Popular perception: BJP on the decline, the Congress stagnating. Pre-poll fallout: hints of non-Congressism, dilution of secular-versus-communal divide. Prognosis: emergence of a disparate grouping backed by the Left, propelled by the BSP.
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Alliance trouble for Congress
BIHAR: The Congress has been left out in the cold by two of its most trusted allies — Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan. The two have worked out an arrangement, in which, of the total 40 seats, Lalu gets 25, Paswan 12, and the Congress is left with only three.
JHARKHAND: The Congress turned the tables on Lalu’s RJD here by striking a deal with JMM’s Sibu Soren. Only two of the 14 seats have been left for Lalu; none for Paswan.
UTTAR PRADESH: Several rounds of negotiations with the Samajwadi Party did not yield any result. Mulayam Singh has gone back on his initial announcement of leaving 17 of the 80 seats for the Congress, which now has just four.
MAHARASHTRA: The Congress and the NCP have been running a coalition government here for nearly a decade and have fought all elections in an alliance since 1999. This time, NCP chief Pawar has demanded at least half of the 48 seats.
The promised third formation has already set the cat among the pigeons. In a veritable tail wagging the dog scenario, bigger parties seem running out of options and the smaller ones getting smarter. Their scramble for a larger share in the new Lok Sabha has left the Congress-led UPA and the BJP-navigated NDA in ferment.
It’s hard to miss the domino effect: Naveen Patnaik deserting the BJP in Orissa; the Left locking arms with him and other erstwhile saffron allies; Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan showing the Congress its place in Bihar; Sharad Pawar playing hard to get in Maharashtra; the Congress avenging Bihar in adjoining Jharkhand.
Opinion is divided on the viability of the embryonic third alternative the Left wants to father out of spite for the “pro-US” Congress. When the CPM’s Sitaram Yechury went calling on him the other day, JD (U) president and NDA convenor Sharad Yadav compared the Third Front pursuit with ‘loading toads’ on a weighing machine: “One wouldn’t know which way they’d leap.”
A player in the 1996-98 non-Congress United Front, Yadav had reasons to be circumspect. Perennially at each other’s throats, the UF partners were forced to dump Deve Gowda and install Inder Gujral as Prime Minister by the Congress, plagued by internal differences on propping up the rag-tag regime. The end came sooner than later.
The Third Front protagonists are even now banking on the Congress’s outside support. In that limited sense, theirs is a non-Congress campaign.
The old division between pro-Congress and anti-Congress parties that Socialist icon Ram Manohar Lohia promoted in the 1960s got blurred, with the end of Congress’s monopoly on power.
The politics of caste and religion not only brought down VP Singh’s 1989-90 anti-Congress National Front supported from outside by the Left and the BJP, but it also destroyed the Congress’s unassailable Brahmin-Muslim-Dalit votebank in the Hindi heartland.
The idea of a third political formation germinated in response to these developments topped by the 1992 demolition of the Babri Mosque while the BJP ruled in UP and the Congress at the Centre. In one stroke, both parties became untouchable for the Left-of-the-Centre secular fundamentalists.
What altered the picture was the BJP’s phenomenal post-Babri rise. The need for co-opting the Congress to fight communalism was led by staunch adherents of anti-Congressism: Socialist veteran Madhu Limaye and Marxist ideologue E.M.S. Namboodiripad. The latter died the day Atal Bihari Vajpayee took oath as PM in 1998.
Besides numbers, coalitions require a centre of gravity. Even if the Front gets the numbers, it wouldn’t hold if the Left fails to retain its robust presence in the outgoing House.