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The third way: Is still a pipe dream, given the realities that limit regional parties

In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is. That’s the likely fate of the third front idea recently floated by Telangana chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao. In theory, a non-BJP, non-Congress national front could be cobbled together across states to fight the 2019 election under one banner. Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has expressed her enthusiasm, as have leaders like Asaduddin Owaisi.


BJP’s political dominance across the country has created unusual situations, from Bihar’s ill-fated mahagathbandhan to the Phulpur byelection, where arch rivals SP and BSP are collaborating to defeat BJP while Congress stands apart. All this has led to new speculation around an old dream – of a federal coalition heading the national government. A third front is formed by what it shuns, more than what it seeks. If 1989 saw unlikely bedfellows come together to keep Congress out, rejection of BJP’s communalism was the rationale for the United Front of 1996. No third front has existed without being propped up from the outside, by BJP or by Congress; so in practical terms it has always been a second front.

This might seem like a moment of fresh possibility with Congress having dwindled to a mere 48 MPs in Lok Sabha, barely bigger than a regional party itself. Several regional heavyweights would want to stake their own claim to prime ministership. But the picture is more complicated. In most of India’s largest states with the bulk of Lok Sabha seats, Congress is still the main opposition. In a national election it still has a deeper bench of leaders than any other party.

Moreover, in the many states where Congress is not the principal opposition, these regional parties cancel each other out. DMK and AIADMK are unlikely to be part of the same coalition, nor are the Left and Trinamool Congress. The bits and pieces of the former Janata Dal, scattered across India, have no common glue any more. Agreeing on a common leader will be a huge challenge. Right now, without a coherent narrative, the third front is merely a matter of signalling and appearances, and no threat to BJP. However, if BJP were to undertake strong polarising or autocratic actions on the basis of its current dominance, that might serve as the glue bringing opposition parties together on a common platform.

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