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The next Lok Sabha polls are still three years away, but the political heavyweights are all activated and the chessboard has already been laid out. Look at the recent Punjab visit of AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal and the meeting at Sharad Pawar’s house on 22 June along with its aftermath; it clears everything up.

Let’s discuss Kejriwal first. He has been talking about ‘alternative politics’ since the start. This slogan proved successful in the past two Delhi Assembly polls. So successful that the Congress, which ruled for 15 years, today does not have a single MLA. The BJP, which blew away all the obstacles in the Lok Sabha polls, has to be content with only eight MLAs. An income-tax-official-turned-politician, Kejriwal has now become more ambitious.

In the 2017 Punjab polls, AAP was about to win, but its leadership made a big strategic mistake. At an election rally, where a large crowd was gathered, the party projected Kejriwal as the chief ministerial candidate with great enthusiasm. A non-Sikh resident of Haryana becoming the chief minister of Punjab was not at all acceptable to the powerful Jat lobby. This time, Kejriwal has rectified that mistake. He has declared that there will be a Sikh chief minister. He has promised free electricity and better schools. He didn’t say it, but he was advocating the ‘Delhi model’.

AAP also wants to replicate its success story in Gujarat, Goa, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. In the war of political bigwigs, how far the bet of alternative politics can go is to be seen.

Now, let’s discuss the 22 June meeting. Pawar is one of India’s biggest political magnates. Once such a meeting takes place, then speculative stories were bound to start. What was the result? Barring Omar Abdullah, the presence of none other created any kind of excitement. The meeting was attended by some eminent lawyers, poets and intellectuals, but they don’t have much role in politics. The initial enthusiasm didn’t last long and was over after the meeting. On 25 June, Pawar did the rest with a statement: “No alternative political force in this country is possible without the participation of the Congress."

RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav also echoed this and said, “Without the Congress, the alternative cannot be imagined. But I would like to add this also that in the states wherever the regional parties are strong, they should be kept in the driving seat." But as far the political style of Pawar is, he does not do anything without a purpose. So, was he trying to gauge the depth of the idea of a third front?

Some data corroborate this idea. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, there was a direct contest between the BJP and the Congress on 192 seats. Apart from these, there were around 70 seats where the Congress emerged as the biggest challenger. On the remaining 281 seats, there is scope for a grand alliance of regional parties. The Bengal election is the most recent example of how these parties can unite to stop the BJP. The Congress and the Left parties had helped Mamata Banerjee by removing all her obstacles. As a result, they lost everything. Will she repay the favour in 2024?

This is the point where the Congress has some hope. In West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, there are CMs nursed and trained in the Congress. There are also new alliances in Jharkhand and Maharashtra. If these parties collaborate with the Congress under a common minimum programme, they can give a tough fight to the BJP.

However, there is a hitch. The CMs of Andhra and Telangana have been following the path of Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik. All these cut the roots from the Congress in their respective states and allowed the BJP to get stronger. They want the BJP and Congress to keep fighting with each other so that they can reap the rewards. This is why they are not very aggressive towards the Centre and they also help it when the time comes. These are the ‘fence-sitters’ who are only watching whether any anti-incumbency sets in against the BJP. If the wind becomes cold for the BJP, they will not hesitate to join hands with the Congress. If this does not happen, then the strategy of 2019 will remain in place.

In 2022, elections are to be held in seven states, including Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. Political magnates from these states will remain under observation during this election season.

All this provides the Congress with an opportunity and a challenge. The party has been failing intermittently in settling its internal disputes. Since 1989, its vote bank has been eroding continuously. But being the main opposition party, it deserves to lead the efforts for a national alternative. It remains to be seen how successful Rahul Gandhi would be to get rid of his old style.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. The views expressed are personal.

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