana Parishad and the Indian Congress (Socialist). They had outside support from the Left Front and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
KP Unnikrishnan, the Congress (O) leader from Kerala aptly summed it up neatly when he attended the Vijayawada conclave. “NTR’s concept is built on the emotional grounds of anti-corruption and dynasty rule.”
Next came the Srinagar Conclave, which in spite of some initial hiccups, had more participants. Charan Singh had sarcastically dubbed this front ‘Khichdi’, but later, he too joined the fold.
The National Front collapsed on the ambition of Charan Singh, who pulled the plug on the Janata Dal, choosing instead to take over as Prime Minister from Morarji Desai, with the outside support of Indira’s Congress. It did not take long for Indira Gandhi to turn the tables on Singh as she had done with Morarji Desai.
The Third Fronts So Far: United Front
The 13-party United Front was the next attempt at cobbling together a non-BJP, non-Congress coalition. Led by the Janata Dal, this front included regional parties like Samajwadi Party, DMK, TDP, AGP, All India Indira Congress (Tiwari), Left Front (4 parties), Tamil Maanila Congress, National Conference and Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party.
The kingmaker in this front too was the TDP – NT Rama Rao’s son-in-law who managed to topple the ageing actor and take over the party – Chandrababu Naidu, was the key negotiator.
As the 1996 polls turned up a hung Parliament, Naidu became the convenor of the UF. The new front had been formed with a singular goal – to deny the BJP which had won 161 Lok Sabha seats out of 543 – the chance to form government under AB Vajpayee’s leadership. Vajpayee who initially took charge, resigned without facing the vote of confidence in 13 days.
Deve Gowda who was installed as the Prime Minister (1996-97) was pulled down by the Congress. When the BJP offered support to the UF to form a new government, the Left threatened to withdraw. The UF went back to the Congress who said they would extend support if IK Gujral was nominated as the next Prime Minister. Chandrababu Naidu was the mediator who firmed up this truce.
IK Gujral was Prime Minister from 21 April 1997 to 19 March 1998. The interim report of the Jain Commission on former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination was tabled in Lok Sabha. The DMK, a part of the UF, was implicated. A furious Congress demanded the removal of the DMK from the UF. Gujral refused and resigned. The country went to polls once again. Coalitions became the norm at the Centre after this, with either the BJP or the Congress leading the alliance. Only such coalitions have been able to complete five year tenures in office.
Can KCR Lead A Third Front?
Why KCR and not a Mamata or a Chandrababu Naidu or a Naveen Patnaik or MK Stalin? How did he suddenly emerge as the torchbearer for regional parties, nationally? Especially since KCR has so far been a lone wolf, not given to carrying baggage?
“That is why he had distanced himself from all – the Telangana JAC (Joint Action Committee), the SC/ST fronts, students, teachers and advocate forums, as also the Muslim and Christian associations, after getting them all together for the (Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation) GHMC polls and the separatist agitation,” says Telangana CPM leader Tammineni Veerabhadram.
The truth is that KCR is keenly aware of Chandrababu Naidu’s ambitions and experience in this regard, of his role in the convenorship of the National Front and also the United Front.
Monday saw Naidu’s men distributing pamphlets and letters personally signed by him to members of the 23 splinter groups of both the UPA and NDA, in the central hall of Parliament. TDP MPs have been agitating with imagination since Budget 2018, demanding special status for Andhra Pradesh. Naidu is dropping heavy unsubtle hints that he will exit the NDA and possibly look for a non-Congress, non-BJP option. KCR therefore, wants to get there first.
KCR’s knowledge of Hindi and his negotiating skills put him ahead of Naidu, say his partymen. “KCR is a more genuine and worldly leader, with a penchant for oratory and for serving the poor,” says Telangana Deputy Minister Kadiyam Srihari. TRS secretary general K Keshav Rao adds, “KCR is good at political strategies and is a master planner.”
But KCR is also relatively new to dealing with Centre and regional allies. He has been in power only since 2014 and has already earned himself a name of being unreliable as he dumped ally BJP post 2008 and later the Congress in 2014. And he is also not known to be accommodative or patient – impulsive decisions and petty politics of revenge have marked his tenure in Telangana so far. And to be the leader of a Third Front, a statesman is required, a quality that KCR is yet to display.
The Third Front – A Mirage?
The Janata Party is a clear example of how a motley group of regional parties could unravel very quickly. Many a time, leaders found it difficult to settle issues, and instead, asked each partner to fight for their own survival, rather than work toward the goal of the Janata Party. “We had no means or leadership to settle such issues,” a senior Janata Party office-bearer, Lalita Mukunda Menon said, after the party collapsed.
Such fronts, without a dominant partner like the BJP or the Congress, suffered from leadership crisis and personality clashes. The arena was open, with no loyalty or ideology at play, each partner biding his time to take his agenda forward. As Nand Kishore Tripathi, the Delhi-based political commentator had once said of such coalitions – “What matters to each partner is to retain and perpetuate their own regional and personal fiefdoms. This is the worst contribution nationally, of Third Front politics.”
So this is where KCR is stepping in, trying to control regional groups, whom he termed as ‘Eddulu’ or buffaloes, during his party meeting on Monday.
“Where will KCR get his partners?” asks the BJP spokesman for Telangana, G Kishan Reddy. He has a point. Alliances have already been formed by regional groups with either the BJP or the Congress. And while they may well shift and change before 2019, the benefits of working with a regional party like the TRS, outside of Telangana, are few.
DMK Spokesperson KS Radhakrishnan observes, “The victory of any non-Congress, non-BJP Third Front will depend on who the Prime Ministerial candidate is. If it is a person with tolerance, stature and understanding of the various regional geopolitics, then there is a chance for such a Front.” He remarks that only coalitions led by the Congress and the BJP have completed five years’ tenure as per the people’s mandate in the past. He believes that this has to be taken into consideration while forming a Third Front.
Meanwhile, AIADMK MP Dr V Maitreyan says that his personal opinion is that the Third Front will be a non-starter. He observes that the United Front and National Front were all post-poll alliances. “There was no such thing as a United Front or a National Front before the elections. There was an attempt once to form the UNPA – United National Progressive Alliance – that was taken forward by Amma (the late TN Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s moniker) in 2008-09. A UNPA meeting was held in Chennai in Poes Garden, for which the INLD, SP, the CPM, CPI, TDP, JDS were all grouped. But by the time the Lok Sabha polls came, the UNPA disappeared. So this Third Front is a mirage which will never face an election.”
The TDP too is pooh-poohing the idea. TDP MP JC Diwakar Reddy says that a Third Front cannot survive on their own without the support of the national parties. “Let the experiments of United Front and National Front be a telling lesson as to how either a third front or regional front splinters without the support of the national parties,” he said on Wednesday in Parliament.
For now it is the ambition of two leaders – KCR and Mamata Banerjee – to form a non-Congress non-BJP Third Front. If their aim though is to beat both in 2019, it would take more than just fire and bombast to get there.