New Delhi: Are we going to see a United Front-like government at the Centre? At least the Congress party thinks so. And, perhaps, this is why it has stepped up efforts to bring all regional parties – even those which are inimical to the grand-old party – under a common umbrella.
With party leaders making it amply clear that their central motivation would be to have a non-Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre, and that they would not hesitate to relinquish the prime minister’s chair for that, it is likely that it would make hectic attempts to unite diverse opposition forces in the next few days.
The long-drawn parliamentary polls ends on May 19. Ahead of that, Congress leaders in multiple interactions to the press have said that the BJP is not coming back to power. At the same time, they have stayed clear of answering whether or not they will form the government.
On Thursday, senior leader Ghulam Nabi Azad told reporters in Shimla that his party could offer the prime minister’s post to a regional party in case the numbers are stacked against it – and the idea is to deny Narendra Modi a second term.
“My party high command has already made it clear that the Congress is not averse to making a leader from any regional party the prime minister,” he said.
His statement came after a day after he had said in Patna that Congress will not create a roadblock in the talks if the top post is not offered to it.
In an interview to The Wire, Congress president Rahul Gandhi said that a coalition government is likely to be formed at the Centre.
Their statements almost coincided with reports indicating that former party president Sonia Gandhi threw herself in the ring to lead talks with regional parties. It is said that Sonia and some other leaders nominated by her have reached out to unlikely partners – more specifically Jagan Mohan Reddy’s YSR Congress, K. Chandrashekar Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), and Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal.
Apart from those who are already part of either the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance or BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, these three political parties have historically opposed the Congress in their respective states. Late last year, when most opposition parties came together to oppose the Modi government on different platforms and held multiple rallies, these three were the outliers.
Amidst the talk of opposition unity that included the Congress, Rao spoke about an anti-BJP, anti-Congress “Federal Front”. Of late, he has tried to initiate discussions with other regional leaders. YSR Congress has already said that it will back Rao.
Naveen Patnaik, on the other hand, has maintained that he will stick to its policy of equidistance from both national parties. However, in crucial parliamentary decisions, BJD has directly or indirectly supported the Modi government. BJD leaders, however, say that an equidistant policy means that their support or opposition to the Centre will be on a case-to-case basis.
As a result, BJP too has been quite contained in its criticism against these parties during the election campaign. Analysts believe that the saffron party will likely have to seek support from the trio in case of a hung outcome in the polls.
Against this backdrop, Congress’s efforts to reach out to them marks a new beginning. Both the TRS and YSR Congress are backed by a significant section of minorities. Similarly, almost a decade back, the BJD has pulled out of the NDA after the Sangh parivar was seen as fuelling anti-Christian riots in Kandhamal. In addition, the BJP has emerged as the biggest challenger to the BJD in Odisha.
Thus, the Congress hopes that the three parties will prefer a secular formation instead of BJP-led one.
Other unallied regional parties like the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC), N. Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP), Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party(SP) – all of whom are likely to win a significant share of seats – will likely support an opposition coalition. Parties like the Aam Aadmi Party and the Left Front will follow suit too, making a coalition government possible.
Of course, denying the BJP another term by stitching up a broad alliance is easier said than done. The thought assumes multiple things.
One, that the NDA will fall substantially short of majority. Two, the Congress increases its tally from 44 in 2014 to more than 120 in 2019.
Three, the regional parties successfully resolve their mutual differences to have a non-BJP government at the Centre. This would mean that both TRS and YSR Congress will have to come under a common platform with the TDP. Or, BJD will have to ally with Congress, its principal rival in Odisha for decades. It may so happen that some of these parties could prioritise their regional considerations over national.
And finally, and most crucially, the coalition of parties arrive at a consensus on its leader without the prime ministerial ambitions of many regional leaders clashing.
Yet, talks are on. And may also fructify. Undeniably, the regional parties will have a crucial role to play.
Naidu, who steered the United Front government back in the 1990s and was the NDA convenor during the Vajpayee government, has already been working to have an opposition meeting soon after the last phase of polls.
With the Congress having joined him as an able ally, the opposition may eventually put down some triumphant cards on the table.