The Third Front may yet to be formed, but regional leaders who want to be part of this non-BJP, non-Congress front, already fancy themselves as its consensus candidate for Prime Minister, and eventually occupy that exalted chair. They are pinning their hopes on the 2019 general elections throwing up a hung Parliament, thus paving the way for a “mishmash” government, which one of them will lead.

These regional leaders feel that since the Congress is in disarray, it may not be able to provide an alternative to the ruling National Democratic Alliance. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), with 52 members in the Lok Sabha, has only two major parties, the DMK and RJD, with it.

They think it will be a good proposition to start working on a front, sans Congress, as they stand a better chance of getting the required numbers to form government if the NDA is restricted to below 200 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha. Among the PM hopefuls are K. Chandrasekhar Rao, Mamata Banerjee, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati and even former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda. BJP allies Chandrababu Naidu and Nitish Kumar too are likely to pitch their hats in the ring if they join the Third Front.

Telangana Rashtra Samiti leader and Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao was the first to express his eagerness to form a Third Front. His call got a positive response from Trinamool Cogress leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Support also came from Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) leader Hemant Soren, AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi and even the Samajwadi Party and the DMK. 

In Andhra Pradesh, Telugu Desam Party (TDP) leader and Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu has started positioning himself in this direction. His party withdrew its two ministers from the NDA government at the Centre, though it is yet to pull out of the BJP-led alliance. Naidu, in fact, has said that he is the senior-most leader in the country to be active in politics, with more than 40 years of political experience, indicating his desire to play a role at the national level. He has also said that the regional parties need to take tough decisions to protect their interests.

His supporters say that Naidu has a vast experience of coalition politics—he was the convener of the United Front in 1996 and was also involved in the National Front, led by the Janata Dal in 1989—and, therefore, he is the most suitable person to lead the Third Front.

The Third Front talk has rekindled the hopes of former Prime Minister and Janata Dal (Secular) leader H.D. Deve Gowda, who has started dissociating its party from the Congress in Karnataka. Sources say that he is ready to play an active role in the formation of the Third Front so that he also stands a good chance to become Prime Minister once again because of his seniority and prior stint as PM.

Mamata Banerjee, of course, is among the most eager to lead the Third Front, say sources. She is contacting leaders around the country, from Tamil Nadu to Maharashtra to Uttar Pradesh, to try and bring them on a common platform. For this, sources say, she is also not averse to closing ranks with her archrival CPM. In public she has said that she is not looking for a leadership role and that she “will be helping everyone” and “coordinate with all the anti-BJP parties, so that they can work together”. But that she is one of the main initiators of the Front is obvious. She has been quoted as saying, “A super emergency is going on in the country under the (Narendra) Modi government. The TMC is not scared of anyone. We cannot be intimidated and will show the way to the country. It was from Bengal that renaissance had started.” In this effort, she has also started talking to Sharad Pawar’s NCP. Sources also say that her primary focus from now on will be on removing the Narendra Modi government from the Centre. 

Similar is the case of Uttar Pradesh, where SP leader Akhilesh Yadav and BSP leader Mayawati are working towards sinking their differences and unite against the BJP for a Third Front. The two parties have already reached an electoral understanding for byelections in the state, where the BSP has extended support to the SP candidates, but the Congress has decided to go it alone. SP leaders claim that the BJP will not be able to repeat its 2014 performance in 2019 in UP and it is they who will be the major gainers of this. If the Third Front gets the numbers, Mulayam Singh Yadav could be a consensus candidate for the PM’s post because of his seniority. BSP leaders are, however, hopeful that their Behenji will be able to return from oblivion, and post a good result in UP, thus staking a claim to the leader’s chair in a post poll scenario.

In Bihar, a cross section within Nitish Kumar’s JDU feels that withdrawing from the Grand Alliance (Mahagathbandhan) was a mistake and that the party should sever its ties with the BJP in order to become a part of the Third Front. They feel that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar stands a good chance to grab the PM’s post if the Third Front musters the required numbers after the Lok Sabha elections.

Political observers say that the Third Front experiment has hardly yielded any results in the past. The Third Front governments that were formed in the 1990s were unstable. However, this time the regional parties feel that since the “Second Front” (the UPA) hardly has any weight, they will benefit from the anti-NDA votes. They feel that if they manage to confine the NDA below 200, they will be able to form a government and the regional leader who fares the best may become Prime Minister. The Congress and other parties will have no other option but to support this combination in such a scenario in order to stop the BJP from coming to power.

The regional parties’ attempt to form a Third Front has come as a jolt to the Congress, which feels that any such alliance would split the anti-BJP votes, and, therefore, end up helping the BJP. Anticipating this scenario, Congress leader Sonia Gandhi is trying to avoid such a situation and has invited Opposition leaders for dinner on Monday, 13 March.

“Inviting Opposition leaders for the dinner is a part of Congress’ move to persuade them to align with it, rather than form a Third Front, so that the fight against the BJP is united and straight,” said sources, adding “it remains to be seen how the Opposition parties respond to this unity call”.

Political observers say that the situation may be different in case more NDA partners sever ties with the BJP. They say that in such a situation, the NDA will be a loser in some states and the UPA or the Third Front will be a gainer. Moreover, in the case of a hung Parliament, there is always the possibility of the UPA and Third Front joining hands together. They may contest separately before the elections, but there is a strong possibility that they will come together later. The issue of the PM will be decided on the basis of who gets the maximum numbers, say observers.

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