On any other day, the town of Fatehabad in Haryana would be an unlikely venue for an opposition rally meant for national messaging. That wasn’t the case last Sunday, September 25, when leaders from a few parties united at Fatehabad on the invitation of Om Prakash Chautala, head of the Indian National Lok Dal.
Chautala had organised the event to mark the 109th birth anniversary of his father and former deputy prime minister Devi Lal. But the event was always going to be an opportunity for invitees to signal more than that. In the process, it showed signs of a fluid, and markedly uneasy, stage of pitching formations in the national opposition space.
It was not difficult to spot common ground, and points of divergence, among the invitees, which included Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav from the Janata Dal United and Rashtriya Janata Dal, respectively, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, and Shiromani Akali Dal leader Sukhbir Singh Badal.
Two regional parties with fledgling national ambitions – the Trinamool Congress and Telangana Rashtra Samithi – skipped the event, as did the Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal from Uttar Pradesh and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam from Tamil Nadu. Odisha chief minister and Biju Janata Dal leader Naveen Patnaik and National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah chose to send messages regretting their inability to attend. It remains unknown whether Andhra Pradesh chief minister and YSR Congress head Jagan Mohan Reddy was invited or not.
In the meantime, the INLD had decided against inviting the Aam Aadmi Party, which heads the governments in neighbouring Punjab and Delhi, because of the local consideration of what it saw as the AAP’s “anti-Haryana stand on the Sutlej-Yamuna link”. Even if the modest scale of the event and some predictable responses held the INLD back from inviting other important regional players, one omission became a key talking point.
In a cryptic reference to the proverbial elephant in the room, Nitish Kumar talked about giving the Congress a place in the formation of a larger, united, anti-Bharatiya Janata Party front for the 2024 Lok Sabha poll. In doing so, the Bihar CM batted for the need to build a “main front”, instead of exploring the idea of forming a “third front” – the oft-talked about alliance of regional and smaller parties. It also indicated that he’s seeking bipolarity in the 2024 poll, and the first step towards that is persuading potential allies to look at the upcoming election in the same way.
That, however, is a daunting task due to its scale and a variety of challenges foreseen, as much as the anxieties of numerous political actors about the unforeseen. Besides facing the twin challenges of immediate and essential political factors, the idea will also have to wrestle against the weight of history.
First, in immediate terms, some parties may find such a broad formation as running against regional equations. Others might see such a setup as restricting elbow-room for negotiations. For instance, parties like the SAD, INLD or even the CPIM grapple with such challenges of being political adversaries to the Congress in Punjab, Haryana and Kerala, while the SP in UP has burnt its fingers in the past during alliance management with the grand old party.
Second, the thought of having a national party like the Congress at the nucleus of such a front goes against the roadmap in which some emerging political forces see themselves as preempting the national alternative space against the dominant BJP in the centre. In the long term, they envisage themselves as occupants of the national challenger space and frontrunners in claiming power at the centre. In the formative years of their attempts at national presence, parties like the AAP and TMC seem swayed by this reasoning in cold-shouldering the idea of entering into a future electoral front with the Congress.
Third, the personal ambitions of leaders of the constituent parties in the proposed front may spawn its own set of anxieties on emerging as the consensus candidate for prime minister in pre- or post-poll negotiations. While it would be a hard bargain in any case, the uncertainty multiplies when the Congress gets the decisive vote in picking the face of the consensus. Regional satraps might be wary of such a scenario. As an extension, they would be suspicious about possible deal-making between anyone pushing for such an alliance and the Congress.
By exploring the possibility of such an alliance, as seen in his meeting with Congress interim chief Sonia Gandhi, Nitish would be subjected to the cynical gaze of other possible allies. What advantage does that give him in the race to be a consensus candidate in a Congress-guided alliance?
Fourth, even if it’s a pale shadow of its hegemonic presence in national politics, potential allies may be very cautious of the Congress playbook of alliance politics. While the pre-poll pacts and the Congress-led UPA government was a model of relative quiet, the outside-support model of United Front governments led by HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral in the 1990s collapsed too early. The seeds of distrust hence sown are not distant, and can constitute the weight of history in political memory.
Fifth, a very important question to be considered is how eager the Congress is about the composition of such a front. Sonia Gandhi has sought time to ponder over the question. But recent months have shown that her party has been looking for an assertion of its primacy at the national level – or at least the pivot of such an alternative – at a time when it is being written off as a national force of consequence.
More significantly, the party realises that its long spell of being written off, and with no road to recovery in sight, may mean that, in the public mind, an array of strong regional forces or smaller parties will grab the mantle as the key challenger to the BJP-led NDA. In such a backdrop, the Congress would like to look at the shape of such a front in a way that its positioning as the key national alternative isn’t diluted.
In some ways, the Fatehabad event carried a sense of irony that only Nitish, standing beside Tejashwi, could forget. In 1988, Nitish had canvassed for Lalu’s candidature as leader of the opposition in the Bihar assembly and for the position of chief minister. On both occasions, Devi Lal, as the senior leader of the erstwhile Lok Dal and later the Janata Dal, sided with Lalu’s claim. Interestingly, it was the Congress that the Lalu-Nitish-Devi Lal combine were then fighting at the centre and the state.
In the decades that followed, both Nitish in Bihar and Chautala’s INLD allied with the BJP. As a sign of shifting sands of time, if not the tide of politics, Nitish, with Lalu’s political heir Tejashwi sitting beside him, was exhorting Devi Lal’s son to get into an alliance with the Congress to counter the BJP.
The vagaries of alliance politics can spawn many ironies in its trail. These are early days in the runup to the 2024 poll, and the identifiable fragments of a broader national alternative to the incumbent are yet to emerge as an entity. Fatehabad will be one of the many ideas to emerge in the long months awaiting national politics.
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