West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is leading efforts to form a Third Front of regional parties. To that end, she recently met Sonia Gandhi in Delhi and invited Congress to join the proposed ‘grand alliance’.
Mamata has mooted the idea of ‘one-to-one’ contests, implying that parties which are strong in respective states should contest against BJP in those seats, and other parties of the Front should not put up a candidate and support them wholeheartedly.
She is hoping to create a 1977 like situation when big Opposition parties contested under the common banner of the Janata Party to defeat Indira Gandhi.
Theoretically it appears to be a fantastic strategy to beat Modi in 2019. BJP just received 31 percent vote share and non-BJP parties 69 percent in 2014. The sheer arithmetic puts odds hugely in favour of such an alliance. However, it is easier said than done. And for the Congress, it is a particularly difficult decision to take.
On a pan India basis, Congress is in contention in 70 percent of seats.
- 46 percent of the seats have either a ‘direct Congress’ or ‘Congress allies vs BJP’ or ‘BJP allies contests’ (Maharashtra, Bihar, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh),
- 19 percent of the seats have a triangular Congress vs BJP vs regional party contest (Delhi, Punjab, West Bengal etc.)
- 16 percent of the seats have a BJP vs regional party contests (Uttar Pradesh, Odisha)
- 12 percent of the seats have regional parties competing against themselves (Tamil Nadu, Andhra) and
- 6 percent of the seats have Congress versus regional party contests (Kerala, Telangana)
Issues With Congress Joining a ‘Third Front’
There are significant issues with the Congress entering any such alliance with the Federal or Third Front. Here are some of these issues:
1. Risk of ceding space to regional parties as well as BJP: How will Congress leave out its claim for seats in predominantly regional, Congress vs regional and triangular contests? If Congress agrees, then it risks ceding its space to regional parties in Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. Also there is a risk of BJP latching on to this opportunity and becoming the main opposition in these states. This will create issues for the Congress when Assembly elections are held in these states in due course. In states like Kerala, if Congress agrees to a one-to-one in alliance with CPI (M), then BJP can get entry in the state.
2. Regional parties do not bring anything to the table for the Congress:The regional parties do not bring any votes to the Congress party where it is locked in direct contest with BJP in states like Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, etc. Neither Trinamool nor TDP nor other parties have any votes there. On the other hand, Congress, in all probability would be able to transfer a section of its votes to Mamata, CBN, KCR, Naveen etc.
Most of the regional parties didn’t even contest outside of their states like AIADMK, DMK, TDP, YSRCP, TRS, BJD to name a few. Only a few parties, namely TMC, SP, BSP, JDU and AAP contested outside the states in which they are in power/have influence. However, they received more than 95 percent of the votes from their stronghold states. Only AAP and BSP have some presence outside their home state as seen in table below.
3. Congress will have to lead this alliance, regional parties may not agree: The question of who will lead the alliance is a tricky one. Congress, which is a national party, would not like to be seen playing second fiddle to regional parties. It would do its perception a lot of damage, especially when Rahul Gandhi is witnessing an increase in popularity. It will be seen as the Congress party under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi not having the confidence to beat Narendra Modi. This is why Adhir Ranjan Chaudhary of Congress has asked Mamata to join a Congress-led alliance and not vice-a-versa. On the other hand, the regional satraps see Rahul as a novice and may not agree to his leadership.
4. Some regional parties can desert alliance after results in case of a hung Parliament: There is no guarantee these parties won’t flock to BJP after results if it emerges as the single largest party. TDP, TMC, TRS have all been part of NDA previously. But in order to maintain a better state and Centre relations, they might budge.
5. Congress should prefer state level strategic alliances: The Congress party should instead opt to have state-level strategic alliances where it is weak and try to replicate the model it has in Bihar with Lalu’s RJD. A similar template can be adopted in states like Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
To conclude, Congress has more to lose than to gain in agreeing to the one-to-one formula proposed by Mamata. Apart from bringing like-minded anti-Modi, anti-BJP parties on a common platform, it isn’t of much use to Congress as it has to fight a lone battle with the BJP in most seats where regional parties can’t contribute much. State level alliances will help to maintain its national party character and will serve the party better in the long run.
This article was first published on thequint.com on 6th April 2018.