One of the theories in the media about the meeting between Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar and political strategist Prashant Kishor last week is that it is the beginning of an effort to bring together a non-BJP, non-Congress third front.
According to this theory, Pawar and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee are the fulcrum of this proposed formation, with Kishor playing a key role as the strategist.
Media reports of a possible Third Front sparked angry reactions from Congress supporters on social media, many of whom called any such proposed formation a "BJP B-Team".
There's no doubt that the meeting was a significant one — it is likely to be followed up by a meeting between Pawar and Mamata Banerjee soon. The meeting also did carry an important message for the Congress, but it wasn't the beginning of a Third Front.
This article will try and answer three questions.
What is going on in the Sharad Pawar-Mamata Banerjee-Prashant Kishor space?
What is the message to the Congress?
What lies ahead?
What's Going on?
TMC's version is that Prashant Kishor went to meet Pawar as the latter had supported Banerjee during the West Bengal Assembly elections. Pawar was even supposed to come and campaign for her but had to cancel due to medical reasons.
However, Banerjee continued to have his support throughout the campaign. Kishor also met actor Shah Rukh Khan later on the same day. Khan, too, is known to have a very good equation with Mamata Banerjee.
Another meeting which took place a few days before, is important in this context — Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait came and met Banerjee in Kolkata. One of the most prominent faces of the farmers' agitation against the Narendra Modi government, Tikait had campaigned against the BJP in the Bengal elections.
These meetings reflect a sense of urgency among a section of the Opposition on the need for a united front against the BJP. The Quint spoke to multiple leaders in the TMC and NCP and not one of them said that the meeting was part of the mission to create an non-BJP, non-Congress front.
"A non-BJP front is the only mission, nothing else. That's the need of the hour," an NCP leader told The Quint.
"The Modi government has created a huge mess with its handling of the pandemic. The country cannot be made to suffer any longer. The Opposition needs to come together and take on the government. We have to do it for the people's sake," said a senior TMC leader.
What's the Message for the Congress?
The meeting should be seen as a beginning of post-pandemic politics in India, with the Centre weakening and Opposition sensing a chance. Both Pawar and Banerjee realise that this is the time to corner the Modi government but also that the Congress isn't in a position to politically capitalise on the BJP's weakness.
However, it doesn't seem that the two parties are trying for a Third Front.
The NCP is a Congress ally in Maharashtra. Both TMC and NCP, along with the Congress, are signatories to the 12-party letters to the Prime Minister during the COVID crisis.
It is clear that the two parties are far more anti-BJP than anti-Congress, unlike say parties like AAP, BSP, TRS, YSRCP and BJD. However, Pawar, Mamata and Kishor do seem to have a message for the Congress — that the job of providing a political alternative is the need of the hour and cannot wait for the Congress to sort out its leadership issues.
The ongoing tussle within the Congress, both at the national level and in a number of states such as Rajasthan and Punjab, is no doubt playing on the mind of allies like NCP and other Opposition parties like TMC.
It must be remembered that both these parties broke away from the Congress in the 1990s. This is important in two ways. First, it means that ideologically, the NCP and TMC aren't a major departure from the Congress.
Second, Banerjee and more so Pawar, still has very good equations with a number of Congress leaders. The NCP chief is known to be keeping a close watch on the tussle within the Congress. Another critical element here is Kishor, who is working with Punjab CM Captain Amarinder Singh in advisory capacity for the state elections due next year.
What Lies Ahead
Both Pawar and Banerjee are astute politicians and Kishor as a strategist is known to be completely empirical in his approach. All of them would be acutely aware that a united anti-BJP front is close to impossible without the Congress.
Just for some perspective, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress won 52 seats and was the runner-up in over 200 seats.
Even now, in around 160 seats, the Congress remains the dominant anti-BJP player. This is much more than the TMC, which is restricted to Bengal, or NCP which is restricted to Maharashtra and a few Union Territories.
Therefore, it is highly unlikely that either NCP or TMC will be trying for a non-Congress, non-BJP formation, unless of course something drastic happens within the Congress.
What's more likely is that TMC, NCP along with other parties like Shiv Sena, SP, RJD, DMK and JMM form a strong non-Congress bloc within the anti-BJP front.
The informal beginning of this bloc could be seen in the West Bengal election in which even Congress allies like RJD, JMM, NCP, DMK and Sena openly spoke out in support of Mamata Banerjee even though the Congress was opposing her in the state.
This was in addition to other parties like SP, RLD and AAP, which also voiced their support for Banerjee. The message is clear, unless the Congress gets its act together, it may have to reconcile itself to playing a supporting role in an anti-BJP coalition led by a non-Congress leader.
A lot would depend on two events coming up next year — the state elections and the presidential elections.
If Congress manages to retain Punjab and win two out of Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur and then does well in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh end of next year, no one would be able to question its leadership within the Opposition.
However, if Congress falters in the state elections and regional parties do well in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, then the Grand Old Party may have to cede more space. The Presidential elections will be extremely crucial.
The way things are going, it is quite possible that the Pawar-Banerjee axis could pitch a candidate who may appeal not just to all anti-BJP parties but also 'neutral' ones like BJD, TRS, YSRCP, BSP, AAP and SAD.
At the very least, the emergence of the TMC-NCP axis should be a wake-up call for the Congress to address the dissent and crisis within and take a call on the leadership issue.
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