The numbers that Third Front and Congress are likely to get in 2024 don't put them even with a touching distance of government. Add to this, the leadership problems that both the camps suffer from.
Can the combined Opposition stop Prime Minister Narendra Modi from winning a third successive term in the 2024 Lok Sabha election?
To answer the question, analyse the granular numbers. Not a single Opposition party, bar the Congress, can realistically hope to win, on its own, more than 30 Lok Sabha seats. Even if the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the DMK win a parliamentary landslide in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu respectively, they face a regional glass ceiling.
West Bengal has 42 Lok Sabha seats. In 2019, the TMC won 22 seats. Even the most optimistic projection, given the party’s 2021 assembly performance, will not yield the TMC more than 30 seats.
Tamil Nadu has 39 Lok Sabha seats. The DMK could conceivably expect, again based on its 2021 assembly win and the AIADMK’s faceless decline, a significant number of these parliamentary seats but not a clean sweep. Sharply different issues determine electoral outcomes in Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha polls.
For example, while Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh voted for the Congress in the November-December 2018 assembly elections, the three states voted overwhelmingly, just five months later, for the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll. In Rajasthan, the BJP won 25 out of 25 Lok Sabha seats; in MP, 28 out of 29; and in Chhattisgarh, 9 out of 11.
Apart from the TMC and the DMK, which other regional Opposition parties could add substantially to the Third Front’s numbers? The SP and BSP will test Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s popularity in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly election. But with Mayawati poised to fracture the vote and an SP-Congress alliance unlikely, the BJP stands to gain in UP in both the 2022 Vidhan Sabha and 2024 Lok Sabha polls in multi-cornered contests.
In Odisha, the BJD has increasingly lost ground to the BJP. The Left in Kerala, TRS in Telangana and YSR Congress in Andhra are either too small to make a difference or like the BJD may prefer to sit out of a Third Front in the hope of wringing financial concessions from a third-term Modi government.
That brings us to Maharashtra where the Shiv Sena has a point to prove. The state has 48 seats. If the Sena fights the 2024 Lok Sabha poll in alliance with the NCP and Congress, it could corner a substantial chunk of the state’s 48 seats in a binary battle between the three-party MVA alliance and the BJP.
The most optimistic math for the Third Front’s principal partners could therefore read: TMC: 30 seats; DMK: 25; SP: 10; Shiv Sena: 20. The total: 85 seats. Add another 50 seats among the NCP, TRS, Left, BJD, RJD and JDS. The Third Front’s likely total: 135 seats.
Enter the Congress. By allying with strong, regional partners like the Shiv Sena and NCP in Maharashtra and DMK in Tamil Nadu, the Congress will sacrifice seats in favour of the larger aim of unseating the BJP.
That, however, leaves the Congress with relatively few Lok Sabha seat pickings. Except in Punjab, Rajasthan, Kerala, Karnataka and Chhattisgarh, the Congress is a diminishing presence nationally. In the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, out of the 52 seats it won, the Congress recorded its highest tally in Kerala (15 seats). That is unlikely to be repeated.
With the Third Front garnering an estimated 135 seats and the Congress unlikely to add significantly to its 2019 tally of 52 seats, a Congress-led Third Front would fall well short of its target of 272 seats.
The BJP obviously shouldn’t be complacent. There is a clear erosion in its support base across demographics: the salaried middle-class, rural workers, a section of farmers, and migrant labourers. Job losses continue to hurt across caste, class and region.
Modi is acutely aware of this. His jumbo Union cabinet is calibrated for the 2024 Lok Sabha election with representations to SCs, OBCs, regional leaders and women.
The Shadow of Pawar
Above all this looms the shadow of NCP leader Sharad Pawar. He choreographed the formation of the MVA government and holds its remote: both the Shiv Sena and Congress know the government will fall if the NCP withdraws support. The memory of nephew Ajit Pawar’s brief dalliance at dawn with the BJP has not faded. The Pawar family is known to play Byzantine politics.
The introduction of the Cooperation Ministry, headed by Home Minister Amit Shah, therefore carries a cryptic message: the days of Congress-NC dominance over cooperatives in Maharashtra are over. As Cooperation Minister, Shah will further erode the Pawar family’s grip on cooperatives that have long served as a treasury for the NCP and Congress.
Maharashtra and Gujarat have strong cooperative movements – exemplified by Amul – but the scope of the new ministry will be especially felt in Maharashtra politics. The state has over 2,00,000 cooperative societies with more than 50 million members. They include agriculture, bank, sugar and milk cooperatives.
Cooperative banks, many owned directly or indirectly by NCP and Congress politicians, are a particularly attractive prize. With the key BMC poll due in early 2022 and the Maharashtra assembly and Lok Sabha elections in 2024, the formation of the Cooperation Ministry is a Chanakya-like move on the political chessboard.
Beyond the numbers, the Third Front has a leadership problem. The Congress, though shrunken, will obviously end up with the most number of seats among Opposition parties. In its desire to evict Modi from power, it may choose the Maharashtra model and allow a regional leader to be prime minister if the TF stitches together the numbers.
The argument in 10 Janpath is that if Deve Gowda and IK Gujral could be prime minister in an alliance supported by the Congress in 1996-98, why can’t a regional leader be prime minister in a Third Front government in 2024? The Congress can run the government by remote control and pull it down at will as it did Deve Gowda and Gujral’s United Front governments in 1996-98.
There is a slight problem though: in 1996-98, the Congress had 140 seats and could call the shots in a coalition. It no longer can.
In the quarter century since 1996, Indian politics has swung from the centre-left to the centre-right. In 1996, the 165-seat UF coalition was dominated by the Left (44 seats) and the socialist Janata Dal (46 seats) and propped up from outside by the Congress (140 seats), giving the government a comfortable majority of 305 seats before the Congress pulled it down – twice.
Since then, the Left has been decimated nationally, except in Kerala. The socialists are in retreat. The Congress, defying the national mood, has moved further left. The result: 44 and 52 seats in the last two Lok Sabha elections.
If the Congress wants to end Modi’s prime ministerial tenure, it will have to move its ideological moorings back to the centre. If it doesn’t, the Third Front experiment will end before it begins.
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