Third front ambitions rise

Alternative force Teaming up of multiple power centres without a long-term relationship cannot be viable

Third front ambitions rise

After two all-but failed attempts at the Centre, the non-Congress and non-BJP parties are again hinting at capturing Delhi. The apparent failure of the two national parties – Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party – to provide any proof politically so far that the coalitions they head will come back to power at the Centre may provide enough fire power for the regional satraps with no strings attached to these parties to come together and try for another shot at the gaddi.

Since 2010, the two major parties have failed to win any election to the state Assemblies on their own (except for Congress in the small state of Uttarakhand and the Congress-led group in Kerala, that too by a slender margin of one seat each). The major states of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar – which together elect 161 out of 543 members of Lok Sabha and were once the bastion of these parties – have gone out of their fold since 2010. The failure of the two parties not just in these states but also to gain substantially in others, have fed the enthusiasm of the regional parties to attempt at alternative arrangements at the Centre. In addition, Congress is staring at the spectre of losing one of its strongest states – Andhra Pradesh (42 MPs) where the party organisation is perceived to be in a shambles after the fumble on formation of a new state of Telangana.

Unlike the past, there are two probable groupings this time, a  third front and a Federal Front, and both are making attempts at cobbling together a broad coalition. Needless to say, inner contradictions, personality and ego clashes deter one another from coming together. Hence, the possibility of two such formations further dividing the polity in different states.

The grand victories of Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and Trinamool Congress in West Bengal have raised their hopes of forming fronts led by them. SP strongman Mulayam Singh Yadav was the first to throw a hint on September 20 when he brought together leaders of the Left parties, Telugu Desam, Asom Gana Parishad and Janata Dal (Secular) against diesel price hike and foreign direct investment. On the other hand, TMC firebrand Mamata Banerjee is planning to float a Federal Front (FF) after her exit from the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA.). With less than two years to go for the Lok Sabha elections scheduled in May 2014 (if not earlier), neither SP nor TMC have so far shown any promise of  playing a catalytic role of rallying the others.

Which was what the Left did in 1996. The 1996-98 United Front (with outside support from Congress) and the 1989-1991 BJP-backed National Front experiments had in-built instability and succumbed as BJP withdrew support to the NF and Congress delivered the blow to UF (the two experiments were followed by stable governments). This time around, deterred by the dent in its numbers in 2009 LS polls and the humongous defeat it suffered in West Bengal Assembly polls in 2011, the Left may not be keen to play the anchor role it did in the past (not to speak of the 2009 poll when it projected then UP CM Mayawati as its prime ministerial candidate). Valerian Rodrigues, professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for Political Sciences, muses: “ Left played a strong role of balancing power and anchor and gave the broad spectrum that was required of an alternative at the Centre in 1996.”

No anchor

That active support from Left may be missing this time but Mulayam is making attempts at a SP-led third front although his statements are  mired in inconsistencies. After saying that a third front will come to power in the next Lok Sabha elections, two days later he changed tack to say the third front will be a reality post-LS elections. Afterall, he is now a supporter of the UPA government. Besides the Left, TDP, Asom Gana Parishad and JD (S), Mulayam is also looking at DMK of M Karunanidhi, who of late has been distancing himself from the UPA, as well as weaning away from the BJP Shiromani Akali Dal of Punjab and B S Yeddyurappa in Karnataka, who has aired plans of launching a new party.

Asked if the SP would lead a coalition, party national secretary Kamal Faruqui said: “As both Congress and BJP are losing ground fast, there has to be a third alternative in which regional parties will play an important role; SP, in particular, may have a critical role. We are governing the largest state and expanding our presence in others. third front experiments may have failed in the past, but SP is set to play a major role now.”
Mamata is aiming at forming a Federal Front consisting of Trinamool Congress, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (Patnaik  has dubbed FF proposal ‘too early’), Janata Dal (United) of Bihar CM Nitish Kumar and Sharad Yadav), Jagan Mohan Reddy of YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh and so on. There are still other parties like AIADMK led by J Jayalalitha, who is right now friends with BJD but sympathetic to the BJP, and Mayawati and Lalu Prasad of Rashtriya Janata Dal, who are currently extending outside support to the UPA.

Inherent contradictions

The inherent contradictions in many of these parties may prove a hurdle to cobbling together a united third front as an alternative to the Congress and the BJP. Mulayam and Mayawati, Mamata and the Left, DMK and AIADMK, RJD and Nitish are unlikely bedfellows not just because of their divergent ideologies but also their personal animosity for each other.

Rodrigues puts it aptly: “Today’s move is different from that of 1996 when there was a very sharp decline of the Congress, both organisationally and in terms of social base, and the rise of the BJP to new political stature.

Today, Congress is not necessarily weak organisationally, nor is its vote bank shrinking though it may not be gaining votes; similarly, the BJP too is not gaining. With Left on the backfoot electorally, there is no anchor for a third front. The two regional parties – SP and TMC – cannot play the anchor role. The idea of a third front itself is reactive and reactive thinking does not necessarily become viable nor can there be broad consensus on issues.” 

Thus, the very formation of a third front could prove a herculean task besides finding a leader to head it. If at all an alternative coalition – an assortment of regional parties in actual terms - does, indeed, form a government at the Centre, instability will be staring it in the face from day one as it may not enjoy the magic majority of 272 and will have to depend on either the Congress or the BJP for support. They can pull the rug from under the government’s feet any time even on flimsy grounds. Therein lies the test for the Indian electorate!

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Mulayam plays hide and seek

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