A number of India’s regional leaders have been pitching for a “Federal Front” or a coalition of regional parties as an alternative to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the current ruling party. While this idea has been pitched before in the past, the idea was first mooted for 2019 elections in March 2018. While some of these regional leaders have spoken about complete opposition unity and have expressed willingness to go with the opposition party, the Indian National Congress, some have given the impression that they would like to be equidistant from both major national parties.
One of the leaders who has been vociferously pitching for such a Federal Front is West Bengal’s Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee. She has also been in constant touch with other regional leaders; she met with the chief minister of Telangana, K. Chandrashekar Rao (also referred to as KCR), in March 2018 to discuss the idea of a “Federal Front.”
Recent developments highlight the national ambitions of both Banerjee and KCR.
On August 31, Banerjee took to Twitter to mention her role in reversing some of the land acquisition policies of the previous Left Front Government in West Bengal.
Tweeted Banerjee: “On August 31, 2016, the SC, in a historic judgment declared that the land acquisition made by erstwhile Left Government in Singur was illegal. On 2nd anniversary of the historic judgment, my best wishes to all farmers of the country. We are always committed to their struggle and cause.”
Her tweets were also issued in Hindi, with an eye on farmers in north Indian states like Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Banerjee has been trying to expand her party’s base, and will be addressing non-Bengalis in Kolkata.
Two days after Mamata’s tweets, KCR held a rally in Hyderabad to list his party’s achievements. KCR too has been one of the regional leaders who has pushed for a Federal Front, though he has pitched for such a front without either the BJP and Congress. Before the massive rally on September 2 (with the party reporting attendance of 2.5 million people), his son and Telangana IT minister, K.T. Rama Rao categorically stated that the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) would play a key role in the formation of the next government, and it would like to remain equidistant from BJP and Congress. KT Rama Rao’s views were echoed by his sister K. Kavitha, who is an MP.
On September 6, KCR dissolved the state assembly, and lashed out at the Congress President, Rahul Gandhi. This won’t do much to dispel perceptions that KCR is being relatively soft on the BJP. There is talk of a tacit understanding between his TRS and the BJP, something KCR has denied.
Modi has praised the Telangana chief minister in parliament. The TRS also backed the NDA’s candidate for deputy speaker in Rajya Sabha, India’s upper house. K. Kavitha herself has stated that the TRS could not afford hostility with the central government, since it was not in the state’s interest to be in perpetual conflict with New Delhi.
There is absolutely no doubt that the regional parties are likely to play an important role in the next Lok Sabha elections, especially if the tally of the BJP comes down. The prospect of a leader from a regional party becoming prime minister, without support from any of the national parties, is remote, however, for the simple reason that the seats secured by all the regional parties put together will be less than the magic figure of 273.
Despite this, any Federal Front will have to overcome bickering among the regional leaders, since there are many prime minister aspirants.
While Banerjee has not clearly put forward her own prime ministerial ambitions, other members of her party have said that, given her administrative experience, and the fact that she has been in the forefront in taking on the Modi government, she should be the challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP in next year’s polls.
The Congress, which has been open to joining hands with regional parties, had categorically stated that the prime minister should be from within its own ranks. Recently however, the party has said that it is flexible on this issue.
Banerjee, who has met with Sonia Gandhi as well as the Congress president, has also made it clear that the focus should be on putting up a strong opposition — not on the opposition candidate. “Please don’t pick and choose a particular name to divide us,” Banerjee said.
Sharad Pawar, head of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), has stated that the prime minister of a hypothetical Federal Front could be decided post the election results. A former central minister, and currently the chief minister of Maharashtra, Pawar suggested the premier should come from the party with the largest number of seats. Pawar, who previously nurtured prime ministerial ambitions but has ruled himself out of the race, is an astute politician with strong links across parties.
There is a possibility of a regional leader becoming prime minister with outside support from the BJP or the Congress (there is more chance of the INC backing such an arrangement in the current scenario). Yet such an arrangement may not be stable. Neither Banerjee nor KCR (or other regional leaders) is likely to have enough seats to emerge as an undisputed leader of such a coalition. West Bengal, for instance, has 42 seats in parliament. Telangana has 16 seats in the Lok Sabha. Even the state of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest by population, has only 80 seats in Parliament.
Sharad Pawar, in an interview, summed this point up well:
Irrational thinking has no meaning in politics. There has to be rational thinking. My party will ultimately contest 30-35 seats throughout India. I may get 50 percent maximum. With that number, if anyone dreams of becoming PM of this country, he is quite away from reality.
Regional leaders would be well advised to instead come up with a cohesive agenda, especially on key policy issues pertaining to federalism and critical economic issues. They should showcase their successful welfare schemes and agricultural policies.
Politically, both the regional parties and the Congress should focus on putting up a joint fight instead of bickering over the prime minister candidate. The Congress on its part needs to be more realistic in understanding the current landscape, where its own space has diminished and the clout of the regional parties has risen significantly. It needs to pay heed to Pawar’s advice to the grand old party in the interview.
The Congress will also have to prevail upon its local units before it goes in for alliances with regional parties. In Delhi, for instance, while certain sections of the Congress have been open to an understanding with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) the local unit has fervently opposed any such tie-up.
One possible scenario the Congress should be open to is being part of a non-BJP coalition led by any of the regional leaders deemed acceptable to the national party. One of the reasons why past coalition experiments in the late 1990s failed was that the Congress supported these governments from the outside. Both regional leaders as well as the Congress will need to be more pragmatic if they are to provide an alternative narrative to that of the BJP, and give it a tough fight in next year’s election.
Politics is the art of the possible, and Indian politics has been witness to interesting coalitions in the past. Nothing can and should be ruled out.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based policy analyst associated with the OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India.