The Congress has recently started making preliminary efforts to unite parties in opposition to revive the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to take on the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections next year. There was a meeting of the representatives of the allies with UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi. However, Trinamool Congress chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has a different idea. She too is for uniting the parties in opposition to fight the BJP, but not in the UPA fashion. She is working to set up a ‘federal front’. In the last few days she has met leaders of the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the National Conference (NC), the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and BJP’s estranged ally Shiv Sena in Delhi to build the federal front. She has also met Sonia Gandhi.
Mamata Banerjee’s idea of a federal front is strikingly different from the UPA Sonia Gandhi is trying to revive. The federal front puts all the partners, including the Congress, on an equal footing, whereas the UPA wants the Congress in the lead role. Mamata’s contention is that even though the Congress has an all-India base, it is individually strong only in some states. For instance, the Congress is strong in Karnataka. But in UP and Bihar it is not; in those states, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal are strong. In Andhra Pradesh the Telugu Desam Party, in Telengana, the Telengana Rashtra Samiti, in Odisha the Biju Janata Dal, in Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party and in West Bengal her own party, the Trinamool Congress is strong. What Mamata envisages is a one-to-one fight against the BJP by each party in their places of strength, with the other parties supporting it. In Karnataka where the Congress is strong, she says, it will fight the BJP one on one, with the other parties supporting it.
Mamata’s federal front expects the Congress to give greater space to regional parties – to “sacrifice” its interests for the “larger cause” of defeating the BJP in 2019. In the material sense, it asks the Congress to support the regional parties in their strongholds by not fielding their candidates. In the states like Karnataka, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, which are largely bipolar, the Congress would be supported by the other parties of the federal front. The success of the federal front in every state is expected from the pooling of non-BJP votes. Mamata’s call is for a “state-wise strategy” to defeat the BJP. She has attributed the Congress failure to defeat the BJP in the recent state elections to its reluctance to sufficiently acknowledge the clout of regional parties and to involve “secular” players in the campaign.
Mamata, and the leaders of the regional parties who are backing her idea, have agreement with the Congress on two points: One, the parties in opposition have to fight the BJP unitedly. Second, an opposition line-up minus the Congress is not feasible. However, after that comes the divergence: Mamata wants the Congress to be a ‘part’ of the federal front – that is, one of the members of the front – whereas the Congress would like to be the leader of the front. Leaders of the regional parties, such as Lalu Prasad of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, would not ask the Congress to leave all the seats for the RJD in the 2019 elections in Bihar, even though they might be happy about it. Prasad says an alternative front could not be floated without involving the Congress, which is the principal opposition party.
For the federal front to take a strong shape therefore, first the Congress has to agree to sacrifice its interests in some seats in order to achieve the higher cause of removing the BJP from power. Secondly, even if it happens, pooling of all anti-BJP votes might not work. It might not always be possible for a party to transfer all its votes to the candidate of another party. Thirdly, the arithmetic of pooling can work only if the voters are really disenchanted with the Modi government. In UP Assembly elections, 2017, the Samajwadi Party and the Congress pooled their votes together, yet they lost and their vote shares declined. Much therefore depends on people’s mood and not just pooling of opposition votes. Thirdly, a federal front might not find it easy to present a very appealing national agenda to the people. Fourthly, Mamata’s federal front might probably work in state elections. But in Lok Sabha elections, people vote for the next prime minister. The federal front would have to project a leader as prime minister candidate.