The meeting of the Rashtra Manch at Sharad Pawar's residence in New Delhi, June 22, 2021.
The meeting of the Rashtra Manch at Sharad Pawar's residence in New Delhi, June 22, 2021.

With the false dawn of a third front slipping into oblivion sooner than expected, it is time to analyse the nature of future political battles with a calmer mind. The loads of ill-informed conjectures produced by the electronic media would like us to believe that the veteran Sharad Pawar is naïve enough to antagonise and alienate the Congress in his quest for an alternative to the Narendra Modi regime. But Pawar is too seasoned a politician to count his chickens before they are hatched, and it is not surprising that the entire talk about his initiative to form a third front excluding the Congress turned out to be a hoax.

What happened at his residence a few days ago was a meeting of the Rashtra Manch, a group formed by Yashwant Sinha with some like-minded intellectuals which was completely misread by the media as a political plot to float a new front. Pawar offered the venue, not the concept. It was out of courtesy to a friend, Majeed Memon, that he allowed the meeting to be hosted at his residence, certainly not out of any political guile to create confusion. Pawar, after all, is not so immature as to plan a front with Javed Akhtar, Ghanshyam Tewari, Karan Thapar and Sudheendra Kulkarni instead of directly dealing with real players like Mamata Banerjee, M K Stalin, Akhilesh Yadav, Uddhav Thackeray, Tejaswi Yadav, Naveen Patnaik, Jagan Mohan Reddy, K Chandrashekar Rao and Farooq Abdullah.

Pawar doubtless has his own ambitions and doesn’t believe in forbidden political territories. It is clear that he has firmly set his sights on the 2024 parliamentary election and was willing to do whatever was possible to sew up a credible alternative. That he has engaged with election strategist Prashant Kishor also indicates that state-wise and constituency-wise data analysis is being done before finalising the future roadmap.

Every leader in the opposition understands the vitality of unity in the fight against the RSS-BJP and there is nobody better than Pawar to coordinate with the like-minded parties. Sonia Gandhi did this job effectively in the past but she isn’t willing to stretch herself anymore; her involvement with the Congress party itself is more ceremonial than functional. Insiders know that even Rahul Gandhi isn’t interested in handling this difficult task and Pawar has emerged as the consensus choice.

To presume that his enhanced role in the opposition camp is antagonistic towards the Congress is farcical. Nobody understands politics and power better than Pawar and he knows there is no point in fighting the Congress at this juncture. Even a child understands that a credible alternative to the RSS-BJP cannot be raised without the Congress. Pawar’s relations with Sonia and Rahul too have undergone a sea change; they enjoy mutual trust and are willing to work together more than ever before. Even the other key player, Mamata Banerjee, understands the importance of the Congress in the future battles and she too has perfect understanding with Sonia and Rahul.

Though the groundwork might have started, it is still too early to see the final contours of any anti-Modi front at this stage. Many critical political battles are lined up before the 2024 election, which will influence the content, nature and tenor of opposition politics. While Uttar Pradesh election is the most important of all early next year, the battles of Gujarat and Karnataka, followed by Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, will lay the route to the final confrontation. The nature of politics may completely change by then; even the extent and scope of Congress dominance will be decided only by the later part of 2023.

Under these circumstances, Pawar would be the last person to burn his bridges with the Congress. Even if a new coalition comes into being, roping in parties which are antagonistic towards the Congress, Pawar may not like to disturb his rapport with the Nehru-Gandhi family for more reasons than one. While the future of Maharashtra government rests on this relationship, it is unthinkable for any leader to presume that a Prime Minister of any non-BJP coalition can be selected without the consent of Sonia and Rahul.

The natural course for Pawar is to forge solidarities among anti-BJP parties, not to trigger newer fault lines. Expect Pawar to act like the human aggregator, not a demolisher. And the Congress leadership too understands how delicate the task of coalition making is, so full of snares and pitfalls, and hence would like to step back a little and let somebody like Pawar to play a larger role.

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