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The UP results will now set off a competition over which regional leader should lead the opposition

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The regrouping among regional parties has already begun and they are looking for an opportunity to shift gears.

The UP bypoll results have shown, once again, that satraps are not a depleted force like many would like to believe. They still have a lot of power to attract votes when they come together. This may be taken to 2019.

The talk of cross-party alliances has gained currency and political energy.

Is the time ripe for launching a federal front? Ask the regional chieftains, like West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee or her Telengana counterpart K. Chandrashekar Rao (KCR). They might say “no harm in trying”. The dream run of the BJP-led NDA in 22 states has put satraps on high alert. For the sake of survival, they now need to unite to take on the surging BJP ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

In fact, there is now a competition among these leaders about who should lead the opposition. Last week, KCR surprised everyone by announcing that he was ready to lead a third front. Within days, Mamata came forward to float a federal front. The TMC chief said, “I will be helping everyone. I will coordinate with all the anti-BJP parties, so that they can work together. This is a big fight.” Mamata followed it up by talking to DMK working president M.K. Stalin, NCP chief Sharad Pawar and others. Interestingly, Pawar began his own initiative of uniting the opposition before the beginning of the Budget session. He plans to hold a meeting in Delhi on March 27 to take it further.

Not to be left out, Congress Parliamentary Party leader Sonia Gandhi also held an impressive dinner meeting of the 20 non-BJP parties Tuesday to unite the opposition. Two new entrants were Babulal Marandi of Jharkhand and Jitan Ram Manjhi of Bihar. Being a national party, the Congress wants to lead the anti-BJP parties. It has dismissed the idea of a federal front.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley also said: “You have the so-called aspirations of a federal front, which is a tried, tested and failed idea. It has been tested in the past and it has failed every time it has come up.”

The first front, or third front or fourth front or federal front, or whatever you call it, usually surfaces when the Congress becomes weak. So, will the federal front succeed now?

Historically, this coming together of small and big opposition parties has not proved successful. The Janata Party government came in 1977, when all shades of political parties opposed to the Congress came together. This lasted for a few months. Then came the National Front experiment, supported by both the Right and the Left in 1989, but it collapsed within 18 months. The United Front in 1996 did not last for more than two years.

Since the coalition era began in 1989, regional parties have been asserting the need for stronger states. Many caste-based and identity-based parties had emerged in the eighties and nineties, including the SP, BSP, TDP, NCP, TMC, PDP etc. The United National Progressive Alliance (UNPA), a pressure group formed in 2007, collapsed because of a clash of egos between the then UP chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav and his Tamil Nadu counterpart J. Jayalalithaa.

It was the late Andhra Pradesh chief minister N.T. Rama Rao who first floated the idea of ‘Bharat desam’ in 1983, but he was ahead of times. Mamata too has been talking of a federal front for some time. While taking oath for her second term as CM on 27 May 2016, in the presence of other regional chieftains like Lalu Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party, and Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United), Mamata announced that the time had come for floating a federal front. Lalu Prasad and former Jammu & Kashmir CM Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference (NC) agreed with her.

Many say that the federal front may not take off. This is because there is no cohesion among the partners. It might even break on the question of who will lead it, with so many prime ministerial aspirants. Mamata is clear that the leadership of the front will be discussed later.

Secondly, without a common minimum programme acceptable to all constituents, it has no future. Having established their respective political fiefdoms, these satraps aspire for a greater say in policies. Bihar and Andhra Pradesh want special status; West Bengal wants more money, and so on.

Thirdly, such a front would represent no cohesion except for a greed for power. Neither the Congress nor the BJP can block the emergence of a non-Congress, non-BJP combine in the near future. But the survival of such a front will depend on the mercy of the Congress or the BJP.

Fourthly, what will be the vision of the federal front? Though some leaders like Sharad Pawar, Mamata Banerjee, KCR and Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik of the Biju Janata Dal have worked as ministers at the Centre, they have not spelt out their worldview.

Lastly, the regional parties are talking of a post-poll alliance. No one knows what will emerge from the Pandora’s box. The forthcoming assembly elections to Karnataka and Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh later this year will set the tone for the future. But the regrouping has already begun and parties are looking for an opportunity to shift gears. It has happened before and it is bound to happen again.

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  1. The last thing the opposition needs today is to replay the metaphor of crabs in a bucket. Let there be an elevated index of opposition unity, good, clean fights, no wastage or division of votes. Once the numbers are in, they will illumine the way forward.

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