It is easy and fashionable to scoff at the Third Front. Both in its present and previous avatars, the Third Front has comprised parties that have little in common. Worse, its leaders have always been high on ambition despite having a very mixed record when it came to garnering votes. This time, for instance, barring the leaders of the Left parties and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), none of those present at the rally near Bangalore that marked the launch of the Third Front, represented a party ruling anywhere in the country.
The leaders’ only motive in getting together — now and in the past — has been to come to power at the Centre. Mayawati, for instance, announced her prime ministerial ambition at the rally itself — through her representative at the rally, Satish Mishra. Worse, the leaders’ commitment to the Front remains tenuous — for instance, it is well known that Mayawati and
Jayalalitha are exploring other options even though they marked their presence at the rally.
Earlier too, divided loyalties were the bane of the Third Front. The last such attempt, the United National Progressive Alliance (UNPA), went to pieces after Mulayam Singh Yadav, the very man who initiated it, chose to cross over and support the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) during the trust vote in Parliament on July 22 last year. Finally the biggest weakness of all: the Third Front can never hope to get the numbers on its own. Whenever it has ruled in Delhi, it has always been dependant on the Congress to provide it a majority.
Yet the fact that such a Front keeps coalescing at regular intervals — despite the failures — shows there is space for it. There are sections whose aspirations and expectations a bipolar polity — with the smaller parties neatly divided up as allies of either the Congress or the BJP — fails to satisfy; sections whose support the smaller parties feel they lose out on if they join either the UPA or the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). No wonder the number of allies of the UPA and NDA has been falling steadily — the NDA had 22 allies in 1999, the UPA had 14 in 2004, besides the support of the Left parties. The NDA is now down to just six.
A number of these regional parties — the Telugu Desam Party, Biju Janata Dal, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham, the Trinamool Congress — seem to have realised that the national clout they got from associating with the NDA was not worth the loss of Muslim votes back home. So too the Left found that backing the Congress at the Centre for four years did it no good — it is set to lose seats in the coming election in both its bastions, West Bengal and Kerala.
Much is made of the fact that Third Front-led governments always collapse well before completing their term. The fact of the matter is that all such governments fell not because they were inherently unstable, but because either the Congress or the BJP let them down. V.P. Singh’s National Front government (not really Third Front, though it is often characterised as such) fell not because of Devi Lal’s shenanigans or the upheaval over the Mandal Commission report, but because the BJP, in the wake of Ayodhya, withdrew support.
Three similar central governments — Chandrasekhar’s in 1991, H.D. Deve Gowda’s United Front and I.K. Gujral’s in 1997 — fell, not due to ‘internal contradictions’ but because each time the Congress withdrew support, for the flimsiest of reasons, so it could force an election and return to power.
So, it’s not entirely fair to blame the Third Fronts alone for their dismal record.