Third Front, once again?

Bengaluru: Newly sworn-in Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy, Andhra Pradesh CM N Chandrababu Naidu, AICC President Rahul Gandhi, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Mayawati and Congress leader Sonia Gandhi wave after t

Of all the forms of government, democracies alone make possible the free play of political energies, of multiple imaginations, of small windows of opportunities expanding to larger universes, and creative use of mundane politics to push interesting agendas. Democracies are diverse, thus providing a platform for the most corrupt and the most opportunistic, but at the same time providing a space where a society’s core sense of ethics pushes itself up insistently, time and again.

Periodic elections embody the hope of collective renewal. In India, of course, the popular image of elections is inextricably tied to money or other material benefits that are extended by parties to voters. Low voter turn-out is a symptom of a broad, widely shared disillusionment with parties, politics and elections.

Despite all this, recent developments in Karnataka marked a watershed in Indian politics. H D Kumaraswamy’s appointment as chief minister of Karnataka was widely represented as not just a one state event but as the coming into being of a unified challenge to the BJP.

When Congress’s central leaders and several regional leaders raised their hands in a show of unity, it was an unusual moment, a shot in the arm for a demoralised Congress, a signal of hope for all parties opposed to the BJP regime and of the sturdiness of institutional safety valves, in this case, the Supreme Court. Our sense of realism prevents us from reading too much into it, and time and again it has been seen how fragile and runny is the glue that occasionally brings together a united progressive political coalition in India.

It is at this moment that we should probably be asking, can a national political platform be forged only on the basis of being a secular platform? There are too many cracks in that idea. Rahul Gandhi’s recent multiple temple visits in Karnataka have been seen to be at odds with the Congress’s so-called secularist position.

Parties, of course, play to ground realities. And therefore, one could ask, in practical terms, what would it take to write over the deepening communal fissures created by the politics of polarisation? But, did the Congress have this political capacity before the Hindutva script had been writ large on Indian politics?

To recollect, the Shah Bano case had been a defining moment for the Congress’ overall position on secularism, and the party has since then not come up with any alternative, creative formula on this issue. Therefore, while indeed the formation of a secular front has deeply symbolic significance in the current political scenario, the question would be, can this symbolism provide a framework of unified and practical politics?

The issue of Uniform Civil Code was brought back by the BJP after it came to power in 2014. The debates that re-emerged, particularly in the context of the mandate given to the Law Commission to come up with a report on UCC, and the political stalemate that followed, highlighted again that political parties in power might indeed find it difficult to make a defined commitment to the enactment and implementation of the UCC. The draft UCC, presented by a Citizens’ Group in October 2017, underlined that the most radical and creative impulses in India today emerge from civil society, rather than from politics.

In this context, one should take note of the recent remarks made by Prakash Karat in an editorial in the CPM organ People’s Democracy. Rightly cautioning that electoral tactics may not be sufficient to counter the BJP’s hegemony, Karat draws attention to multiple struggles on social and economic issues, which reflect popular discontent with the BJP, and which, Karat underlines, need to be garnered to provide an effective oppositional challenge.

What Karat did not point out, however, is indeed that politics — the mundane, the manipulative, the vote-gathering and the power-sharing — by and large remains unconnected to social movements on the ground. Such movements may attain great public visibility, such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan, or may be embedded in the invisible everyday business of grassroots organisations.

We see the latter all the time, local groups in city slums engaged with issues of water, land, sanitation, local trade unions struggling to organise informal workers in different sectors, lawyers’ collectives defending the rights of poor people against encroachment on their land, or environmentalists organising to save lakes. Whether big or small, these issues are never systematically the mandates of any political party.

State-enacted laws occasionally reflect public opinion on specific issues. But, for the most part, the fight for the implementation of social justice, economic rights, legal claims, are in the domain of the everyday work of countless grassroots organisations in rural and urban spaces.

Whether or not they can be defined as social movements, these are inevitably efforts to collectively defend the interests of the powerless vis-a-vis the capital-state combine and rigid social hierarchies. While parties remain distanced from these every day struggles, societal associations, in their turn, may work with the government of the day for resources and support, but remain self-consciously apolitical.

To harness the energy located in social movements would be the greatest challenge for a progressive political coalition. Such a coalition would not only have to be in tune with the substantive issues that social movements are engaged with, but also evolve a formula to bring together a diverse and fragmented universe of social movements.

The fragile unity of a Third Front is frequently criticised for coming apart too soon. And there is no doubt that changing electoral alliances offer only recurring political quicksands. On the other hand, the task of deepening a political coalition to include plural constituencies, many of which challenge, explicitly or otherwise, the very foundations of the capital-state combine framed by a rigid caste and gender hegemony, is possibly more formidable, if not threatening. In that context, it is easier for parties to somehow keep the applecart together, even as it wobbles in shifting sands underneath.

(The writer is a professor at Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru)

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