With barely a month to go for the next general elections, an old and familiar political animal is once again rearing its head. Last month, eleven parties, led by the mainstream communist parties CPI and CPM, came together to form a non-Congress, non-BJP ‘Third Front’. The forming of the Third Front has almost acquired a status of an election ritual by now.
In 2009, a similar front had been formed with a slightly different cast but based on similar rhetoric lack of any coherent agenda. In fact the only major change is the replacement of Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), with Mulayam Singh Yadav, the present de facto ruler of UP as the Samajvadi Party (SP) supremo.
The electorate largely ignored the Third Front then, and the constituent parties did not even pretend as a common platform post-election. Despite being largely dismissed as a non-starter by most political pundits, the coming together of fast friends and easy foes represented an important aspect of Indian politics.
The idea of a Third Front has a historical background in Jaiparkash Narayan’s Anti-Emergency movement and the Gandhi-inspired socialist movement that formed India’s primary opposition force in the post-Independence decades dominated by the Congress. The JP movement and the elections of 1977 saw the origination of a new leadership in Indian politics, one that owed its existence to the romance of the anti-Emergency movement.
After the mishap of two Janta Party governments in three years, the broad coalition split into factions and has since spawned many political parties and personalities who have shaped the very nature of Indian politics over the last three decades. The biggest winner has of course been the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), while the Gandhian-Socialist elements of the alliance have never truly been able to act like a single unit since.
Although many former JP-ites have continued to become regional powers and different combinations of them have even happened to taste power at the centre four times (V.P. Singh in 1989, Chandrashekhar in 1990, Deve Gowda in 1996 and I.K. Gujral in 1997), each experience yielded more divisions. The lack of a coherent ideology or political agenda has been only too obvious.
In fact, the only common and predictable trait that each of these parties has shown over the years is a penchant for ‘rank political opportunism’. Right from the defection of Charan Singh in the first Janta Party government, there has been a tendency to switch loyalties to suit convenience.
And so, while the heroic idealism of the post-emergency phase is long gone, three decades of experience with coalition politics has taught everyone that in the right circumstances, anyone can become a prime minister. It is this hope of being the right person at the right time that brings together the Third Front, of non-allied regional powers, every election. The only reason a party could become part of such a Front is that a viable pre-election arrangement could not be reached with any of the two major parties. The goal is to use the resulted publicity and national attention to maximise returns in their local constituencies and then come back to Delhi to stake out the best possible bargain.
Another interesting aspect of the Third Front is the constant presence of India’s mainstream communist parties, represented by the four-party alliance of the Left Front (CPI-M, CPI, Forward Bloc and Revolutionary Socialist Party or RSP). Traditionally, the Left is considered a natural ‘alternative’ to mainstream parties in most countries of the world.
That India’s communists are reduced to struggling for their regional strongholds while pretending to remain nationally relevant is a symptom of the communist movement’s ideological death, which perhaps did take place somewhere during their long and brutal stint in power in West Bengal.
The fact is that despite all the debate and scepticism (or maybe because of it), the Aam Aadmi Party is the only serious political alternative present to the Indian voter in today’s scenario. Its absence from the ‘alternative’ Third Front itself shows that the Front is not a new and energetic force of political change, but a grouping of entrenched political forces seeking to get the best out of the current system.
Once again, we are presented with an alternative that never is.