A meeting of opposition leaders from many anti-Bharatiya Janata Party parties, most of them regional forces, hosted by the veteran leader and Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar on Tuesday is being seen by political pundits as a beginning of an exercise by them to join forces to put up a more cohesive challenge to the saffron party.
The meeting participants were, however, at pains to downplay its political import, more so as such attempts of unity among regional parties have often come unstuck, and projected it as an interaction among 'like-minded people' under the aegis of Yashwant Singh's Rashtra Manch, an apolitical grouping with distinct anti-BJP views.
However, no one can overlook the fact that it was hosted by Pawar at his residence and comes close on the heels of the astute politician's recent meetings with political strategist Prashant Kishor, including one just a day before, political watchers feel.
The meeting comes against the backdrop of the Trinamool Congress handing over a crushing defeat to the BJP in West Bengal in the recent spate of assembly polls.
The BJP-led front also fared poorly in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where the alliance led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Left won respectively, and its main national rival Congress also showed no signs of revival in its fortunes as it lost to the BJP in Assam.
It also failed to impress in Kerala.
While several assembly polls are expected next year, including in key states like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab in the first few months, efforts to bring together regional forces and other non-BJP parties are mainly being seen as aimed at the next Lok Sabha elections in 2024.
With the regional parties historically putting up a much better show than the Congress against the BJP since it stormed to power at the Centre, the view that they should challenge the Modi government in a more united voice at the national level has gained momentum in the recent past.
Banerjee had written to leaders of 15 anti-BJP parties, including the Congress, seeking a more united fight against the saffron party in March, when she was busy fighting the assembly polls in her state.
Communist Party of India-Marxist's Nilotpal Basu, who attended the meeting, said they discussed governance issues like Covid management, unemployment and an alleged attack on institutions by the BJP and downplayed its political significance.
Besides Pawar, Basu and Sinha, a former BJP leader now TMC vice president, Ghanshyam Tiwari of Samajwadi Party, Jayant Chaudhary of Rashtriya Lok Dal, Omar Abdullah of National Conference, Binoy Viswam of the Communist Party of India and Sushil Gupta of the Aam Aadmi Party, several members of civil society were part of the meeting.
Even those who did not represent any political party, like famous lyricist Javed Akhtar and former diplomat K C Singh, are known for their critical views of the BJP.
While invites were sent to some Congress leaders, none of them attended, a clear signal that the main opposition party does not want to be a part of the grouping spearheaded by regional parties.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi parried questions on opposition leaders holding the meeting and efforts to form a possible third front, saying today is not the time to discuss politics.
Gandhi, who held a virtual press conference on the pandemic situation, said he wanted to focus on the COVID-19 situation and how to save the country from a potential third wave of the pandemic.
Lok Janshakti Party's Chirag Paswan, who has been himself battling challenges from within his party, on the other hand, said 'one can never say never' in terms of possibilities when he was asked whether he sees a role for himself in a grouping of various anti-BJP regional parties and Pawar seen to be working on it.
He also said 'friends' from the rival Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress alliance in Bihar have reached out to him for joining them but added that his priority is not an alliance but to deal with the political and legal battle with the rival faction on hand.
Many prominent regional parties like Shiv Sena, DMK and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, which is in power in alliance with the Congress in Jharkhand, were not part of the meeting held at Pawar's house.
Previous experiments of regional parties to form a third or fourth front to challenge the Congress, when it ruled at the Centre, have been short-lived.
Central governments headed by them in 1989, when the BJP had supported them, and then in 1996, when the Congress backed them to keep the BJP out, did not last for even two years.