Marxist leader Prakash Karat’s dream of a Third front alternative to the Congress and the BJP has disappeared in smoke with the poor performance in the Lok Sabha polls of his two mercurial women warriors: Mayawati and Jayalalithaa. It was critical for both of them to deliver a sizeable chunk of seats to the Third Front kitty on the basis of which Karat could drive a hard bargain with the Congress in government formation. Their palpable failure to do so has made the Third Front collapse even before it could take off.
In the case of Mayawati, there is little doubt that the biggest mistake she had made was to assume that the electoral template of the current Lok Sabha polls was the same as that of the 2007 Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh when she had the tail wind of a widespread Mulayam phobia across the state propelling her from behind. She had quite forgotten that two years later she herself was heading into some serious turbulence relating to her poor record of governance. Not surprisingly, the formidable social alliance of Dalits, poor backwards, Muslims and Brahmins came apart at the edges without the anti-Mulayam glue to keep it together.
There is also reason to believe that in her obsession to become Prime Minister, Mayawati stretched herself too thin across the country neglecting her only bastion, Uttar Pradesh. For instance she hardly addressed any public meetings in her home state till the penultimate stage of the election campaign, choosing instead to hold rallies in far-flung areas in southern and eastern India where she had no hope to pick up a single seat. She ended up ignoring her own turf which was being fast encroached by the Congress, which has resurrected itself in Uttar Pradesh.
Jayalalithaa showed similar arrogance: she sought to steamroll her way back to power in Tamil Nadu. Much like Mayawati, the Tamil empress was over confident about her hold on the faithful and taking for granted the challenge posed by her opponents. A good example is the way she taunted the DMK and its central ally, the Congress, on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue disregarding the sensitive nature of the issue. It was this completely cynical approach to politics that allowed a panicky DMK to reorganise itself at the last moment and turn the tables on her.
It may be tempting to read in the setbacks to Mayawati and Jayalalithaa and the astounding victory of the Congress as the end of the road for the Third Front and the diminishing of regional parties. But it should not be forgotten that the same Lok Sabha polls has also yielded victories for two regional leaders and cms like Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik. The fact that in both states, purely regional planks have won over the supposedly superior national agendas of parties like the Congress and the BJP.
Yet, it may be instructive to note the difference in style and substance of down to earth leaders like Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik with the far more overtly ambitious Mayawati and Jayalalithaa. The cms of Bihar and Orissa have gone out of their way to play down personal ambition and project a certain degree of sub-nationalism that sought to connect to the local populace. In sharp contrast, the Dalit empress and the Tamil amma appeared to putting forward themselves above the interests of the people.
Clearly, the results of the Lok Sabha polls are a wake up call to both Mayawati and Jayalalithaa to not ignore basic political realities. Both have suffered many defeats before and achieved several victories. It should not be difficult for them to take the electoral debacle in their stride and prepare for fresh battle.
As far as the prospects of the Third Front alternative is concerned, it may be unwise to entirely bury the idea, however, laughable it may be at the moment. Indian politics have shown a strange propensity to twist and turn in the past and it may not take long before regional parties are back in business.
Ajoy Bose is the author of Behenji: A Political Biography of Mayawati.