Explained: Why the opposition met at Sharad Pawar’s home, and where Prashant Kishor fits in

The political excitement around an opposition gathering was triggered on Monday after the Rashtra Manch called the meeting of some leaders at Sharad Pawar’s home. Who are the Rashtra Manch, and what was the significance of the meeting?

The political buzz about the formation of a third front is back. While talk of a third front has been recurrent; the key difference this time is that NCP supremo Sharad Pawar, one of the sharpest and most experienced leaders in Indian politics, is being seen as playing a role.

While the veteran leader has been a close ally of the Congress for the last nearly two decades, no member of the Congress was present at the meeting that took place at his residence in New Delhi on Tuesday (June 22).

The political excitement around an opposition gathering was triggered on Monday (June 21) after the Rashtra Manch — a cross-party platform that was launched in 2018 as a political action group — called the meeting of some opposition leaders at Pawar’s home.

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Who are the Rashtra Manch?

The Manch was originally the brainchild of senior Congress leader Manish Tewari and former diplomat K C Singh. The idea was given formal shape and developed into a platform by them — along with the likes of former Union Minister and former BJP leader Yashwant Sinha (now with the Trinamool Congress), former JD(U) leader Pavan Varma, and former Trinamool leader Dinesh Trivedi (now with the BJP) towards the end of 2017.

The initial idea was to set up a platform to bring together eminent personalities like writers, artists, trade union leaders, and journalists, who shared the idea of India as espoused by these leaders, and who were not part of any organised political structure.

The political action group was formally launched in January 2018. At the launch event, the Congress was represented by former Union Minister Renuka Chowdhury.

The event was also attended by Trivedi, Varma, NCP MP Majeed Memon, Aam Aadmi Party MP Sanjay Singh, former Gujarat Chief Minister Suresh Mehta, RLD leader Jayant Chaudhary, and former Union Ministers Som Pal, Harmohan Dhawan, and Shatrughan Sinha.

Yashwant Sinha had said at the time that the Rashtra Manch would be a non-party political action group, which would not be against any particular party, but would work to highlight national issues.

So what has the Rashtra Manch done since then?

The group has been trying to rally anti-BJP voices. Its members used to meet at the late former Union Minister Kamal Morarka’s residence in Delhi. Many non-political figures like Professor Arun Kumar were part of the Manch’s deliberations.

In January 2020, Sinha embarked on a Gandhi Shanti Yatra under the banner of the Rashtra Manch to protest against the CAA and proposed NRC. In March 2021, Sinha, who had snapped ties with the BJP, joined the Trinamool ahead of the West Bengal Assembly elections.

Following her crushing defeat of the BJP in the elections, Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee gave a call for a federal front. A similar idea had been mooted earlier by TRS chief and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao. Rao, popularly known as KCR, had met Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik in 2018, but the talks had not led to much, and the parties had contested the 2019 Lok Sabha elections on their own.

The 2019 victory of the BJP left the opposition shocked — many still remain in a daze. Fence-sitters and proponents of the third front like KCR went silent, and at times even supported the BJP in Parliament on key legislation. The original proponents of the third front, the Left parties, seemed no longer keen to take that road again.

What then is the significance of Tuesday’s meeting?

The excitement has been mostly on account of the arrival of Sharad Pawar on the scene, whose NCP had been part of the Congress-led UPA, and which now shares power with the Congress and Shiv Sena in Maharashtra.

Following the meeting of the Manch on Tuesday evening, NCP leader Majeed Memon denied that Pawar had “convened” the meeting, even though he had hosted it.

Memon also claimed that suggestions that the meeting was an effort to rally anti-BJP forces while specifically excluding the Congress, were “unfounded”.

While there are indeed some rumblings within the Maha Vikas Aghadi coalition government in Maharashtra, where does the Rashtra Manch fit in?

Several political observers said it could have been an attempt to test the waters — and send a signal to both the Congress and the BJP. The Rashtra Manch has so far limited itself to occasional meetings of its members for political ideation — and putting it in front for this meeting provides a cover in case the plan does not take off.

Many opposition leaders have long complained that the Congress is unable to provide the leadership that is required for any concerted effort to take on the BJP. So is this move intended to shake the Congress out of its slumber?

Some opposition leaders have been of the view that non-Congress parties that are opposed to the BJP should join hands without waiting for the Congress to take the initiative. They believe the Congress can join the grouping if it wants.

This, however, throws up the question of leadership. The Left parties believe that a non-BJP formation will not be viable without the Congress, which has a pan Indian presence. Pawar’s decision to host a meeting of the Rashtra Manch with some opposition leaders in attendance is perhaps an attempt to gauge the political mood.

Pawar’s presence is significant, and provides heft to the meeting. He is India’s seniormost active opposition politician. He has good equations with most leaders across the spectrum. He can be seen as a credible challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, given his vast administrative and political experience. Age, however, is not on Pawar’s side — he is 80 already, and will be 83 by the time of the next Lok Sabha elections.

Even so, some opposition leaders believe he can play the role of the sheet anchor to rally anti-BJP parties together, leaving the contentious and tricky question of leadership to after the elections, should the situation arise.

The issue of seat sharing and seat adjustments among the parties is also tricky. But most leaders believe that the first step would be to bring parties together on one platform.

Where does Prashant Kishor fit in?

Prashant Kishor is riding high after the victory of Mamata Banerjee, whose re-election campaign he managed. He is close to Punjab Chief Minister and Congress veteran Capt Amarinder Singh. He has handled the campaigns of DMK and YSRCP, and he has lines of communication open with both M K Stalin and Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy.

What Kishor lacks is political stature. He is, after all, a backroom operator. But once Pawar lends his weight to a Kishor operation, that handicap is more than addressed.

Kishor has met Pawar twice in the last two weeks. It is not clear what they discussed — however, Pawar’s decision to host a meeting of the Rashtra Manch came the day Kishor met him for the second time.

Publicly, Kishor has distanced himself from Tuesday’s meeting and possible attempts to forge a third front. He was close to Rahul Gandhi at one point, and had managed the Congress’s campaign in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections.

Does the Congress have anything to gain from the creation of such a front?

The Congress has nothing to gain. In fact, the narrative that the party is not able to lead the opposition, leaving some parties to explore the option of forming a third front, is bad optics for the Congress.

The fact remains that many parties will find it difficult to do business with the Congress, given the situation in their own state strongholds — the AAP, TRS, Akali Dal, and BJD for example, are all rivals of the Congress at the state level. Some others like the SP and BSP would prefer to keep a distance from the Congress.

Congress leaders argue that a third front experiment is doomed to fail — and that an opposition front sans the Congress is unviable. They believe that wider opposition unity is possible, but only with the Congress in the lead. However, state-level equations being what they are, it is difficult to imagine how seat-sharing for Lok Sabha elections can work.

Should the likes of Banerjee, Pawar, Arvind Kejriwal and say, even Naveen Patnaik and Uddhav Thackeray join hands, it will be bad news for the Congress.

The complex opposition landscape, and the pulls and pressures of regional parties have often hampered the formation of a credible third front in the past; the same reasons will likely come in the way of an anti-BJP coalition emerging.

An attempt by Pawar — if he indeed makes one — will be the beginning of a fascinating phase in opposition politics.

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