He is trying to recreate The old Third Front in a new avatar and defeat Narendra Modi in 2024.
Sharad Pawar surprised everybody when he reminded Rahul Gandhi of the 1962 China war and Congress Government’s failure to protect Indian territory. But then this is not the first time when he has backed the central Government. Neither is he the only regional satrap who has backed the Government on issues of National Security. After the all-party meeting in Delhi on 19th June, even Mamata Banerjee did that. And so did Arvind Kejriwal and Mayawati. And this is the second time in less than three months when opposition parties other than Congress have stood by Modi. Even when Rahul Gandhi was going hammer and tongs at Modi for Lockdown, Pawar supported him wholeheartedly. So why are these Opposition parties supporting Modi on Chinese incursions?
Primarily, because popular sentiment is with Modi. And these days there is always a danger of being branded as ‘Anti-National’ for opposing him. But more importantly, all these third front politicians generally, and Sharad Pawar particularly is trying to dislodge PM Modi in 2024. Or to use the reference of yesteryears, he is trying to do what Vishwanath Pratap Singh did to Rajiv Gandhi.
If you think I am crazy, won’t blame you. But have patience and read on.
Till 1989, but for a brief aberration of 1977-79, it was Congress all the way. In 1984, post Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Congress under Rajiv won a massive mandate of 414 seats. Symbolising the popularity of Gandhis and Congress hegemony. This happy picture was disturbed when the Supreme Court, in 1985 against Muslim Personal Law, decided to award alimony to a widow, Shahbano.
This led to a series of blunders by Rajiv.
1985: To please enraged Muslim clergy, he overturned the Shahbano’s Supreme Court’s judgement.
1986: Fearing backlash from Hindu Right, Rajiv unlocked the Ram Janmabhoomi gates.
1987: Moving V P Singh to Defence Ministry from Finance.
1989: Allowed VHP to perform a foundation stone laying ceremony (Shilanyas) at the Ram Janmabhoomi.
This cynical flip-flop on religious issues by Rajiv dealt a serious dent to Congress party’s credibility.
Going back to 1984, when Rajiv Gandhi began his tenure as PM, old loyalist, V P Singh was handed over Finance Ministry. Where he tried his hands at little economic reforms, but mainly was busy going after super-rich through Enforcement Directorate. Such as Lalit Thapar, Dhirubhai Ambani and Amitabh Bacchan. So draconian was V P Singh’s regime as FM, that the term ‘Raid Raj’ was invented then. Which, in hindsight, one can say was part of a bigger plan to project his anti-rich image and target Rajiv. When there was outrage over this, he was shunted out of Finance. And intriguingly, give Defence. Where he started digging defence deals, such as HDW Submarine and Bofors. And word began to spread that Gandhis got a kickback in Bofors deal. Rajiv, already under pressure from Hindu Right for bowing to Muslim clergy on Shahbano, was losing popularity.
Ultimately this struggle within the party led to the resignations of two ministers, Mufti Mohammed Sayed and Arun Singh. Rajiv forced Amitabh Bacchan to resign from his Lok Sabha Seat and ordered a probe against Ajitabh Bacchan. And finally in July 1987, expelled Arun Nehru and V P Singh from the party.
With Rajiv popularity on the wane and V P Singh, seen to be fighting rich, mighty and corrupt, it gave the much needed boost to his image. A testimony of which was, his byelection victory from Allahabad in 1988. Finally, in October 1988, by merging Jan Morcha, Lok Dal and Congress (S) he formed Janata Dal. On the backdrop of Bofors allegations, it became very popular, as a party fighting corruption. Janata Dal went on to form an alliance of like-minded regional parties (Third Front) such as DMK, TDP and Asom Gana Parishad. This was no mean achievement. But the remarkable thing what V P Singh did was, getting ideologically opposed BJP and far Left – CPM, to fight Rajiv, alongside him.
1989 was the first election where Corruption at high places occupied the biggest mind space of voters. It was mighty, all-powerful, corrupt Gandhis versus this coalition of upright Lohaities (Third Front), far-Left CPM and BJP representing Hindu Right. Jointly known as the National Front. And this ragtag alliance of parties with incoherent ideologies, in 1989 did humble mighty Rajiv Gandhi.
So how did this happen? In 1984 when Congress won the highest ever 414 seats, it secured 48.4 % votes. In 1989, this dropped by just 9 % to 39.5 %. But it lost more than 50% seats and came down to 197. This impossible looking task was achieved through once in lifetime Opposition unity. All opposition parties ensured that they will not cut each other’s vote and maximise the anger against Congress.
Sharad Pawar, just like V P Singh, is busy creating a rainbow coalition of Third Front parties with different ideologies. And he is going to have everybody, starting with ‘Hijab’ sporting Mamata to ‘Babri destroying’ Shiv Sena.
Find this farfetched? Modi is too strong?
You will be surprised to know Sharad Pawar is already practising. He has done it in Maharashtra, by creating an alliance between Congress, NCP and Shiv Sena. If fierce ideological opponents like Congress and Shiv Sena can run a Government, any compromise is possible. Power is too strong a glue! Anti-Modism is strong enough alibi for party workers who hate BJP and Modi.For most party workers power matter more than ideology.
What about voters? Well, voters only matter once in 5 years. By then, perhaps they can fall back on caste formulas to entice voters.
In the eighties, Congress represented upper-caste Hindu along with OBC and even Dalit voters to a large extent. Not to mention Mulsim vote. By raising the demand for Ram Janmabhoomi, BJP had started slicing away Mandir (Hindutva) vote. V P Singh took away the Mandal vote from Congress.
Sharad Pawar by backing Modi on issues of National Security and Corona Pandemic is ensuring he is seen the be moving away from Congress. And at the same time, he is getting ready to appropriate Modi vote. Raj Thackeray tried the same thing on a regional level when he changed his flag to Saffron. A rude reminder on a few data points at the end will be useful. When Rajiv was defeated in 1989, his vote share was 39.5 %. BJP in 2019, clocked 37.36%. Even if you consider NDA vote share, it’s 41%. From here how much upside BJP can see? Before answering that consider some more facts.
Even with Rahul Gandhi’s 27*4 comedy show, Congress vote share is not dropping below 20%. Second most of the regional players also holding on to their share. And lastly, with economic growth refusing to pick up, forget increasing vote share. Holding on the current one can be a challenge. So mathematically, it’s possible to defeat BJP. Recently, Arun Shourie mentioned this formula. It worked in 1989. Can work again. Just imagine how much, weathercock Politicians like Ram Vilas Paswan, Chandrababu Naidu, Nitish Kumar, Jyotiradiyta Scindia would love to switch again just before 2024. And by combining their old captive vote with newly acquired ‘Nationaslitic’ vote, defeat Communal BJP and Authoritarian Modi! I bet they must be salivating at the prospect.
In coming months watch out for the Third front Politicians taking more Centrist positions and supporting Modi more openly. Importantly, watch for an 80-year-old new kid on the block from Maharashtra giving one last dash to capture the Delhi throne.