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Third Rate Front?


Come election time and a non-BJP, non-Congress alliance of parties materializes out of thin air. KS Narayanan looks at their prospects and ability to play king maker
K S NARAYANAN | Issue Dated: February 23, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : Third Front | Samajwadi Party | JD(U) | AIADMK | AGP | Jharkhand Vikas Morcha | JD(S) | BJD |

This is a political phenomenon that crops up every five years. A non-Congress, non-BJP combination of Third Front political parties which make noises before the elections and once counting begins are no longer in the reckoning because of simple democratic arithmetic: there can be no such front unless backed by the Congress or BJP because they do not have the numbers in the Lok Sabha. With the official announcement of the 2014 General Elections expected later this month, the air is thick with anticipation. Even as the principal political blocks led by Congress and the BJP are already on the campaign trail, girdling up their loins for the desperate battle ahead, the usual specter of a Third Front is making its presence felt.

The Third Front has been a regular phenomenon for more than two decades now. In the years after Independence it began as a non-Congress front – there was no other party then in any case. With the BJP emerging as a counter pole to the Congress, it has now become a non-Congress, non-BJP front. But the pattern repeats itself; once election results are out, leaders of this so-called Third Front begin bargaining for self and the idea slowly dissolves itself into nothingness.

In what could be the final step towards the formation of yet another formation, 11 political parties last fortnight decided to work as one block on a ‘common agenda’ in the Parliament. “This is the first step after the October 23 meeting. We are aligning non-Congress, non-BJP parties in both houses,” JD-U chief Sharad Yadav said at a joint press conference after a meeting of these parties. The block includes four Left parties, Samajwadi Party, JD(U), AIADMK, AGP, Jharkhand Vikas Morcha, JD(S) and BJD, which attended an anti-communalism convention in New Delhi in October last year. Currently, these parties total up to 92 Lok Sabha seats in the house of 543.

From indications available, an anti-incumbency wave against scam-ridden UPA II coupled with its decision paralysis and high inflation is likely to boost electoral prospects of many regional satraps in Lok Sabha in 2014 compared to their performance in 2009, if opinion polls are to be widely believed.

Another equally significant milestone in the formation of such an alliance came when Tamil Nadu chief minister and AIADMK supremo J. Jayalalithaa and CPI leaders A. B. Bardhan and Sudhakar Reddy decided on February 5 to contest together in this year’s Lok Sabha elections. The decision is seen as a dampener for both BJP and Congress since Jayalalithaa is perceived as one of the game-changers in the general elections. The Tamil Nadu chief minister kept a target in mind - a clean sweep of all 39 Lok Sabha seats in her state.

At present, AIADMK has nine members in the Lok Sabha. The BJP has already announced its decision to go with Vaiko-led MDMK in the southern state. “AIADMK and CPI have decided to enter into an alliance to face the upcoming Lok Sabha elections together,” Jayalalithaa, who was flanked by Bardhan and Reddy, told reporters at her residence in Chennai. Reddy, the CPI general secretary, added the alliance is a secular and democratic alternative in this year’s general elections.

Regional satraps are now openly flexing their muscles. The AIADMK tie up comes after Samajwadi Party (SP) supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav, at a party function in Lucknow, urged workers to ensure that their party gets a bigger role at the Centre. “We have won over Lucknow. It’s Delhi’s turn now,’’ he said amidst resounding cheers. For good measure he added that the SP will play a crucial role in government formation at Delhi.”

Working to get an alliance like this into place is who else - CPI (M) general secretary Prakash Karat - who met Odisha chief minister and BJD chief Naveen Patnaik. Patnaik, who broke an alliance with the BJP in 2009, is maintaining equal distance from the two main national parties. Karat had earlier also met Jayalalithaa.

In Karnataka, JD(S) president and former Prime Minister H. D Deve Gowda said he was in contact with Mulayam, Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee. A formal Third Front will be forged before the Lok Sabha elections, he said.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and his Bengal counterpart have been talking about the need of a non-Congress, non-BJP alliance. In case of Nitish it is predicted he will fare poorly on his home turf. Mamata, while launching Trinamool Congress’ Lok Sabha campaign, had appealed to the voters to give her all the 42 seats in Bengal for bringing a change in Delhi. Yet another PM contender?

In Andhra Pradesh, CPI(M) is looking at Jaganmohan-led YSR Congress as a potential ally, though Reddy has pledged support to Narendra Modi. While noting that TDP’s Chandrababu Naidu was inching towards BJP, Karat had said he considered Jagan’s party as an ‘opposition, secular party’.

Is the Third Front a reality? Can it provide an alternative to the non-Congress-non-BJP political formation or is it a Trojan Horse propped up by the Congress to counter the impact of BJP and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi? Will it support or take the help of Congress in government formation?

As in the past the Third Front this time too is wrought with the problem of more than one prime ministerial contender. In December, the AIADMK announced that it would like to see party chief and Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa become the country’s prime minister.

While Jayalalithaa’s tie up with Left parties defies explanation, one thing is clear – Amma is no longer coy about her personal ambitions.

She is not alone either. After the Muzzafarnagar riots, SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav has had a handful of troubles to cope with. On December 29, 2013, RJD leader Lalu Prasad Yadav visited the riot-hit district and blamed the ruling SP for the plight of Muslims. A rattled SP supremo has since then been pleading with the people to make him the PM. “I am asking you for the last time to forgive me for our mistakes and make me the PM,” he was quoted as saying twice, once in Saifai, his native village, and the other time in Lucknow.

Another moot question: can such a front be united after elections; united enough to keep the BJP and Congress out of power? Also with around 90 odd seats in the current Lok Sabha, how much more can they push their prospects?

While it is true that most political parties prefer expediency to ideology, that has its limits. For instance Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool and Mayawati’s BSP cannot be counted as part of Third Front and will never be a part of it since their arch political rivals Left and Mulayam Singh Yadav are already there.

Is such a front limited to stopping a BJP government at the centre? So far from the action and words of the prominent leaders this is what it seems to be shaping up for. Two factors can be drummed up in support of this argument. The UPA I and UPA II government survived thanks to unstinting support of SP and Janata Dal (Secular). After the BJP withdrew support from his government, Nitish Kumar has survived in office thanks to unconditional support of four Congress legislators in the state.

The BJP has dismissed Third Front speculation saying such a configuration would neither have ‘ideological coherence’ nor a ‘large political nucleus which could provide stability to it.’ Any talk on the Third Front would only help the formation of a Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre, leader of proposition in Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, asserts.

If the Third Front experiment worked in 1989 and 1996 for a short period why cannot it work in 2014 for a longer period? Political scientists are not optimistic. “Power sharing is what brings these parties together, but it also results in the constituents fighting each other,” says Badri Narayan, social historian and cultural anthropologist, currently Professor at the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad. Noting that ‘there is no ideology and common policy’ guiding these parties, he felt ‘they also lack long-term focus’. (See interview)

Also for any political front to be effective it needs to have clarity on principles and an economic vision. The Third Front is yet to open its mind on these two twin pillars of political formation. It would also be incumbent upon such a front to spell out how it is different from the Congress and the BJP.

How will such a third front government fare in the matter of governance? Squabbling regional parties are not likely to let a large party in power take bold decisions. Large parties supporting a prime minister with few MPs will always look for a chance to bring down the government.

So is India headed towards another round of policy paralysis and the impending danger of another general election? “The results will be mixed. On the non-economic side, the front may be able to achieve commendable results. But on the economic side, the driving force is likely to be populism, and the nation will slowly descend into economic difficulty. Finally, when the front completes its full term, an economic crisis could emerge”, observes P V Rajeev, former economic adviser to the Government of India. Alarmingly, he has a point there.

The only thing that can be said against a mixed poll verdict is the immediate history of the last decade-and-a-half where beginning 1999 with Atal Behari Vajpayee, poll results have produced a single largest party which has gone on to make a government and serve a full term. That, happily, is good precedent.

  ‘Third Front is a reality’

Academic Badri Narayan Tiwari, G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad, talks to TSI. Excerpts from the interview

Is a Third Front in the offing?
Yes, Third Front is in the offing. It will emerge as a result of the space which will be created if Congress and BJP do not get a majority.
For the last two decades this front appears and disappears at regular intervals whenever the General Elections are announced. Is it a mirage?
Third Front is not a political mirage. It is a political moment produced out of the vacancy caused by insufficient majorities to BJP and Congress. It does not have any long term political ambition or ideology. There is no durability but it facilitates in power sharing.

Third Front began as a non-Congress front, later it transformed into a non-BJP front. Now it’s ire is targeted at Narendra Modi. Will it succeed in stopping him?
Third Front is an etc in democratic politics. Sometimes this etc becomes important. Poll surveys show that the ‘others’ which may morph into Third Front are getting more seats than UPA and NDA because they are a combination of regional political parties and have influence at the local level.

Why has it failed so far?
The parties who gather in the Third Front come together only for power sharing. They do not have similar or overlapping political ideology and political goals. Most leaders and parties have personal ambitions which clash with each other. That is why they cannot stay together on a long term basis.

Third Front is not fighting state assembly elections.
The parties comprising Third Front are mostly regional parties in UP, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and so on. None of them has any base in Gujarat or any BJP-ruled state like MP or Rajasthan where they can fight against BJP.

Let us assume in case of a hung parliament Third Front emerges and forms the government. How will it impact the politics, governance and economy?
In that case the government will be unstable and short lived and the consequences like corruption and mismanagement will follow. But we will not be able to stop it since democracy provides space for them.

What is the ground situation in Uttar Pradesh? In your assessment how many seats will BJP, BSP, SP and Congress win in the Lok Sabha polls?
BJP: 20 to 30; BSP: 20 to 25; SP around 15; Congress around 15.

Now that Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is aggressively taking on both BJP and Congress, does it leave any political space for Third Front to capture votes?
AAP is emerging as a big regional party whose nucleus is in Delhi. They are based in Delhi. It will not be successful all over the country but only in the historic Kurukshetra area which contains Delhi, Haryana, HP, and a few seats will come to them from her and there.


  Experiments that failed

The Third Front does not have a particularly distinguished record in Indian politics. A bird eye’s look at their history:

March 1977 — JULY 1979: Morarji Desai became head of the first non-Congress government and prime minister of India, bringing Indira Gandhi’s emergency to an end in 1977. He was PM till 1979 when his government collapsed and the coalition broke. Socialists and secular Janta Party politicians shared an aversion to the Hindu nationalist agenda of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose members included Atal Behari Vajpayee, L K Advani and other leaders. Deputy PM Charan Singh raised the issue of dual membership of some senior ministers like Atal Behari Vajpayee and LK Advani who were also members of the Jan Sangh, precursor to BJP. Desai remained unperturbed and in 1979, Singh pulled out of the government forcing Desai to quit.

DEC 1989 — NOV 1990: Union finance minister VP Singh, who had quit the Rajiv Gandhi government in the wake of Bofors scandal, united the entire spectrum of anti- Cong parties and forged the National Front with additional support from BJP and Left parties. Together with  associates Arun Nehru and Arif Mohammad Khan, Singh floated an opposition party, Jan Morcha. A federation of the Janata Dal with various regional parties including the DMK, TDP, and AGP, came into being, called the National Front, with V. P. Singh as convener, N. T. Rama Rao as president and P. Upendra as general secretary. The National Front came to power in 1989 after the Lok Sabha polls and Singh became PM. The BJP pushed its own agenda, the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation, which served as a rallying cry for several radical Hindu organisations. Party president, L. K. Advani, with Pramod Mahajan as aide, toured the northern states on a rath yatra – a bus converted to look like a mythical chariot – with the intention of drumming up support. Before he could reach the disputed site at Ayodhya, he was arrested on Singh”s orders at Samastipur on charges of disturbing peace and fomenting communal tension. The kar-seva (demolition of the mosque and construction of the temple) proposed by Advani on 30 October 1990 was prevented by stationing troops at the site. This led to the BJP’s suspension of support to the National Front government. This experiment too lasted less than a year.

JULY 1979 —JAN 1980 : President Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy appointed Charan Singh as prime minister of a minority government on the strength of 64 MPs, calling upon him to form a new government and prove his majority. The departure of Desai and Jan Sangh had considerably diminished Janta Party’s majority and numerous Janta MPs refused to support Charan Singh. MPs loyal to Jagjivan Ram withdrew as did former allies such as the DMK, Shiromani Akali Dal and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Desperately seeking a majority, Charan Singh even sought to negotiate with Congress (I), which refused. After three weeks in office, Charan Singh resigned. With no other political party in a position to establish a majority government, President Reddy dissolved the Parliament and called fresh elections.

NOV 1990 — JUNE 1991:  Chandra Shekhar immediately seized the moment and left the Janata Dal with several of his own supporters, including Devi Lal, Janeshwar Mishra, H. D. Deve Gowda, Maneka Gandhi, Ashoke Kumar Sen, Subodh Kant Sahay, Om Prakash Chautala, Hukam Singh, Chimanbhai Patel, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Yashwant Sinha, V. C. Shukla, and Sanjay Singh to form the Samajwadi Janata Party / Janata Dal (Socialist). Although he had a mere 64 MPs, Rajiv Gandhi as leader of opposition, agreed to support him on floor of the House. He won a confidence motion and was sworn in prime minister. About eight Janata Dal MPs who voted for this motion were disqualified by the speaker Rabi Ray. The Chandra Shekhar government lasted only a few months before the Congress withdrew support alleging the government was spying on Rajiv Gandhi. This turned out to be the flimsiest possible excuse to pull down a government and the Congress was roundly attacked for their cavalier approach.

1996 — APR 1997: When Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the BJP could not prove his majority in Parliament, the United Front (a non-BJP, non-Congress conglomeration of 24 parties) formed government at the centre with outside support of the Congress in June 1996. The United Front was a coalition government of 13 political parties formed in India after the 1996 general elections. The coalition formed two governments between 1996 and 1998. They were headed by Janata Dal’s H. D. Deve Gowda and Inder Kumar Gujral. Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party served as the convener of United Front. Deve Gowda, who was then Karnataka chief minister, was chosen as PM. But Congress demanded a change of leadership in April 1997 and forced him to step down.  This too turned out to be a reason of no-consequence  for something as serious as pulling down a government.  Deve Gowda called the Congress move opportunistic but a few years later made up with India’s oldest party by being part of a larger ‘secular’ alliance to keep the BJP out. Interestingly, he later ran the Karnataka government with the BJP.

APR 1997 — NOV 1997: Congress agreed to support the United Front again under I. K. Gujral. On August 28, 1997, the Jain Commission report was submitted to the government and was leaked on November 16. The commission had inquired into the conspiracy aspects of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination and reportedly criticised the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Narasimha Rao government for tacitly supporting Tamil militants accused in Gandhi’s assassination. The DMK was part of the ruling coalition at the center and had ministers in the Union Cabinet. The Congress first demanded the tabling of the report on the floor of the Parliament, which was refused by Gujral, who feared that a battle between the DMK and the Tamil Maanila Congress would lead to the DMK’s withdrawal from the government. Gujral later formed a Joint Parliamentary Committee to study the report after informing Sitaram Kesri of the decision, to which the latter acceded.  The report was tabled in Parliament on November 20, 1997. The same day there were angry scenes in Parliament as the Congress then called for the DMK’s removal from the cabinet and refused to take part in any parliamentary debate until that happened. Speaker P.A. Sangma then adjourned the house. The Congress finally withdrew support from his government on November 28.


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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017